On April 16th, 2007 there was a shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech that claimed the lives of 32 people. At the time, I was the Vice President for Academic Services at Bethel, and the next day (5/17/07) I gave the following devotional at a meeting of the faculty. It seems relevant given the events of today in Connecticut.
12 years ago today I was at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where I was working on my Masters Degree. I remember wondering if America was under some sort of attack, thinking how remarkable it was that the attackers got all the way to the center of the country in Oklahoma City, where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building had been blown up and 168 people killed. In the days that unfolded after that, almost more shocking than the event itself was to learn that it had been Americans who committed the atrocity.
8 years ago tomorrow is the date of the Columbine shootings—again Americans, this time teenagers whose minds had been warped into some kind of sick alternate reality where the actual shooting of 13 students seems almost to be the logical conclusion of the hatred and sociopathic behavior that preceded it.
Sure there’s 9-11 that came as ideological attack from outside our nation. But we do pretty well at attacking ourselves from within. Maybe there’s not the obvious civil war like we hear about from Iraq where the car-bomb-a-day pace has been kept up for a surprisingly long time (and shows no signs of letting up). But here our “freedoms” do a pretty good job of keeping us enslaved and at war with ourselves: capitalism, freedom of the press, entertainment. These are the pillars of American society, and there’s nothing wrong with them in and of themselves. But unchecked they lead predictably to greed and materialism, partisanship and relativism, the glorification of violence and pornography. These are not what our country was founded on, but they are what we feed on today—these “freedoms” for which the terrorists supposedly hate us.
It may sound like I’m poised to go off on some political tirade, but I’m not. The project of modernity, by which political policy and technological progress would bring about some sort of utopian society, was reduced to silliness in the 20th century. The post-modern world was not shocked on Monday when another gunman went nuts down in Virginia. Angry, yes; grief-stricken, yes. But not really shocked. The world is messed up. It is not a safe place. And try as much as we will, we’re not going to make this world a safe place by enacting more regulations. Having to put your toothpaste in a Ziploc baggie at the airport might stop one kind of potential evil but that’s a drop in the bucket.
And perhaps the most surprising thing about this for us Christians is that God doesn’t seem overly concerned about our safety. Remember the Christian girl and her powerful witness at Columbine High School who was one of the victims? And the stories of faith that came out of September 11 tragedies. And I’m sure there were Christians among the victims in Virginia too. I don’t find in Scripture that it is God’s goal for us that we are all safe and untouched by tragedy; I don’t even find that it is his goal for us that we are all kept happy. I find in Scripture that God desires above all that we be made holy, that we increasingly take on the character of Christ, and that we infect the world, not with some kind of superficial religiosity, but with the transforming power of the Gospel.
I believe with all my heart that Bethel has a role to play in this. Tonight I have to give a little speech at the Founders’ Banquet that is being given to those who regularly contribute financially the College. I’m going to do another variation on the one-string banjo theme I’ve been pushing for awhile now, and that is that we strive to instill in all of our students that no matter what their majors, they have a calling, a role to play in the Kingdom of God which Jesus proclaimed to now be among us. And in that sense, we have a lot of influence in seeing the transforming power of the Gospel infused throughout society.
Frederick Buechner is a writer I like to read. He’s not very well known because he’s a bit too religious for the secular market, and a bit too secular for the religious market (those are the kind of writers I’m drawn to). He defines vocation as that place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs.
April is a hard month; it always is. Springtime takes forever to get here; we’ve been going hammer down for months; students are squirrelly; contracts for next year come out and rarely do we feel that we’re paid what we’re worth. It is the natural reaction for almost everyone (myself included) to look at everyone else and think “if they would just shape up and do their jobs right, everything would be a lot better”. It’s April. The hardest month of the year in the academic cycle, and this cycle has certainly been the hardest one I’ve been part of. I should have known better than to start off the year at Faculty Retreat with a reflection on pain and suffering. Next fall’s talk will be about wealth and prosperity!
I hope in the midst of April, you can still sense a deep gladness. One of the world’s deep needs is reflected in each of our students and their futures. What will they become? How will they influence society? What a great vocation to be in!
I’m sure you heard about the 76 year old Romanian Engineering Professor in Virginia—he himself a survivor of concentration camps. After hearing the gun shots in neighboring classrooms he tried to hold off the gunman by putting his own body against the door, giving his students a chance to jump out the windows. Talk about a love for students.
September 27, 2012. Five were shot to death by 36-year-old Andrew Engeldinger at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis, MN. Three others were wounded. Engeldinger went on a rampage after losing his job, ultimately killing himself.
August 5, 2012. Six Sikh temple members were killed when 40-year-old US Army veteran Wade Michael Page opened fire in a gurdara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Four others were injured, and Page killed himself.
July 20, 2012. During the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, CO, 24-year-old James Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 58. Holmes was arrested outside the theater.
May 29, 2012. Ian Stawicki opened fire on Cafe Racer Espresso in Seattle, WA, killing 5 and himself after a citywide manhunt.
April 6, 2012. Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 32, shot 5 black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in racially motivated shooting spree. Three died.
April 2, 2012. A former student, 43-year-old One L. Goh killed 7 people at Oikos University, a Korean Christian college in Oakland, CA. The shooting was the sixth-deadliest school massacre in the US and the deadliest attack on a school since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
October 14, 2011. Eight people died in a shooting at Salon Meritage hair salon in Seal Beach, CA. The gunman, 41-year-old Scott Evans Dekraai, killed six women and two men dead, while just one woman survived. It was Orange County’s deadliest mass killing.
September 6, 2011. Eduardo Sencion, 32, entered an IHOP restaurant in Carson City, NV and shot 12 people. Five died, including three National Guard members.
January 8, 2011. Former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) was shot in the head when 22-year-old Jared Loughner opened fire on an event she was holding at a Safeway market in Tucson, AZ. Six people died, including Arizona District Court Chief Judge John Roll, one of Giffords’ staffers, and a 9-year-old girl. 19 total were shot. Loughner has been sentenced to seven life terms plus 140 years, without parole.
August 3, 2010. Omar S. Thornton, 34, gunned down Hartford Beer Distributor in Manchester, CT after getting caught stealing beer. Nine were killed, including Thornton, and two were injured.
November 5, 2009. Forty-three people were shot by Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan at the Fort Hood army base in Texas. Hasan reportedly yelled “Allahu Akbar!” before opening fire, killing 13 and wounding 29 others.
April 3, 2009. Jiverly Wong, 41, opened fire at an immigration center in Binghamton, New York before committing suicide. He killed 13 people and wounded 4.
March 29, 2009. Eight people died in a shooting at the Pinelake Health and Rehab nursing home in Carthage, NC. The gunman, 45-year-old Robert Stewart, was targeting his estranged wife who worked at the home and survived. Stewart was sentenced to life in prison.
February 14, 2008. Steven Kazmierczak, 27, opened fire in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University, killing 6 and wounding 21. The gunman shot and killed himself before police arrived. It was the fifth-deadliest university shooting in US history.
February 7, 2008. Six people died and two were injured in a shooting spree at the City Hall in Kirkwood, Missouri. The gunman, Charles Lee Thornton, opened fire during a public meeting after being denied construction contracts he believed he deserved. Thornton was killed by police.
December 5, 2007. A 19-year-old boy, Robert Hawkins, shot up a department store in the Westroads Mall in Omaha, NE. Hawkins killed 9 people and wounded 4 before killing himself. The semi-automatic rifle he used was stolen from his stepfather’s house.
God help us all.