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Depraved Indifference: Thoughts on the Aurora Murders

July 23rd, 2012
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Lessons from Aurora

In the American legal system, there is a phrase used to identify a certain mindset that leads to horrendous crimes.  That phrase is “depraved indifference to human life.”

Here is the way the criminal justice system understands “depraved indifference”:

To constitute depraved indifference, the defendant’s conduct must be so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes a crime.  Depraved indifference focuses on the risk created by the defendant’s conduct, not the injuries actually resulting.  The other term used for depraved indifference is “depraved heart.”

Think about this for a moment with me.  Even if a person does not actually commit a physical crime, he can be guilty of it owing to “depraved indifference” as a person who has a “depraved heart.”

As I reflect on the Aurora, Colo., massacre, that phrase keeps repeating itself in my mind.  What led an otherwise apparently smart and successful young man to stockpile thousands of rounds of ammunition for a variety of weapons, rig his apartment to explode in a fireball, and then enter a theater and kill and wound so many?  Depraved indifference to human life, that’s what.  We will hear raging debates about gun control and “if only” there had been the right rule, or regulation, or control in place, this would not have happened.  And to that I simply say, “Maybe, maybe not, but I highly doubt it.”*  Why?  Because the issue here is the young man’s depraved indifference to human life.  The acting out on that impulse was where the crime originated.

As people reel in horror and shock from this incident, everyone wants to try to put his finger precisely on what caused this young man to “go crazy.”  Surely, he must be crazy.  He has to be out of his mind.  He is suffering from mental illness.  He is not normal.  He is not like you and me.  No, he is something other than we are.  That explains it, doesn’t it?  Or does it?  Viewed from God’s point of view, which is, in the end, the only view that truly matters, it is not quite that easy.  After all, the Bible tells us that we are all born dead, not alive. We are dead in our trespasses and sin (Col. 2:13).  We come into this world as enemies of God and hostile toward God and everything He stands for (Romans 8:7).  We come into this world not merely with depraved indifference toward God, and with a depraved heart, but with active hostility to God’s perfect will for us and for His creation.  There is not a “spark” of goodness in us as we are born.  We are evil, continually, from our youth, as we learn from Genesis 6:5.  People are not “naturally good” … no, we are all natural born killers.  Shocking?  Yes, it is.  We all suffer, in various degrees, from “depraved indifference to human life.”

That indifference took on a spectacularly horrifying form in the movie theater shooting, but there is in each one of us a little “killer” just waiting to get out.  And he gets out in thoughts, words and deeds.  He gets out and does harm to our loved ones, friends and neighbors when we think the cruel thought; speak the hurtful word; fail to speak well of and defend our neighbor; and fall short of supporting and defending our neighbor, helping him to protect and improve his property, business, good reputation, or life.  Keep in mind we live in a nation where tens of thousands of people are murdered, legally and with impunity, before they even have a chance to see the light of day as newborns.  Yes, that Old Adam, as we call our fallen nature, is a natural born killer.  Depraved indifference?  You bet.  It takes different forms and shapes and is expressed in a variety of ways in our life, but depraved indifference it is, in one way or the other.

Which then makes it all the more remarkable that God actually sent His Son into the very same human flesh which suffers from this horrible condition (John 1:14).  The One who never had, and never will, commit any sin, was sent among sinful men and women to live the lives they cannot live, to provide the sacrifice for sin they could never provide, and He did it all for the sake of Love.  God is love.  God is light.  God is the holy One.  God is merciful.  God is the life-creator and the life-giver and the life-restorer.  Christ Jesus came among us and was born under the Law, to redeem us from the condemnation of the Law (Gal 4:4).

God is passionately concerned for the salvation of each one of us.  He is the complete opposite of “depraved indifference” when it comes to His Creation.  While we cannot ultimately, to our own satisfaction, explain precisely why the world is a place where horrible things happen, we can at least recognize that within each of us we see signs of depraved indifference to our neighbor’s needs and suffering.

