How to Win (or Lose) This War

Michael Metzger

If mass murders should be understood as “a war” (as David Brooks recently suggested), we’d be wise to recall how this sort of war in the past was won or lost.

Two more slain in a mass shooting Friday. The gunman then took his own life. What can be done? After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, David Brooks surveyed solutions, mostly based in sociology and neuroscience. There is, of course, ample evidence our social network is falling apart and our left-brain bias plays a part in a murderous society. But as Brooks writes, Maybe it’s time we began to see this as a war.

He’s right. Look at history’s first murder. Cain murdered Abel (Gen.4). After the deadly deed, God asked Cain, Where is Abel? He was giving Cain a chance to come clean. Cain didn’t. I don’t know. God punished Cain, who then played victim. I’ll die! God replied, No, I’ll put a mark on you to protect you. Relieved, Cain fled from God’s presence.

Cain never confessed. The Greek confess means to agree with someone. Confession requires a clear conscience. Pagans can have a clear conscience. Take Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. Babylon was built on slavery, which amounted to the murder of millions of captured people. As the sons of Judah impacted Nebuchadnezzar, he “came to his senses” (Dan.4:34), a phrase denoting his conscience convicted him. He did a 180.

David had the same experience. He set up Uriah to be murdered. Nathan confronted David about his sin. David confessed, he agreed with God. In the Old Testament, heart is a metaphor for conscience, denoting David as a man after God’s conscience (I Sam.13:14)

The Apostle Paul had the same experience. He was a mass murderer. Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Paul confessed, agreed with God, and did a 180. That’s because he lived his entire life with a clear conscience (Acts 23:1). A clear conscience doesn’t mean you’re always right. It means you quickly confess and repent when God says you’re wrong. That’s why Paul targeted conscience in his ministry (II Cor.5:11).

So did the Clapham Sect. The English Slave Trade was mass murder. Most English people had a coarsened conscience. Not my fault. One historian attributed Clapham’s success to the right target, how the movement “evoked the conscience of the British people.”

Conscience (and confession that often follows) is an aspect of our mass shootings war that we’re overlooking. Conscience is a capacity that demarcates human beings from the animals. That’s why change leaders in the past targeted conscience. This God-given capacity urges us to do enormous good—or heinous evil. Conscience is a lens through which we assess if we obey “the law written on our hearts.”[1] It is judges bad while affirming good (Rom.2:15). But if our conscience breaks bad, all hell breaks loose.

That’s because conscience as a lens can warp. It can be misshaped three ways—arrogant, wounded, or seared. Individuals with an arrogant conscience see themselves as superior. They like control. No one questions their authority. Those with a wounded conscience feel life has given them the shaft. They too like control, but they do it by taking others “emotional hostage,” denying freedoms that everyone ought to enjoy.

Both consciences are bad, but a seared one warps the two beyond repair. Conscience becomes shattered, or seared (I Tim.4:2). A seared conscience doesn’t give a damn. Jay Budziszewski, professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin, sums it up. “The reason things get worse so fast is not in the weakness of conscience but in its strength, not in its shapelessness but in its shape.”[2]

We don’t hear much about conscience anymore. In the 19th century, conscience “was dismissed.”[3] It was replaced by character. But good character is the result of a good conscience. Can’t create people of good character without good conscience.

Look at the 20th century and the seared arrogance of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, and Stalin. Their governments murdered over 170 million people. That’s far more than the 34.4 million killed in wars. And they fought to keep control, to get away with murder.

The seared wounded conscience is similar but different. These folks see themselves as victims. Their murders are less systemic, more local and personal. They don’t try to get away with murder. They shoot, then shoot themselves (or are shot dead). In some cases, like Robert Bowers in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, they’re captured.

Human beings are the only species on the planet with a conscience, the only species that commits mass murders. Mass shootings are indeed a war, but they require a culture of a clear conscience and confession to defeat them. And that’s where the faith community has fallen down. When was the last time you heard a sermon on conscience? Confession?

Voltaire asked the same question. The 17th century deist didn’t agree with God but conceded that clergymen were probably right about conscience. Yet he felt preachers “seldom talk effectively” on the subject, so he dismissed God. When asked what he would do if in fact God was real and he met him after he died, Voltaire casually replied, “God will forgive me… that’s his job.”

