Reflections On The Mass Murder At Virginia Tech
The tragedy of the mass murder in at Virginia Tech has been an enormous shock to all of us. We are all stunned. We grieve for the families whose 32 young people have been killed. The sense of tragedy overwhelms us all. We cannot fathom their pain and suffering and immeasurable grief in the loss of so many children who were young adults. We grieve for them all.
I have selected three passages from the Bible as the basis for my sermon for today.
Genesis 6:11, From the story of Noah. “The earth was corrupt in the eyes of God and was full of violence.”
Proverbs 24:6, “Their hearts plot violence and their lips talk about making trouble.”
Psalm 140:1, ‘”Rescue me, O Lord, from evil men; protect me from men of violence.”
A prayer that all peaceful people have prayed is this: “O Lord God, protect us all from evil men; protect us from men of violence.” That prayer is universal.
Another basis for this sermon is the gospel lesson from John 10: “Anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate is a thief and a robber. The thief only comes to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.”
In Biblical times, a sheep pen was considered to be a safe place, the way schools are considered to be safe places. When the sheep are in the pen, they are thought to be safe for the night, and when kids are in a school, they are thought to be safe day and night. But the Bible says a thief slips in only to steal and kill and destroy. That sounds exactly what happened at Columbine High School eight years ago and in a class room at Virginia Tech this past week. Someone possessed by evil slipped in only to steal and kill and destroy. They had no other purpose. But Jesus is just the opposite: Jesus comes to bring not only life, but abundant life. Jesus wanted these students not only to experience life but the fullness of life that God intended for each and every one of them. Christians are always those who work for the abundance of life and do everything possible to stop those who would slip into our schools and society to steal, kill and destroy. This passage is also at the heart of today’s sermon.
Schools are to be safe places, but public schools have become places for mass shootings. In my research, I discovered that there have been 40 public school mass shootings during the past 40 years and 30 of those mass shootings have occurred in public schools here in America. How soon we forget the 15 students who were killed at the University of Texas in Austin, the 9 students at California State University in what was called the Fullerton Library Massacre, the Kent State shooting, the Jackson State shooting, the University of Iowa shooting and the list goes on and on.
We read that “the Centers for Disease Control reported in 2002 that there had been 220 school-related shootings from 1994 to 1999, resulting in 253 deaths.” We have become so numb to violence in our culture that we no longer hear the unfathomable pain of those numbers. In five years, 220 shootings in public schools with 253 deaths.
After much thought, I would like to share three perceptions with you today.
The first is this, that we in America are experiencing a national epidemic of violence. A disease can reach epidemic proportions in a nation and violence has already reached epidemic proportions here in the USA. The tragedy at Columbine High School eight years ago and at Virginia Tech this past week are two horrible examples of the sick violence which is gripping our nation.
Like you, many things disturbed me about the unraveling story this week and the revelations of how the killer mailed a long list of pictures and video of himself in killing poses. That upset and deeply offended all of us.
When this mass murderer referred to the names of Eric and Dylan, the two teenage killers at Columbine, as “martyrs,” that made me realize that the mass murder at Columbine eight years ago and the mass murder at Virginia Tech this past week and the mass murders in forty other public schools in the past forty years are all connected. We in America are living in a violent culture which is becoming increasingly violent.
A few years ago, Dr. Everett Koop was the Surgeon General of the United States of America. You remember Dr. Koop, the one with the long, full gray beard. In 1984, he said that violence is a public health issue like smallpox and tuberculosis were for Surgeon Generals in previous centuries. Just as smallpox and tuberculosis were epidemics that needed to be contained and eliminated, Dr. Koop said that violence had reached such epidemic proportions in the United States, it too needed to contained.
I read a book by Dr. James Gilligan, MD, director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School. The title is VIOLENCE. It’s subtitle is: REFLECTIONS ON A NATIONAL EPIDEMIC. In this book, Dr. Gilligan, after a lifetime of study and work, has concluded that violence has reach epidemic proportions here in the United States. Like a disease can reach epidemic proportions, so violence has reached epidemic proportions here in America. He says that compared to the industrialized democracies of Western Europe, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, etc, the USA’s rates of violence are two to twenty times as great as other modern democracies.