We are led to repent of our sin, of our depraved indifference, and turn in great sorrow to the God of all comfort and seek the mercy He so freely gives.  As our society struggles to come to terms with yet another gross outburst of sin, let’s not be caught up in the thinking that would have us isolate this young man and simply regard him as a freak, an oddity, somebody less than human.  In fact, he is fully human and simply gave expression to the sinful nature each of us struggles with every day of our lives.  Do you remember the answer Jesus gave when people were trying to get an explanation for a manmade tragedy, a tower falling on people and killing them, and why innocent people were killed by soldiers? (Luke 13:3).  Jesus said simply, “Unless you repent, you likewise will perish.”  Not exactly the kind of explanation we would want, but…the only one we receive, the only one we need to hear, and the only one we must act on, today. Repent.

This event should drive each of us to our knees in repentant prayer and pleading to God for His mercy.  We pray for all those suffering from this seemingly “senseless” act of depraved indifference.  We pray for God’s peace and comfort for all concerned, and that He would use this occasion as an opportunity to turn hearts to Him.  We pray that God would use this incident to humble us all once more and help us to see how we are indeed poor, miserable sinners, and then once more turn to the Cross where the Lord of Glory died, apparently a senseless, tragic, violent death, in a manner that was an expression of depraved indifference to His holy, innocent life.

For it is there, on the Cross, that the blood that cleanses you from all your sin was shed, and three days later, the Lord rose in victory, shattering the shackles of sin, death and hell which grip you tightly.  Christ is your Savior.  Christ is your Redeemer.  Cling alone to Him, for He has taken firm hold of you.  You were buried with Christ, by baptism, into death in order that, just as Jesus was raised from the death, through the glory of His Father, so you have a new life, now, and for eternity to come (Romans 6:1-2).  You now live in the confident hope that Christ alone gives, and you reach out in love and service to all whom the Lord puts in your lives. May God grant it, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.


Rev. Paul T. McCain


Concordia Publishing House


*Please see remarks on gun control in the comment following the article. I did not want to allow that issue to overshadow the point of my editorial.
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  1. July 23rd, 2012 at 11:37 | #1

    * In an evil world, evil people do evil things. I am thankful that in this nation I’m permitted to keep and bear arms to defend myself, my family and others. As a Lutheran Christian I view this as a way of being faithful to the commandments that tell me I am to help my neighbor to improve and protect his body and life and all that is his. Here is how Luther explains our duties according to the commandment, “You shall not murder” “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].” And here is how Luther explains our duty according to the seventh commandment, “You shall not steal.” “We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor’s money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business [that his means are preserved and his condition is improved].” From the Small Catechism by Dr. Martin Luther, source.

  2. July 23rd, 2012 at 12:55 | #2

    But for the grace of God, there go I.

  3. Peggy Pedersen
    July 23rd, 2012 at 13:34 | #4

    Excellent article. I am amazed at those who would take an incident which should teach us that no one but God can save and protect us and cause us to turn to Him in repentance and trust, to a rallying cry to grab a gun and trust in it to protect us!

    • July 23rd, 2012 at 15:15 | #5

      You might want to refer to my comment on gun control directly under the post. We have the right as citizens of this nation to *keep* and to *bear* arms in defense of ourselves, loved ones and neighbors. And, I think in so doing, we Lutherans should understand this to be a way to fulfill our duties under the Commandments, as mentioned in my comment. I do not want to turn the post into a forum on gun control, but I will allow your comment and this my response, as sufficient commentary on that aspect of this story.

  4. AmandaJ
    July 23rd, 2012 at 14:58 | #6

    Thank you.

