A Tragic Day in Blacksburg: Making Sense of People's Actions and the Words of Jesus

John ArmstrongCurrent Affairs

Americans are now forming impressions, based upon the unfolding news accounts, of the deadliest school shooting rampage in our history, a carnage that left 33 people dead on the Virginia Tech campus Monday. The questions that we generally raise are almost always the same: Why didn’t the school stop this sooner? How did the police, the counselors, the teachers, the dorm directors, all fail? How did the shooter’s parents fail? How can we stop this random violence in the future? And where can you go, or allow your children to go, and be truly safe? And, as with other tragedies, even non-believers often ask, “How could a good God allow such an act of senseless violence?”

Two questions interest me this morning. These are both questions that require you to dig a little deeper into the news cycle to get any resemblance of an answer. First, who was Cho Seung-Hui, the shooter? What do we know about the life of this 23-year old that might reveal to us why he began these random shootings, ending his life with suicide? And, second, how do ordinary people respond to these shootings and how will they make sense of this day for the rest of their lives?

First, Cho Seung-Hui, the shooter himself. He was a South Korean immigrant who arrived in the United States with his family in 1992, as an eight year-old boy. His parents worked at a dry-cleaning business in suburban Washington, D.C. He had been writing plays for some time and the content was dark and evil to say the least. He also left an eight-page note that has not yet been released to the public. An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, quoted the eight-page note as saying, “You caused me to do this.” Seung-Hui indicated in this same letter that the end was near for him and there was a deed to be done. Most striking of all he indicated his deep disappointment in his own religion, making several references to Christianity in particular. This makes me want to know so much more. What experience of Christianity did Cho have and how did it impact him, embitter him, or disappoint him so very deeply? We can’t know until more information is revealed but I want to follow this story with real interest. I would like to see what it might tell us about how we as Christians might face the real truth about how our communities of faith often fail our own people who are deeply troubled. How did Christians respond to this young man’s pleas and depression? What happened that made him so angry with faith? This I do know, there are a lot more like him who have experienced deep disappointment with our communities and actions. Disillusion runs high among young people who have been touched by various versions of Christian faith and practice.

Second, there are always stories of heroism and intense personal pain that fill our newspapers following such an event. One such story is that of one shooting victim, 30-year old Garrett Evans of Chicago. Evans was shot through both of his thighs and will survive. He describes in our daily newspaper this morning the feelings that he had as he dove under a desk just as he was hit. He expressed the typical emotions of victims by saying, “Dang! This is real.” He also says he saw the gunman’s face and played dead so he would not come back and finish him off. He described the classroom scene as “a war zone.”

With what may be incredible understatement, Evans added: “Man, the devil entered him. I know he did. The way he shot, this guy knew what he was doing. He was total fierce concentration, a very high level of seriousness about what he was doing. When he came in the door, he certainly had a purpose in mind. He wasn’t erratic at all.” (I wonder how many Christians take this comment seriously since we tend to act as if the devil doesn’t even exist most of the time.) When Evans saw the photo of the killer he added, “I could tell by the look on his face, he was dealing with a world of hurt.”

During the bloodbath Evans said he prayed. What is amazing is that he prayed for the gunman himself, demonstrating that people of faith do find strength, even in the midst of the worst tragedies, to pray and find hope. He said, “I made time to pray that I’m all right and that everybody else was all right. I was hoping he (the killer) was still alive and he’d get some help. I pray for everybody. I pray for me friends and enemies.” (In a most interesting side note, Evans even adds that had he listened to the spiritual promptings he experienced earlier in the day he would not have gone to class on Monday.)

What an amazing commentary on Matthew 5:43-48 Evans provides for us. Jesus says: “Pray for those who persecute you.” And repay evil with good. This is the mark of real faith. And it is the mark that will determine, to a greater or lesser extent, how those directly touched by Monday’s tragedy learn to live the rest of their days on this earth. They cannot, of course, ever forget this day. But they can take a Christ-like attitude of mercy toward a person like Cho Seung-Hui. They can also pray for his family and perhaps even seek to help them as they deal with their own pain and grief, which is likely beyond our imagination. At times like these we begin to see how the body of Christ can rise above the anger and rage of so many people and surprise us again by kindness and goodness.

Let us pray for the numerous victims in Blacksburg, for their families and for everyone else touched by this incredible tragedy. But let us also remember that tragedies like this occur every day, in far away places that Americans pay little or no attention to at all. Our media shows interest only in our American tragedies, unless they involve a war that we are upset about in Iraq and even then the focus is on us. (If you read newspapers outside the United States you see immediately how America-centric we really are as a people.) These non-US tragedies are just as real, just as painful, and just as evil as what happened in Blacksburg on Monday. Compassion is required every day, not just in the wake of another tragic school shooting. And realism about sin and evil are needed in abundance in modern America.