I remember reading another book some years ago which showed the rate of increase of violence crimes: these violent crimes rose at a steady pace in the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and then in the 1970s, our rate of violent crimes started to go straight up, like the chart on a bull market.
For example, at this time of year, we are remembering the 13th anniversary of the massive killing in Waco, Texas. We are commemorating the 12th anniversary of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma. This past week, we have experienced the ninth mass murder in a public school in the past two decades. Does it feel like an epidemic of violence? I believe so. But some people are still in denial.
Recently I read a story about a “meter maid” from downtown Seattle. She has been giving parking tickets for the past twenty five years in the downtown district. She told of how she is verbally accosted three to four times every day by highly irate citizens for putting a ticket on their windshield. She said, “It never used to be this way.”
Today, when you drive down the freeway and someone cuts in on you, you do nothing. You make no gestures in your car to anyone else on the freeway.... because you know you may be shot by them. You keep your eyes straight ahead. It did not used to be this way in America.
Dr. Gilligan says we are experiencing an epidemic of violence in America, and I think that you may agree with him based on your own personal experiences.
We need to talk about the culture of violence in the Roman Empire. I read a portion of Will Durant’s HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION and his recollections of Seneca, who was born in the year 4BC, the same year as Jesus. Seneca was famous for his words, “all gutters lead to Rome.” The comparison was made between the public games of Greece and Rome. The public games of the Greeks who filled the amphitheaters were the races, the javelin throws, the discus, the jumps, the public display of beautiful bodies and athleticism. The public games of the Romans weren’t like this at all. The Roman public games were the gladiators, men locked in violent combat until one of them was killed and then the crowds roared with delight. It was told how Nero in 65 CE filled the public stadium with 400 wild elephants, wild bulls and wild tigers and let them fight and kill each other until they were all dead, the blood flowing deep on the floor of the coliseum, with the crowds cheering. Here was a culture addicted to violence and gore...much like our culture is addicted to violence and gore.
Cultures seem to have varying characteristics, and the cultures of Rome and the current United States seem to have cultures saturated with violence, much more so than our fellow industrial democracies.
Eight years ago during the aftermath of the tragedy of Columbine, there was a TV clip of a wounded young man, trying to climb through the broken panes of glass on the second floor of the high school. My wife, having seen that TV clip, put her hands over my eyes, “Don’t look,” she said. “It is so awful.” Don’t look??? I saw that clip 300 times in the next few days. It was “the best” film clip the TV stations had to show to a culture and a media which are addicted to violence.
I would like to suggest to you this morning that our culture is addicted to violence in a way a person can become addicted to cocaine. The person denies it and refuses to come to grips with it, even when the social consequences are high and all the signs of addiction are present. I believe that we are in denial about our cultural addiction to violence, and we want a quick fix, a quick analysis, a quick blame, a quick solution. When a person or culture are addicted, there are no quick fixes and no quick solutions and no easy answers. It takes a miracle to overcome an addiction. Ask any Alcoholics Anonymous person. And it will take a working miracle for our nation to become free of our deep cultural addiction to violence.
In other words, I believe we are not only living out the story of Cain and Abel in which Cain kills Abel but we are also living out the sequence to that story in the excessive violence during the time of Noah. Ours is the violent mathematics of Lamech, where violence is repeated seventy times seven, where our culture itself has become contaminated with an inner violence, much like Rome during the time of Nero. Our culture of violence is like the story of Noah where excessive violence had become an accepted way of life.
So this is the first point in today’s sermon: We are experiencing a national epidemic of violence, an addiction to violence, and we are in denial about ourselves as an addicted nation and therefore we refuse to ask the hard questions about what is happening in America. And like all addictions, they are not easy to face or eradicate.
It takes a miracle to break out of an addiction.
The second point of my sermon for today is a thesis from Dr. Gilligan’s book on VIOLENCE that murder is overwhelmingly men killing other men, young men killing other young men. The author concludes that in every culture in every decade in every nation, homicide is overwhelmingly men killing other men. He then offered a very interesting thesis: the increase in homicide rates parallels the increase in testosterone rates of males; that prior to puberty, men don’t murder; that the murder rates go right up with the testosterone rates, peaking at age nineteen and then beginning a slow decline through age forty. In other words, the murder charts parallel the testosterone charts. I found this chart most interesting.
