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Stephen Paddock’s Missing Motive

By October 14, 2017 12 Comments

by Jeff Munroe

We want a motive, because we want the senseless shooting in Las Vegas last week to make sense.

We want there to be some reason, however perverse, that those innocent people were massacred. But there isn’t a motive. There won’t ever be a definitive motive, because Stephen Paddock was not making a statement. He wasn’t a one-dimensional evil villain drawn from the pages of a comic book. Instead, he is a symptom of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our materialist, consumption-oriented, gun-crazed, violence-loving culture.

Paddock had it all, yet he had nothing. He was rich, a nomadic high-roller VIP at casinos in several states, wagering a million dollars each night on video poker, while he legally amassed a small arsenal. He had no particularly close family relationships, no career direction, a girlfriend but no other close friends, and no faith community. Las Vegas police are following up on 200 reported sightings of Paddock – the common denominator in each is he was alone. He was unmoored, and became unhinged.

Christians use a very unfashionable word to describe this sort of life: sinful. Not sinful in a holier-than-thou way, but sinful in a violation of God’s purpose and design for creation way. It isn’t just Stephen Paddock’s sinfulness I lament. It’s our sinfulness, because as twisted and sad as the final act of Paddock’s life was, the uncomfortable question we should be asking is not “What was wrong with him?” but “What is wrong with us?”

The weapons he’d accumulated were purchased legally. We tolerate the biggest gun culture in the history of the planet, and shrug our shoulders saying, “There’s nothing we can do” whenever someone shoots up a high school, or elementary school, or college campus, or nightclub, or music festival. Why do we tolerate it? As of Monday, there had been 278 mass shootings in the US during the 282 days of 2017. We could change this. Several countries have shown us how. But we look at the endless gun violence on the streets of places like Chicago and hide behind bumper sticker slogans like “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” We defend our constitutional right to bear arms like it was written in the Bible. What the Bible says about weapons is quite different: our Lord said those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and the Bible envisions beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks in a day when we will study war no more. We don’t listen, and put our faith instead in “horses and chariots” and an ill-reasoned assertion that the good guys need to have guns to protect themselves from the bad guys.

We fail to appreciate the wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who said the line between good and evil runs through the center of every human heart. The world isn’t divided up into good or bad people. It’s just people. By all accounts, Stephen Paddock was a decent person until October 1. He was one of us. To make him into something evil is to make him into a thing, an object or monster we can dismiss as something different and less than the rest of us. He wasn’t. And attaching the label evil only to Paddock denies the evil in our culture.
What about the way we live leads some of us to shoot each other? We entertain ourselves with violent video games, violent movies, and violent sporting events. But is there more? Is there something about how we define meaning and purpose through consumption at play here?

Perhaps seeing what is happening in a non-Western culture will help us look at ours. There is a phenomenon in Japan called hikikomori syndrome. As many as a million young people, mostly men, suffer from it. The hikikomori refuse to go out, refuse to work, refuse to go to school, refuse job training, and often seclude themselves in their bedrooms, closing their blinds, and shutting themselves away from the sun. Makoto Fujimura describes the problem in his book Silence and Beauty. “There are only two paths for Japanese youth: to live in stoic resignation or to run toward hedonism.” Those who resign themselves stoically accept lives of quiet desperation, working long days in unfulfilling jobs and binge-drinking to bond with bosses and coworkers. The hedonists line up on New Year’s Day to get the latest Louis Vuitton handbag, following a path of futility that creates envy instead of relationships. The hikikomori reject both paths, but can’t find another path. They are immobilized, and remain in darkness.

“I do not do sun,” Paddock said in a 2013 deposition, echoing the hikikomori. The deposition is startling: 14 hours of video poker a day, 365 days a year, up all night, and sleeping all day. Devoid of meaning, the way to know you are alive is through sensation and stimulation. Eventually, a million dollars a night in a casino wasn’t enough. He moved on. Like many others weighted with the boredom and ennui of affluence, he decided to take his own life. Because of the tools readily available, he chose to try to take several hundred others with him.

What was wrong with him? Nothing but the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the materialistic, consumption-oriented, gun-crazed, violence-loving United States of 2017.

Jeff Munroe is the Vice President for Advancement and Operations at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • mstair says:

    “Nothing but the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the materialistic, consumption-oriented, gun-crazed, violence-loving United States of 2017.”


