Virginia Tech – how do we respond anyway? Here are some faith-based thoughts from two of our writers. Especially for you if you are sitting in a dorm room on a campus somewhere, studying for finals, feeling mixed feelings, perhaps just a little freaked out…
Some inspiration to go “kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight” (Bruce Cockburn)
Thoughts about Virginia Tech and recognizing our humanity
When fourteen students were killed at the Université de Montréal in December 1989, I was a first year student at the University of Ottawa. We were in the midst of exams, and I remember how we spent exam time fearfully looking over our shoulders, sitting near rear exits in classrooms and not hanging around on campus as we were used to. It was much, much too close. When the Columbine high school killings happened ten years later, I was a youth group leader north of Toronto, trying to help the high school students explore their thoughts and feelings and fears. Today I am writing for a youth website and we collectively are still stunned, shocked, saddened and terribly confused by events such as yesterdays mass killing of students at an educational institution, this time, Virginia Tech.
Lots of speculations and editorials are all over the news today. It is apparent that we are so desperate to see such perpetrators as monsters, as insane, as somehow ‘outside’ of us or not belonging to us. What I wondered this morning was “What happens to make someone feel so disconnected to their own self and the rest of humanity that they could treat other people in that way?” What are the seeds of such disconnectedness or isolation? And is it possible for us to move from feeling like victims of this kind of extreme human isolation to becoming agents of change?
I think this taps into the heart of the gospel. Jesus’ ministry was not about founding a new religion to help us be nice to each other. Jesus was about revealing our humanity to all of us, and showing us how to live it within the realm of God. There were no outcasts for Jesus. Those who were isolated – for whatever reason – were the core of who Jesus was about. Jesus didn’t just recognize the outcast, he went looking for the outcast and brought everyone in to the realm of God, and said we must do this too.
Author and speaker Barbara Coloroso, speaking on the radio this morning talked about the pervasive culture of ‘mean’. How are the interactions – of which we are all part, wherever we are – either fuelling or seeking to subvert the culture of mean-ness? I think about our kids in high school, and the perpetual drawing of lines in the sand of cliques/groups/’pops’ and ‘un-pops’ that they tell me about. I think about how we, through overt or subtle ‘mean-ness’ create separations between ourselves and undermine each other’s humanity.
Some might say (as in the case of Eric Harris, one of the killers in the Columbine school shooting) that those who perpetrate such crimes are more than just isolated – they are psychopathic. Some perpetrators likely are. Certainly I’ll never be able to completely protect myself or other people from that kind of random unpredictability. But I think that doesn’t absolve me from dismissing such individuals as being somehow ‘outside’ of humanity. As a Christian, I still need to strive against the kinds of ways we have of separating ourselves from one another, or seeing one another as less than human.
Once, some people were walking along a beach, picking up starfish that had been washed up by the tide and were going to dry out and die on the sand. They carried them out and put them back into the water, immersing them back to life. Another person walked up and commented “There are thousands of washed-up star fish on this beach – what difference could you possibly make?”
Putting a starfish back in the water, one of the people pointed to the starfish and said “It makes a difference – for that one.!”
SCATTERED REFLECTIONS ON VIOLENCE AT VIRGINIA TECH
* * *
The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove She will be caught again
bought and sold and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen, Anthem.
* * *
sometimes it’s hard to take one more breath
inside this north american culture of death.
– Bud Osborn, Christian Poet and Activist from Vancouver.
* * *
There are few meaningful words that can be said when the kind of tragedy like the one that happened yesterday at Virginia Tech occurs. As a younger person who hangs out regularly on a University campus, it drives the reality of death and the fragility of life that much closer to home for me. And, 24 hours after the killings happened, though I’ve been asked to write about it – all I really can do is to try to piece together a rag-tag collection of sad, inarticulate and angry thoughts.
Sure, I can try and genuinely assure all victims of violence (including those who then turn to violence) that we as people of faith are prayerfully struggling to work towards weaving a culture of justice, forgiveness and peace so this kind of madness will stop.
But I realize that I must unceasingly pray and act and work to make this more and more a reality.
[On my desk there are the words of Sr. Diana Oritz, a US-Born survivor of torture in Guatemala:
” There is no redemption without forgiveness – but there is no forgiveness without repentance .” ]
Who must forgive? Who must repent?
* * *
I overheard yesterday’s horrible news on a television while I was visiting an elderly person – a friend’s grandmother, who likely has only weeks to live. At that moment as the TV broke into the news, I was praying with her and was immersed in issues of old and young, life and death – and there was something deeply surreal about all of that happening all at once.
As I left the seniors care home, I couldn’t help but reflect back to February, when ‘Wine Before Breakfast’, our weekly early morning Campus Anglican Eucharist prayed for students in Iraq and around the world after a suicide bomber with a bomb belt got into the lobby of the School of Administration and Economy of Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and managed to set it off despite being spotted at the last minute by university security guards. That blast killed 41 and wounded a similar number. How sad it is that history repeats itself again and again. How hellishly sad.
* * *
And, of course, one can’t help ‘widening the lens’ and thinking and feeling the other huge examples of violence all around us – be that of guns (on police, soldiers, gangs, criminals, students), of disease, of war, even of culture – violence that affects us as youth both in North America and around the world. École Polytechnique and Columbine are a few examples that some of us remember – and the media will certainly remember these in the next few weeks. And hopefully they and we too will remember Iraq, and, for example, the millions around the world living with war, displacement, HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases – and all forms of violence.