And the point by Dr. Gilligan is: Increasing levels of testosterone do not cause violence. Men in all cultures have the same or similar rates of increases of testosterone. The question is: What are the triggers in our culture which are setting off the violence in such disproportionately large numbers of young men? What are the precipitating events in the lives of young men which set them off into violent behaviors. The cause is not the increasing levels of testosterone. The causes are the triggers within our culture. That is what we need to be examining.
After the mass murder at Columbine, I thought that the column by Eric Lacitus in the Seattle Times was particularly insightful. He described the “talking heads” on television, all the psychiatric doctors and nurses and wise old men whom he suggested have had very little first hand and personal exposure to the youth culture. He suggested that most adults haven’t visited the bomb making sites on the Web, haven’t watch scenes from violent movies (e.g Natural Born Killers) at least forty times. Natural Born Killers is a movie in which young actor
Woody Harrelson blasts away and kills his classmates with his shotgun, dressed in his long black trench coat. If you saw that film, was it frightening to you? Most adults haven’t played violent video games by the thousands of hours. We adults are so out of tune with the media world of kids nowadays, and we don’t know for sure how our sons have become addicted to violence. Just as we, parents, are forever searching for clues to see if our children are hooked on drugs; so also, we need to be forever sensitive to see if our kids are hooked on the drug of violence which is so epidemically available to all.
I liked the comments by guru Steve Covey (of SEVEN HABITS fame) who said that the same people who say that media violence has no behavioral impact on the lives of viewers will be the same people who sell television advertising for thousands of dollars per second in order to affect behaviors of consumers. As if what is shown on the TV programming doesn’t affect behavior but the expensive advertising does? How ridiculous. There is a major inconsistency here. Somebody is fooling somebody. Advertising on TV is expensive because it does affect behavior; and so does programming on TV. The very essence of advertising is to affect behavior based on thepower of repeated suggestion, and TV programming also illustrates the power of repeated suggestion....of millions of violent suggestions...deeply implanted into the human psyche...which then affect behavior.
And sometimes it takes an outsider to tell the truth about your family or culture. I liked the comments of a British columnist after the tragedy at Columbine. You know, Great Britain where the police do not wear guns but nightsticks. This British columnist said that Americans are so fanatical about our freedoms and so fanatical about our gun laws that we will never get out of the mess we are in. Our laws which guarantee freedom of speech and the freedom to bear arms get twisted and abused so much that pornographic violence becomes free speech and young men easily buying machine guns of war becomes the right to bear arms. Yes, the Brit was right. We are so fanatical about our freedoms and so fanatical about our guns laws that I am not sure we will ever escape our addiction to violence in America. We simply write it off saying: “Well, it’s the price of freedom!” Meanwhile, we fail to recognize and investigate the comparative lack of violence in our neighboring democracies which are also politically free.
Eight years ago after Columbine, in a poll, high school students were given options of what they think contributes to violence in their schools. They were free to chose from a long list of possibilities of factors that contribute to the violence of their teenage culture. The answers of the teenagers themselves? #1, availability of guns, 86%; #2, the Internet, 84%; #3 parents (75%). Imagine what happens when you add together three dangerous cultural ingredients: easy accessibility of guns and unrelenting violence in the media and Internet and parents too busy living their own lives to be close to their children. When you add these three together in one mix, you begin to have a chemical combustion of violence, an explosion of violence, a culture of violence which grows excessively and exponentially out of control and nobody knows what to do except say, “Well, that’s the price of living in America.” There is an inevitable explosion when you bring these three cultural chemicals together in a dangerous American combination: easy accessibility to guns, repeated images of violence, parents who are too busy to parent.
No wonder 30 of the 40 public schools that experienced mass shootings around the globe were found here in America.
And certain young men, with high levels of testosterone and rejection, seem to react in dangerous ways to this cultural combination. This special American mixture seems to set off violence in the hearts and trigger-happy hands of far too many young men. Something is causing our young men to be more violent compared to the rest of the industrialized democracies. Something is setting them off. Knowing that there are no simple answers, what do you think are the causes of excessive violence in our young men? 39 of the 40 mass shooters/mass murderers were young men in the list that I examined. We, as a nation and as a community of faith, must come to grips with these issues.