Now listen to a young evangelical, asked what she will do if she learns her social views don’t square with scripture: “God is going to have to forgive me.” To be fair, she’s struggling with Baby Boomer and GenX evangelicalism. I can’t blame her. I doubt anyone has acquainted her with human conscience. Or confession.

And that’s how we lose the mass shooting war. Remove conscience from the equation. Reduce God’s role to forgiving us.


[1] Herant Katchadourian, Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (Stanford University Press, 2010), 143.

[2] J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Wifp and Stock Publishers, 1999), 22.

[3] Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (HarperCollins, 1991), 11.


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  1. Arrogant = convex lens?
    Wounded = concave lens?
    Seared = broken lens?

    I always enjoy reading your missives. Thanks for sharing. I wonder if we as individuals can affect another person’s conscience.

  2. Yes, I believe individuals can. Scripture says if love our enemy, we “heap hot coals on their head” (Proverbs 25:22), an illusion to the conscience being stricken so the guilty come to repentance.

    Cultures also play an important part in developing the conscience (perhaps even more than individuals). Many Christian traditions speak of societies having a “coarsened conscience” due to permitting abortion, for example.

  3. Great post. How do you think the spheres of common grace and special grace apply to understanding and dealing with the conscience?

    Also, how might dichotomist reasoning (or dualism nature/grace) common to the Greek, Enlightenment, and Western cultures prevent us from understanding and dealing with conscience?

  4. Common grace = all human beings are endowed with a conscience. Paul was not a Christian his entire life, yet he lived his entire life with a clear conscience.

    Special grace = upon receiving salvation, a believer’s conscience is redeemed (Hebrew 9:14), meaning any of the four consciences can be cleansed.

  5. Good question about dichotomies: the chief one I see in Western churches is: I, a believer, have a conscience and pagans don’t.

    Or, I, a believer, have a clean conscience and pagans don’t.

    Either way, these are the products of the sacred/secular divide so common in Western faiths.

  6. Mike, please take us further – if Clapham “evoked the conscience of the British people” and either provoked or performed confession as a means and a model – then it was toward what end? I don’t think I’m reading where you’re guiding us. If there are those of us with good consciences, how do we act in this culture’s overall war or “the particular mass shooting war”?

    If conscience was before character, isn’t heart the Bible’s word for it? The Bible bears no account of emotions as a category, but we see exhibited character and conscience and heart in emotions expressed in the text. Murder, to me, is heartless, and it’s the same word used of God’s rage – God suspends his heart of love for “a man” and takes his life (or the lives of a tribe thru warring Israel) to protect other hearts.

    I like what I hear you saying about Clapham between the lines – they told the TRUTH about slavery in a way that was heard. They stopped the lies. Our culture lies SO much. And truth is told with utterly next to no humility. I see how confession is truth + humility and where our culture needs to go in a hurry.

  7. Hi Dave:

    The end was the abolition of the English Slave Trade.

    We see the power of conscience in slave trader John Newton, a Christian, coming to his senses and writing his confession late in life in a book that powerfully moved the masses.

    As for God killing, killing is not murder. “Thou shalt not murder” applies to individuals taking the law into their hands (such as mass shootings). Killing is what soldiers do acting as agents of the government, an institution ordained by God. If you feel the government is not pursuing a just war, you can apply to be a conscientious objector (a reminder of how conscience plays a role in shaping a society).

  8. HOW are you suggesting that we “evoke” in the way that Clapham evoked? Newton’s powerful truth + humility is therefore an example? But that would take a mass murder’s confession. You must have something else in mind aside from one man’s confession that ends shootings in the same way that Clapham ended the slave trade?

    Acts 9:1 – Saul murdered – and you’re saying that he did so with a good conscious? Or do you compare him to a soldier at war engaged in killing? I realize that he said that he always had a good conscious. If so, we may as well say that slave traders could have killed/murdered slaves with a good conscious? And that mass murders do so from a good conscious? Where do you want us to go in ending mass murder? If you’re saying “a culture of confession” then I get you, but how would you see us (back to the top) getting there?

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