Nothing to see here

Driving to a dentist appointment and then to work this morning I heard two news reports on KFAN summarizing the weekend shootings in Colorado. Each time the report said that the shooter, Matthew Murray, died of a self-inflicted gunshot. No mention was made of the role New Life church member and volunteer security guard Jeanne Assam played in preventing further carnage by using her personal sidearm to wound and knock down Murray. On the one hand, it’s probably a good thing for her that she has already drifted from the news (and that she take comfort in knowing she didn’t kill anyone), given the treatment she’d already experienced from her unintended notoriety.

Later, going onto and, however, I discovered that not only had Ms. Assam disappeared from the front page, so had the entire story. A search of both sites turned up several stories from December 10 and 11 and one or two from the 12th but nothing posted today. Yes, time and the news march on and there’s literally fresh meat every day, but it sure seems as if this story faded fast, especially when you think of the ongoing coverage that followed the recent Omaha mall shooting (there’s still stories appearing this week) and the earlier Virginia Tech massacre. VT in particular brought many ongoing articles about the killer’s background, the victims and the vulnerability of the public. Now it seems, for the most part, that the “public’s right to know” is being under-served in comparison. That’s a good thing if it means that the media has learned to tread more respectfully around the lives of people suddenly thrust into tragedy who now find their suffering part of the nation’s entertainment menu.

Or are there other reasons? Think of it, you’ve got a madman “loner”, multiple guns, “assault rifles,” revenge motives, dead white women (always good for two or three nights of headlines and at least one Special Report on Fox) and beautiful blondes — you’d think Colorado would be covered with TV vans, news choppers and producers looking for anyone to sign away the movie rights. And all of this while there’s a TV-writer’s strike going on. Is the story being dismissed with a shrug because mass shootings are now so commonplace? That shouldn’t be an issue this time because you’ve got the perfect “man bites dog” novelty angle — an armed private citizen stopped the killer.

Say, you don’t think this has quickly faded because an armed private citizen … nah, it can’t be that.

It’s probably just as well. First, Jeanne Assam was mugged by the media and her former employer (isn’t it funny how chatty the Minneapolis Police Department is getting on personnel matters and when slandering innocent victims of crimes like Mark Loesch) and then Youth With a Mission (YWAM) gets called a cult in the most recent story on the Fox site:

Several former missionaries have accused YWAM (generally pronounced “Why-Wam”) of being a cult that uses brainwashing methods.

Rick Ross, founder of the Ross Institute of New Jersey, which tracks cults, does not agree.

“Youth With a Mission is not a cult,” he said. “However, I have received very serious complaints about Youth With a Mission from former staffers, family members and also others concerned, such as Christian clergy.”

Rev. Jonathan Bonk, the director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Conn., said that missions like those YWAM offers appeal to those looking for something other than the consumerist lifestyle.

“They want to be attached to a cosmic project that gives their little lives some kind of sense of purpose or meaning,” Bonk said.

“They want to be attached to a cosmic project that gives their little lives some kind of sense of purpose or meaning.” Great, first smear a hero, then sneer at the victims. Matthew Murray writes “You Christians have got it coming” and from the media pews comes a hearty “Amen.”

To give credit where it is due, the Denver Post has done a very good job of developing the story and bringing additional information to light, including a story that described how Murray was able to get his weapons and included a report of an earlier incident he had had with staffers at New Life Church. The paper also reports on how one of the staffers killed at YWAM had once been as spooky as Murray, and has a touching story about how the Christian families of the killer and the victims had reached out to each other.

Finally, I will refer you to the Anderson Cooper interview with a wounded witness of the New Life shooting that also includes a very interesting discussion with Murray’s one-time roommate at YWAM.


Here’s another good article from the Denver Post that looks at more of Assam’s past than just the Minneapolis PD incident.

Hero survives one attack, and is ambushed by another

It was with more than the usual morbid interest that I started following the story on Sunday of the shootings in Colorado at the Youth With a Mission training center and at New Life Church. I don’t think I know anyone who has been associated with YWAM, but I have become pretty familiar with similar organizations over the years.

The story took another interesting turn when it was learned that the shooter (the same guy in both cases) had been thwarted by an armed security guard at the church. Just as it seemed the media was going to run with the angle of a church having armed security guards it came out that the “guard” was a member of the congregation, a conceal-and-carry permit holder, and a volunteer by the name of Jeanne Assam who had shown up to provide ad hoc security after hearing of the earlier shooting. For those who have wondered if an armed citizen might have prevented a number of deaths a couple of weeks ago in the Omaha mall shooting, I think you have an answer.

How typical, however, that the first sentence in the story in today’s Pioneer Press cites Assam for bravery and reports that she was fired from the Minneapolis police force years ago for lying. A fine reward for citizenship, becoming an instant hero and almost as instantly having your past drug out in front of the world. It was the same treatment an elderly homeowner received when he fatally shot a teen-ager breaking into his bedroom last November: the newspapers breathlessly reported his past problems and dismissal from his position as a school principal. In both cases the law-abiding shooter’s history was an interesting detail that had nothing to do with the particular case at hand, but it quickly became the focus of the story. It was only later in the afternoon today before I got any of the back-story on the murderer himself (how sad that he’s dead; it would be interesting to see if he’d be charged with a “hate crime” based on his writings leading up to the shooting).