The third point of my sermon is about dissing. Eight years ago, I telephoned by best friend from the past, Dr. Roland Martinson, Professor of Pastoral Care at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. I found Rollie at a Bible Camp outside of Philadelphia where he had just addressed five hundred high school youth. I asked him if he had spoken about Columbine High School, and he said, “of course”, like why would I ask such a foolish question. I asked him what he said, and one of the insights he gave me was about “dissing.” Dissing is taunting, picking on, shaming, bullying other kids at school or wherever. It is as old as the human race, as old as Cain and Abel. He told the story of when he had been dissed. He was a young boy at Bible Camp, sleeping in a dorm, and Rollie had the problem of being a bed wetter which he naturally tried to hide from his friends. That night at Bible Camp, he wet his bed and he was trying to quietly escape into the bathroom to cover up his mistake when the lights went on, all the boys realized what had happened and Mart was humiliated by the boys. It was a terrible experience for him, one that he remembers with great clarity because of the pain and the shame. He then told the young people near Philadelphia another story about when he dissed a girl, when he and his friends dished it out to this girl at school until she finally broke down in tears, humiliated and ashamed. The girl’s mother came to school to pick her up, and as Mart walked by the car, he could read the lips of the girl, through the window of the car, saying to her mother: “He is one of them.” Rollie said, at that moment, the Lutheran high school kids to whom he was speaking in Philadelphia, were silent. “You could hear a pin drop,” he said. Yes, you could hear a pin drop because all of these kids had done it and had it done to them, and they knew how deeply painful and shameful it could be. Mart had touched a nerve that night. And I notice how quiet it is in this sanctuary right now as we acknowledge how often we have given and received shame and humiliation.
You may have read the article about the mass murderer at Virginia Tech, when he was a high school student and was the shyest kid in the class. His uncle said that his family was afraid he was mute. This “none talking” high school student was asked to read out loud in front of the class. The kid refused. Finally, he HAD to and did. When he did, his voice was strange, low, and garbled. It was reported that the other kids in the class laughed at him and told him to go back home to China. Who knows how many times this kid was humiliated because his paralyzing shyness and muteness. None of us may ever know.
This is not to defend the mass murderer at Virginia Tech but to be aware that there is a similarity in patterns that create mass murderers. Mass murderers are not born that way. Like all of us, they are created by the culture that they live in.
Dissing hurts and leaves deep scars, more than we realize.
In this book by Gilligan, VIOLENCE, A NATIONAL EPIDEMIC, the author concludes that all violence is rooted in shame.
Today’s sermon does not exegete one story from the Bible, nor do I offer any simple solutions to our complex addiction. But I do believe that our culture is similar to the excessive violence found in the stories about Cain and his descendant, Lamech and reaching its violent climax in the story of the Noah, the flood and the excessive violence of Noah’s culture. I believe that we in America have a cultural addiction to violence which has reached epidemic proportions which then triggers violence in young males, much more than in other democratic nations. I believe that the mass murder at Virginia Tech University and Columbine High School are two more tragic examples of our addiction to violence at work. I believe that we are in denial and are unwilling to look deeply at our addictions. I believe that there is a cultural explosion going on as three cultural chemicals intermix: easy availability of guns, powerful media repetition of violence, and parents too busy to parent. And I believe it will take a miracle of God to become free from the violence which is destroying us from the inside.
As people have said repeatedly in the past, American will fall, not because of an enemy from the outside, but from enemies from within. I believe that America’s number one enemy is the culture of violence that we live with and tolerate. Too often, we point our fingers at the nation of Columbia as being a symbol of decadent violence rather than looking at our own collective soul.
Violence is contrary to the kingdom of God. Violence is the opposite of the living Spirit of Jesus who comes to bring life and give it more abundantly. The purpose of God is to heal… to heal individuals who are sick but also to heal cultures which are sick. In this complex world of ours, I believe that Jesus wants to heal “our sin sick …violent … soul” of our America culture.
Of course, some people who are sick are in deep denial as to how sick they are.
Jesus taught that the great physician came to heal people who knew they were sick.
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