Jun 3, 2016

Law, Gospel, and a Dead Gorilla

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

A preschool-aged boy managed to get through the barriers separating him from the gorillas at the Cincinnati zoo recently. Harambe, the zoo’s seventeen-year-old silverback male gorilla, dragged the child through a shallow moat and was eventually shot so that the child could be rescued. Now, the internet is awash with anger.

Some of it is directed at the zoo. Much of it is directed at the parents. If only their supervision had not lapsed, the gorilla would still be alive. Staggeringly large numbers of people have signed a petition demanding “Justice for Harambe.”

The rescue of a little boy and the unfortunate death of a resplendent, captive animal has become a vitriolic debate about punishment and parenting. Clearly, the conversation is about more than this incident alone. Amidst the flurry of commentary, two types of responses are evident. On the one hand, the event triggers philosophical questions that currently divide our polarized society. For instance, what is the comparative value of a human and an animal life? Is the ultimate job of a parent to guarantee their child’s safety? When something bad happens, must someone always pay?

On the other hand, the gorilla’s death has also triggered yet another example of the ugly underside of modern life: the rush to form online lynch mobs against individuals who have erred. It doesn’t matter that we know nothing about these parents or about what happened immediately before their son ended up inside a gorilla enclosure that has successfully kept animals and the public apart since the 1970’s. It doesn’t matter, because people are angry.

There is a lot of anger these days. It does more than keep the great rodent wheel of the internet turning. According to many commentators, it has even gotten Donald Trump nominated as the Republican candidate for presidency.

Why so much anger? Why the determination to make someone--whether the parents of a dangerously exploratory child, our political opponents, the president of Mizzou, big business, men, women, millennials, old people, or the rich--pay?

I wonder if one reason our culture finds it difficult to extend grace and forbearance is that we struggle with guilt. The thing is, as a society we have cast aside belief in objective truth, and without acknowledging the Law, we can never make a proper confession of sin. Without Law, there is no absolution. Instead, we muddle along in an uneasy haze of self-justification and distraction. This haze is the perfect fertilizer for the proliferation of online lynch mobs.

We don’t need revealed law to sense that, indeed, someone should and must pay. Our instinctual reaction seems to be, “Well, it isn’t going to be me!” The only way to justify ourselves is to point out other people who are worse. At the moment, we are pointing fingers at this particular pair of parents. Tomorrow, it will be someone else. Without believing in sin, we cannot forgive mistakes.

We can see the public response to Harambe’s death as an illustration of how merciful our Lord is to give us Law. Without it, we would be left alone with our guilt, ready to tear each other down--or apart--and unable to recognize the sin that devoured us. God’s Law is a precious gift. It hurts, certainly; but it is only after our old Adam is put to death with the Law that we are raised into new life with Christ. It is only after the painful gift of the Law that we are able to understand and experience grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

Let us thank God that the little boy in Cincinnati is safe. Let us regret the death of an impressive animal. Let us, above all, rejoice in Law and Gospel. 


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.


  1. Brilliant,balanced and gracious as usual Anna! Bravo!

  2. Anna, are you a part of CCLE? If so, are you coming to the summer conference? Classical Lutheran education is growing. It would be great to have your involvement. Your article was beautifully written, a great witness to the faith and a true indictment of our society's real problem with sin.

    1. Thanks, Erika! I'm not a member, but I was able to attend one of the CCLE conferences a few years ago when I was still teaching. I would love to become more involved, especially as my children reach school age--I'm actually hoping to attend this year, but several factors, including jury duty, may interfere.


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