Violence – be it active or passive – is always wrong.
Violence must end.
* * *
So as I process all of this (as I said, in a rag-tag fashion), I think on the lyrics of one of my favorite funk/hip hop songs: “You tellin’ the youth don’t be so violent / Then you droppin’ bombs on every single continent” (Spearhead’s “O My God”).
Quoting these lyrics here isn’t at all an attempt to justify the evil acts that the Virgina Tech killer did. But it is to say that we DO live in a culture of violence and death – and that that violence is seeping into our schools, our homes and even into our churches. And I am saying that we ALL have a responsibility to stop it. Likewise we ALL have a responsibility to make sure that the youth aren’t immersed in a culture of violence and death – of flags at half staff – of bomber planes in the air – or children and youth with guns in our schools and on our TV screens . And at the same time, we have to make sure there is enough for all – even if that means that we have to give something up.
Somehow, all of this stuff – war, violence, disease, what people have and don’t have – all of it’s deeply related.
Again, I slip into the poets and rhymers who speak more articulately than I:
“We should all make a remembrance that this is bigger than terrorism
Blood is blood is blood and love is true vision
Who will listen? How many songs it takes for you to see
You can bomb the world to pieces – You can’t bomb it into peace
Power to the peaceful – And I say, love to the people y’all” (Bomb the World – Michael Franti and Spearhead)
* * *
As I write this, we know little of motive, reason and personalities involved. What we do know for sure is that there are at least 33 people dead who shouldn’t be in Virginia. And the same goes for 41 students in Iraq (and, in fact, 2 “Virginia Techs” happen each day in Iraq, as one blogger put it). And then there is the violence of 3.1 million people dying of preventable deaths from HIV and AIDS each year. The list could go on for pages. This shouldn’t be.
And in the face of all of this, I have no glib answers. But I do have hope. I do affirm a God of life. I affirm that we are called to be peoples of forgiveness – and I believe that this is the only way out of the cycle of violence (be that with bullies globally or locally). And, I realize that it’s a place of privilege I sit – It wasn’t my sister gunned down there.
I think back to being in Mexico a month ago and hearing of the kidnappings, rapings and serial killings of women – looking into the eyes of their mothers and daughters and sons and grandparents – could I forgive? – I thought a lot that night about my ‘little’ sister.
I must hold fast in prayer in able to be able to affirm the notion that good will triumph over evil – as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attested to before he too was silenced by a gun 39 April’s ago.
And I scream at the top of my lungs the words of the Vancouver Christian poet Bud Osborn who says (and you’ll please forgive the language): “say shout for life / shout with our last breath / shout ‘fuck this north american culture of death'”.
Amen to that.
* * *
How the media plays violence and death ‘at home’ versus ‘over there’ is one question we all need to think and pray about (how many of us heard about Mustansiriya in the way we’ll hear about Virginia Tech?). Is an Iraqi student less valuable than a US one?
Perhaps more important is how we are ALL implicated in Iraq, the HIV and AIDS pandemic and, yes, in the Virginia Tech massacre.
How are we implicated in the ongoing violence everywhere? This is so important to understand if we’re going to stop it.
As youth of faith, we have the power to make a difference. We have the power to stop needless death, to stop violence.
We must be people of prayer, of justice, of action, of forgiveness.
We DO have the power to respond as Anglican Priest Dale Lang responded when his 17-year-old son Jason was gunned down in a school shooting in Alberta in 1999. Rev. Lang attributed acts of violence like his son’s murder to “a diminishing of what it means to be a person.” He continued by saying: “I think if we do that enough, the people who have lost perspective will eventually see other people as disposable” he said.
33 at Virginia Tech. 14 Women at École Polytechnique. Countless people in Iraq. 3.1 million needlessly dying of AIDS each year. The homeless in Canada – in MY neighbourhood.
As youth, as Christians, and people who care – we must shout aloud in our schools, our streets, our homes, our churches: PEOPLE ARE NOT DISPOSABLE! We are each made in the image of God!!!
Our God is a God of life who loves all of God’s creation. In this post-Easter season, we remember that God has forgiven all of our sins. So, I reflect Leonard Cohen by struggling with my sad and weak voice to sing “A cold and a broken Alleluia”.
Though it’s not always easy – I MUST sing an ALLELUIA indeed!
Rev. Lang has often spoken of the need to overcome anger and to forgive. In describing the people of his hometown after the shootings, he noted: “Our whole community experienced a healing because forgiveness came. It’s so important to bring healing into our lives.”
May too the people in Virginia experience that same type of non-violent healing.
Especially the families of the murdered – whose grief and anger we must understand and affirm.
And though the culture of death is evil and needs prophetic voices to take it down, let’s not just point fingers , but look into our own hearts
Lets listen to Rev. Lang’s words.
Let’s pray. Let’s forgive. Let’s heal. Let’s act.
And as we forgive and struggle –
let us all say: “Power to the peaceful – love to the people y’all”
Indeed, across this whole tightly knit world:
LOVE TO THE PEACEFUL Y’ALL.
in Christ –
“hold me Jesus, ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory – won’t you be my Prince of Peace” (Rich Mullins)
rob shearer – april 17, 2007.