Mass shootings and the vocation of hero
Religion & Liberty Online

Mass shootings and the vocation of hero

If you wonder why there are so many mass shootings in America lately you might start by asking why you don’t know the name of Leo Johnson.

Seven years ago today, Johnson, the operations manager for Family Research Council (FRC) was temporarily manning the front desk at the organization’s Washington, DC headquarters when a terrorist entered with a handgun and 100 rounds of ammunition. As the shooter drew his weapon and began firing, Johnson charged the man. Although Johnson was wounded in the forearm he still managed to wrestle the gun away from him. (You can see a video of the incident here, and the post I wrote for the PowerBlog about my former colleague here.) The shooter later told authorities that he wanted to kill as many people as he could and smear Chick-fil-A sandwiches in their faces.

Johnson had been frequently awarded for being a loyal and dedicated employee and was admired by everyone who worked with him at FRC. Yet the certificates and “Employee of the Month” plaques were modest tributes to his true character, which few people fully recognized until Johnson prevented a mass shooting.

“The security guard here is a hero, as far as I’m concerned,” said Washington D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, “He did his job. The person never made it past the front.” That is only partially correct. What makes Johnson a hero is that he did much more than his job—he fulfilled his vocation as a hero.

We often use the term vocation in reference to our careers or occupation. But while our jobs are a way—maybe even the most significant way—we serve others, the Biblical concept of vocation is more expansive. It includes all the roles in which we are called to serve and minister to our neighbors.

“The purpose of vocation is to love and serve one’s neighbor,” says Gene Veith. “This is the test, the criterion, and the guide for how to live out each and every vocation anyone can be called to: How does my calling serve my neighbor?”

Vocation is the specific way in which God calls us to live as a Christian in the world and serve our neighbor. For most of us, God is not likely to call us to the vocation of hero. Though active shooter situations are becoming more common they are still extremely rare. We are unlikely to be called to the vocation of hero in as dramatic a way as was Johnson.

Yet while the probability may be low, we must be prepared for such a calling, and raise our children in a way that they aspire to be heroes. For potential heroes to rise to the call they must have cultivated heroic virtues, such as courage. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality.” Young people especially need to aspire to roles in which they can develop and hone such virtues.

A few decades ago many young people in America had a desire to be an astronaut. But a recent survey found that kids in the US and the UK were three times as likely to want to be YouTubers or vloggers as astronauts (in contrast kids in China were more likely to want to be astronauts).

To be an astronaut requires developing self-control and overcoming fear of the unknown. To be a YouTuber merely requires a willingness to expose oneself before an audience. Guess which aspiration is more likely to lead to the formation of heroes and which is more likely to attract villains.

Indeed, the desire for fame seems to be a common motive for mass shooters. In 2015 an infamous mass shooter said,

I have noticed that so many people like [another mass shooter] are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are . . . A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.

Unfortunately, he’s correct. Despite efforts to minimize their notoriety, a murderer is about thousand times more likely to have his name be known than the heroic men and women who stop him. Think about the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton and ask yourself, “What are the names of the people who stopped the killers?”

Chances are that you don’t know. If the media talked about them at all it was only briefly. The true “stars” of the horror reality show were the shooters. They are the ones who get the fame and attention.

Most heroes, of course, do not desire recognition. But what signal are we sending to confused, fame-obsessed young people when the villains name rings out while the heroes remain unknown?

Focusing on the heroes will not solve our country’s mass shooter problem. Yet by shifting the focus of our attention we can make a substantial change in our celebrity-obsessed culture. The names of the killers should be buried with them in their graves or traded for a number while they languish in prison. In contrast, the names of the heroes, men and women like Leo Johnson, should be widely known. We should show the best way to become famous is to heed the call to take up the vocation of hero.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).