  5. Chris
    July 23rd, 2012 at 15:29 | #7

    So much of this could be applied to our abortion holocaust, too. It is definitely a “depraved indifference to life”

  6. Anna
    July 23rd, 2012 at 16:46 | #8

    I’m a mental health worker who has been working in and with residential settings including inpatient hospitalization and corrections for about five years now. One of the things that really stood out to me about my first couple of years working there was just how completely real the doctrine of original sin became to me- not just in the sense where I looked at the patients/inmates and saw their sin, but in the sense where, in getting to know them, I couldn’t not see my own. Truth be told, I think we’re all a set of life circumstances away from being “crazy.” We all have the capacity for evil and not just in an abstract, theological sense. Oddly enough, I think my background in theology is one that made me more empathetic for working with people who are seem to be so completely broken because they have done such horrible things.

    Thanks for the post.

  7. GustavSpeed
    July 23rd, 2012 at 19:32 | #10

    As a neurologist the story sounds like a classic description of the devolution to schizophrenia

  8. July 23rd, 2012 at 19:33 | #11

    I think it is worth pointing out that there was heroism at work in Aurora as well as depraved indifference to life. Three young men (Matt McQuinn, 27, Jonathan Blunk, 26, and Alex Teves, 24) literally sacrificed themselves to protect the lives of their girlfriends.


    I m sure that other stories of heroism will come to light.

  9. July 23rd, 2012 at 23:03 | #12

    I happened to see the first ‘Dark Knight’ on TV and was frankly shocked at the darkness and violence of the film, especially given that in most jurisdictions those 12 yo and above could view it. The use of gratuitous violence as entertainment, pushed to extremes by the present generation of Hollywood directors post-Tarantino, is surely a dimension of the ‘depraved indifference to human life’ you are speaking of, Pr McCain. It has parallels with the decline of Rome.

    • July 24th, 2012 at 08:33 | #13

      Mark, I completely agree. This is a point made well by the conservative columnist, George Will. Guns have always been around here in the USA, much more freely and openly than even now, so why didn’t we hear of these kinds of mass shootings in the early part of the 19th century? I think you are correct that our culture/societal “entertainment” forms have dehumanized and desensitized people toward killing and violence. I found the Dark Knight deeply disturbing and really have no interest in seeing the second installment.

  10. Debbie Harris
    July 23rd, 2012 at 23:43 | #14

    Anna : Truth be told, I think we’re all a set of life circumstances away from being “crazy.” We all have the capacity for evil and not just in an abstract, theological sense.
    Thanks for the post.

    Thank you for both the original and for this comment. Since the horrible event I have been reading and thinking myself to exhaustion – trying to find some clarity. I found myself derailed on media commentators, how everything was reported, discussions mental illness, whys?? , justice, preservation of guns rights – all things to skirt the issue I think. This post stopped me in my tracks and now I feel much more peaceful. (I shared it on my FB page. Tried to do the direct share here but did not work for me.)

  11. Debbie Harris
    July 23rd, 2012 at 23:46 | #15

    Recovering Lutheran : Three young men …. literally sacrificed themselves to protect the lives of their girlfriends. <PI m sure that other stories of heroism will come to light.

    Loved these stories! Men are made to protect women:) We are NOT the same…but that is also another topic.

  12. Joanne
    July 23rd, 2012 at 23:57 | #16

    This is what everyday life would be like for us if God were not holding Satan back and had not Jesus from eternity, blocked God’s justice toward us little murderers. And Satan meant it for evil, but God means it for good. It would be a great comfort to know that all who died, died in the Lord Jesus, and that their souls flew to the side of God in heaven. God takes us always at the best of time (allerbesten Zeit) for us for our salvation. Perhaps in God’s infinite wisdom he knew whose souls were his and needed to come home now. Fear not those that can only harm the body. It might have been Satan’s plan to destroy lots of souls that evening, but God will use Satan’s carnage against him and work good for those who are and will be His. (I copied your sermon, it was a sermon, to my facebook page. I have lots of family in and around Aurora, many young ones, who have no faith. One was planning to attend the movie that night, but God had sold out all the tickets.)