    Recorded for us in The Gospels are thirty seven specific miracles Jesus performed (not including the many general references of miracles without description). “Of those 37 miracles, five of them (over 10%) involved casting out demons, healing the demon possessed, or driving out an evil spirit. To Jesus, it is clear that just as important as addressing the human problems of: loss of function, poverty, sickness, death, grief, pain and hunger, is the problem of evil. There are only four things He instructs us to request in daily prayer and “deliver us from evil” is the final one listed (Matthew 6:13).
    Today, in this reality, we the church, are the body of Christ. The power of The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us. And even though in the modern American church we have “medicalized” the power of healing; “non-profit-incorporated” the power of feeding; and “psychologized” the power of overcoming evil, at the level of individual and congregational faith, The Church still exhibits great spiritual power.

  • Jack Teitsma says:

    Well thought out and written Jeff. Thank you.

  • Mary Huisman says:

    Amen Jeff!

  • Tracy says:

    I’m not buying that this was a grand story about our culture. More likely a couple of small stories.

    1) A man just mentally ill enough to want to go out with a big splash — and people talking about him and writing about him for years to come.

    2) Our country is out of its mind about guns. Because it refuses to believe that people fitting into category #1 can really hurt us, and so we won’t take appropriate protective measures for the good of all. That said, its worth noting that most Americans favor pretty decent gun control. Its their elected members, in thrall to all that NRA money who won’t go for it. So the greed of a few. Tale as old as time. “We” would prefer more control, but we don’t have the political wherewithal or will to counter the NRA’s cash.

  • This is really well thought out and written, Jeff. Your explanation of sin—the shared brokenness of all—is exactly like it is.

  • George Ertel says:

    One of the great things about the internet is that if you want some horrible statistic, you can find someone who’s posted such, and then you can quote him just like it’s meaningful. Of course, you could also use the internet to find facts, or at least perspective. I know, what fun is there in that, especially if facts and perspective do not support your desire. But to prove I do not accept that you are totally depraved, as you Calvinists believe, I shall include this site (you could also check out fivethirtyeight).

    There have been some who have suggested that Paddock amassed all those weapons he knew he would not use and killed all those people to persuade people that gun ownership is the problem that needs to be fixed. If that was his motive, Paddock’s plan sure seems to have worked on you!

  • Helen Phillips says:

    I particularly appreciate your statement of his being “unmoored” thus becoming “unhinged.” I think we cannot put too much emphasis on this point …it is a universal problem and one which has no national boundaries…
    This can turn “normal” people into mass shooters, jihadists and suicides – just to name a few.
    Thank you for this Jeff.

  • Judy Parr says:

    Earlier this month as I read an AP story about possible explanations for the Las Vegas massacre, I was struck by what the shooter’s brother Eric said about him: “No affiliation, no religion, no politics. He never cared about any of that stuff.” The brothers had not talked to each other in the past six months.

    The shooter’s father was absent from the time the shooter was about seven, the shooter was divorced twice and was living with a woman who was more a hostess/comfort woman than a wife. His passion was gambling via video poker machines. The embodiment of dehumanization and alienation, the shooter reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

    This massacre is an extreme outcome of the collapse of American community that Robert D. Putnam described in his *Bowling Alone* (Simon & Shuster, 2000).

    And of course America’s love affair with guns, especially semi-automatic and rifles modified for rapid firing, made acquiring the guns and ammo legal for the shooter and enabled the massacre.

    Judy Parr

    • Mary Flowers says:

      Thank you, Judy, for the above reflection. I too have considered the LV shooter’s lack of a lifestyle that grew into a large void for intimacy. He was abandoned by his father at the age of 7 (or even earlier), thus lacking a mentor or sponsor into public life. The shooter created a void which he filled with violence and murder of others.

  • The reality is that half the people want the security of a firearm to protect themselves and their loved ones. There is plenty of data and Scripture to promote either viewpoint (arguably “preaching as doctrine the precepts of men” in both cases). The most you can hope to “accomplish” is to provoke the moderates, who far outnumber the left and right. When you are not happy with only full auto weapons being illegal, but want to inflict your views on others with regard to handguns, and guns that don’t “look” the way you want them to, you provoke the moderates. Then full auto gets legalized and the NRA is stronger than ever. Freedom of Speech is not just a Right, it is a Responsibility. When you speak out without regard to the logical consequences, you make the situation worse. Better to promote a law requiring a gun in every household (as is the case in the safest country on Earth), and put the moderates to work FOR you over reacting…

  • ottens2013 says:

    Not surprisingly, you’ve hit a nerve, Jeff. I’m glad you did, and may the subsequent discussion begin to change the tide away from recless NRA hype and influence peddling.

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