The moral sense shapes behavior. The recent tragic acts of domestic terrorism in Texas and Ohio remind us that among us there are young men without a moral sense, who possess weapons of murder, and who are willing to use them.
In El Paso, a young man obsessed by racist, anti-immigrant ideology murdered twenty shoppers in a Walmart store, wounding two dozen others. Not long after that, in Dayton, nine people were murdered and another sixteen were wounded, by a mass shooter who mowed down his victims in 60 seconds.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that the number of mass shootings so far this year in the U.S. now totals 23, with 131 lives lost. This is almost as many incidents after seven months in 2019, as occurred throughout all of last year (25, with 140 lives lost). These acts of mass murder are carried out by young men without conscience or moral restraint.
The moral sense shapes behavior. What shapes the moral sense? Developmental psychology teaches that there are social and biological influences. Humans, we are told, are social creatures and the moral sense grows out of the social nature. Aristotle said, “It is the peculiarity of man, in comparison with the rest of the animal world, that he alone possesses a perception of good and evil.” It is the duty of society to exalt the good and restrain the evil.
Going deeper, it is the family, of all social structures, that has the most important role in shaping a moral sense in the young. “They are not born knowing the difference between right and wrong. … The transmission of virtues is one important reason for a home,” wrote William J. Bennett.
Finally, there are spiritual sources of morality. Russell Kirk said that “political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” There is in fact a transcendent moral law which should rule society and personal conscience. It is this natural law, with its absolute standards of right and wrong which makes justice a possibility.
When this law, God’s law, is ignored, denied or disobeyed, it becomes impossible to speak in any meaningful way of fairness, empathy or truth. If there is no rational foundation for morality, then kindness, bravery, generosity and love are no more virtuous than murder, torture, racism, or genocide. “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
What does this have to do with mass murder and domestic terrorism? When young men’s habits of thought are formed by hours spent reading hate-filled nationalist propaganda, or playing violent video games, or watching TV shows and movies promoting dystopian anarchy, their brains are hard-wired to devalue human life.
More importantly, when they are deprived of the knowledge of God through holy scripture and through the church, it is as though, to them, he does not exist. If he does not exist, for them, morality does not exist.
Wikipedia has comprehensive lists of all incidents of mass shootings and their perpetrators, going back many years. Most were young males. Almost all school shooters were children of divorce. Most mass murderers lacked strong social bonds and were isolated loners. Many had stored up years of anger and alienation. They collected grievances. Some were bullied. It is clear that someone failed these young men.
Young men’s moral development does not happen without purposeful guidance. Biologically, the moral sense of boys develops differently than that of girls. I have read that the part of the brain that governs self-control is actually smaller in boys and develops later. This is not to excuse bad behavior, but to emphasize the need for strong moral guidance from adults, especially parents, until boys become men.
This accentuates the role of the church in teaching biblical morality as the highest and best life, a life that is pleasing to God. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2 says, “Brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.”
Notice the emphasis on “instruction,” “pleasing God,” and growth (“more and more”). This is not a picture of hyper-vigilant thought control. This is a model of the loving guidance of the Christian community, the church, regulated by the authoritative word of Christ.
It is only a step, then, from believing in God, and accepting his moral law, to recognizing one’s need of him and accountability to him. It is through faith in Jesus that young people may be given the knowledge of God and his will for their lives. These lives in Jesus Christ, regulated by holy scripture and God’s Holy Spirit, are offered the purpose in life for which they were created.
We are seeing what might happen when young men are deprived of the knowledge of God and a well-regulated morality.