  13. July 24th, 2012 at 11:08 | #17

    Wonderfully thoughtful!

  14. Chris
    July 25th, 2012 at 00:20 | #18

    Hopefully the shooter will repent of his sins, and accept salvation by grace through faith and he can live in paradise forever.

  15. Karen Keil
    July 26th, 2012 at 18:46 | #19

    According to some news articles, James Holmes was a member of the Lutheran Church in his teen years and his family continue to be members of a local Lutheran church in California. His mother seems to be especially active in the church. Hopefully, James Holmes will look back and remember what he was taught about God and his salvation by grace.

    [To Pastor McCain -- here's a link to one such article: http://www.10news.com/news/31294255/detail.html, giving support to my comment.]

  16. Jay
    July 27th, 2012 at 09:06 | #20

    @Karen Keil

    The “Lutheran” church referenced in the News 10 article is Penasquitos Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation.

  17. July 29th, 2012 at 14:48 | #21

    If you are not a policeman or a soldier, you are not called to protect your neighbor and his possession with a weapon that can kill a perpetrator, even if you possess them for sport and pleasure.

    • July 29th, 2012 at 15:32 | #22

      I assume this might be a fairly typical Canadian attitude, but….it is not Biblical, and of course, the USA does not restrict rights, like Canada does.

  18. July 29th, 2012 at 20:58 | #23

    When there is a justice system and a police force, to whose authority we are bound, as Paul explains, how can you justify using a gun to protect yourself and your neighbor?

    • July 30th, 2012 at 07:07 | #24

      Let me ask you a question: Do you keep a fire extinguisher in you house? Why? Shouldn’t the fire department? If you saw your neighbor’s house on fire would you stand watching until the fire department came? Who is responsible for the safety of your safety and for the safety of your children and loved one? The government? The police? No, you are.

      God has given us our reason and all our senses to use in service to our neighbor.

      Remember, when seconds count the police are minutes away.

      Nowhere does Christ or the Apostle prohibit Christians to use arms, in fact, Christ told his Apostles to arm themselves as they went out, for self-defense. I am blessed to live in a nation that recognizes my God-given right to keep and bear arms for self-defense and protection. It is the Second Amendment to our constitution. If you choose simply to die in the face of an armed attacker, that is your choice, but please do not attempt to justify your decision with such bad theology.

  19. July 30th, 2012 at 20:32 | #25

    “Nowhere does Christ or the Apostle prohibit Christians to use arms, in fact, Christ told his Apostles to arm themselves as they went out, for self-defense.”

    Thank you! I agree. Would you note the book, chapter and verse please?

  20. July 30th, 2012 at 22:29 | #27

    Consider Luke 22:
    36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” 38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

  21. July 31st, 2012 at 02:38 | #28

    Thanks! This is very ineresting because I’ve read this a long time ago, and forgot, without comtemplating the connection to bearing arms in the Constitution. I just seem to remember Jesus’ rebuke, in Gethsemane, regarding the sword that was used to cut the soldier’s ear. But that was not in self-defense then.

  22. August 4th, 2012 at 17:38 | #29

    The fire extinguisher example is a fair one. I am glad you added it after posting your reply. In a sense we agree that the authorities are called to protect us, but we have some level of personal responsibility too. We may disagree that this personal responsibility should include the ability to summary killing an aggressor, but I can agree with you that this is a matter of personal opinion and not a mandate from scripture.

    • August 5th, 2012 at 08:33 | #30

      No, sorry Carlos, you are attempting to frame my response in such a way as to suggest that we agree. In fact, we do not. You are laboring under the error that assumes that *only* policemen are the ones who are “called to protect” … in fact, you have that calling as well, as made very clear in Martin Luther’s explanation of the commandments. Let me ask you this, if an armed gunman bursts into your home and points a gun at a loved one’s head and you have the means to stop that threat: whatever that means might be, would you? Would you be willing to stop the threat through force? Why, or why not?

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