I’ll grant that Assam’s history is “news”, but it shouldn’t be the story. Perhaps the paper has merely used poor judgment in how the article was written and edited, or perhaps it made a conscious decision to try and discredit someone whose mere existence and actions strikes at the core beliefs it holds dear. It’s hard, after all, to keep our prejudices out of our writing, whether you’re a major market newspaper or a sole blogger in his basement.

The paper wants to make a connection between “bad cop” and “self-righteous vigilante,” perhaps to distract from the obvious “armed citizen prevents more senseless death” angle. I’m more inclined to make a connection between stalwart hero Atticus Finch regretfully shooting a mad dog and Jeanne Assam. Both the newspaper and I, however, assume that what happened years ago led directly to last weekend’s events. The difference is I can see how, whatever kind of person Assam was while on the Minneapolis Police force, the experience might have led her to seek the kind of peace that a deeper relationship with Christ provides. The fact that she was just completing a three-day fast suggests to me she is someone sincerely seeking God for direction; I get the feeling that to the newspaper it’s just another reason to imply she’s “weird.”

I suppose some liberal wag is out there writing or saying, “What kind of gun would Jesus use?” The fact is, no one is surprised to find sick people in a hospital. In the same way, you shouldn’t be surprised to find hurting people in a church. Both are a place where people can get better, though it isn’t always pleasant. In church, frequently, the key to healing is seeing how your skills and background, with all its faults, can be useful in helping others. It might not be as extreme a situation as what Jeanne Assam faced, but my prayers are with her. Not that I think God needs any encouragement in her case.

The bridges of Minneapolis and San Luis Rey, and the Tower of Siloam

Who, what, when, where? Those are the first things we want to know when a disaster makes the news. Close on their heels comes the question hardest to answer: Why?

That question breaks into two parts, the physical and the metaphysical. Why did the bridge fail structurally, and why were these particular people apportioned to survive, die or be injured? The first question will eventually be known to the millimeter; the second will remain fuzzy. Implicit in the second one, however, is the fear that everything is random, that there is no justice, or that justice is applied on a scale so grand that we can’t calculate it; either way we are left with uncertainty as to just what measure is due us personally. The thing is, we want there to be a reason and order to things, and optimistically assume (or hope) that our own accounts will balance to the “good”; promising or justifying our own deliverance from calamity.

We easily extend our version of grace to others (as long as they’re victims and not members of the opposition party), generously judging them good or innocent by the most general of categories: he was a “nice guy”, she was a young mother. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” we cry. Other people, or other times, might view calamity as judgment or karmic justice.

Similarly, was it chance or God’s plan that resulted in the deaths in the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis? Was it God’s indifference that lead to the fall, or God’s providence that the calamity was not more catastrophic? If there is such a “goodness” scale, by what measure can the survivors claim deliverance and what comfort can be given to the families of those who didn’t? How can a former missionary go missing while a child abuser survives?

People didn’t start asking these questions just when President Bush took office, either. In his 1927 novel, “The Bridge at San Luis Rey,” Thornton Wilder tackles similar questions and circumstances in the person of Brother Juniper who tries to ascertain the central failing in the lives of five people who perish when the titular bridge falls into a chasm. (He could come to no conclusion). Going back a bit further, in John 9:2, Jesus was asked about a blind man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Whereupon he made mud and put it in the blind man’s eyes and then sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam, healing his blindness. Interestingly, Siloam is mentioned again in Luke 13 when people suggest to Jesus that calamity overcame certain people as a judgment. His response: “… those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Or, (excuse my jump in character but not in context), in the words of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “We’ve all got it coming.” The point being made was that no one is innocent, but each may come to the revelation of salvation by grace; by the work of God, not man.

I’m not trying to be dark. In fact, I believe that there is an order and justice in the universe even if we can’t see it all at once. I believe that because, in fact, we are able to see beauty and justice from time to time. If it weren’t so, all would be chaos and despair. Instead, in the midst of the refining fire of a disaster there are gleaming streaks of gold rising through all the impurities; the acts of courage, altruism and goodness in the survivors and rescuers (perhaps even unplumbed in their lives up until that point), and of a community pulling together in empathy and faith.

Bridges are aspirational; tangibly they are an example of our ability to overcome an obstacle to achieve what we want. The failure of one is not just a challenge to getting what we want, it is a repudiation of our ability to even conceive of it; the cutting of the tight rope woven of our doctrines that we walk to find our own salvation. In Mark Helprin’s book “Winter’s Tale” the allegorical and eternal Jackson Mead, an engineer representing either Lucifer or man (I go back and forth on this), strives to bend steel, nature and his will into casting a tremendous bridge of light to Heaven that — like our human understanding — touches the far shore for a moment and falls. Yet one of the messages of the book is that the balances are exact; and one thing cannot fall without something else rising and even more gloriously.

The 35W bridge fell in a crush of broken steel, concrete and bodies — and though the dust sought to obscure it, we could suddenly see something clearly: we are the bridges, standing in or reaching across the gap for and to one another.

Standing, always.