Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The persistence of evil

A well-read book on my theological bookshelf is titled Creation and the Persistence of Evil by Daniel Levinson. The Bible doesn't tell us where evil came from -- it just turned up in the Garden of Eden in the personage of the serpent. (The business about fallen angels, Adam's other wife Lilith, etc., come from sources outside the Bible.) Human beings got kicked out of Eden, and evil went with us. We've been dealing with it ever since.

And what happened on Monday morning at Virginia Tech was, unquestionably, evil exploding into our world in the personage of a deeply disturbed young man. I have read his plays that were posted on AOL. They were frightening enough to have his professors refer him for counseling, but really, you can't arrest someone for writing a purported work of fiction. (Well, okay, you can, but that's the subject of another blog.) The play about a young man and his stepfather could well have been his modern day take on Hamlet, for all we know: Hamlet's father was murdered by his stepfather. As for the language, well, consider the stuff Allen Ginsburg wrote. I've been in critique groups where some of the writings some group members submitted had me feeling very uncomfortable. But so far none of the authors has lost it and killed more than thirty people.

There was simply no way to predict this was going to happen. The media have listed a number of deadly shootings over the years: the Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania, Columbine High School in Colorado, the Texas Tower shooter in 1966. I can think of some non-school-related shootings that terrorized communities where I lived: a mentally ill man who opened fire in the food court at Perimeter Mall in Atlanta some 15 years ago; a shooter on the roof of the Downtown Howard Johnson's in New Orleans in the early 1970s. And a shooting in the gym of a New Orleans high school a few years ago that was either drug or gang related. We all wring our hands and try to reimagine the scene "if only" someone had seen it coming. But there's just no way to predict what someone will do. If we locked up every student in school who acted "weird," there wouldn't be enough room for them all -- not to mention the terrible injustice that would be done to young people whose only "crime" is to be different. (A lot of books have been written on that subject too.)

My heart and my prayers go out to everyone who grieves over what happened at Virginia Tech. You didn't have to be there to be part of that community. The whole nation is in mourning for the lives lost.

My undergraduate degree is from Syracuse University. December 21, 1988 is a day the Syracuse family will remember forever. On that day, terrorists blew up Pam Am Flight 103 in the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland. Among the dead were 35 students from Syracuse who were returning from a semester of study abroad. It was many years after my graduation, yet I wept too for these young people. On the campus today is a memorial to them, and every year 35 Remembrance Scholarships are awarded in their memory. In addition, there are two scholarships offered every year for students from Lockerbie to attend Syracuse for a year. When the chancellor of Syracuse, Nancy Cantor, wrote a note of condolence to the president of Virgina Tech, she recalled the grief of Syracuse over the loss of its students nearly 20 years ago.

The young people and their professors who died in a hail of gunfire on Monday morning will never be forgotten. The Virigina Tech community, like the Syracuse community, will find a suitable way to honor their memories and try to bring some good out of this tragedy.

In the meantime, we grieve.