There are moments in our lives that perplex us and leave us groping in the dark for answers to the “Why?” that rings in our minds and hearts.
I was a teenager living in Pontiac, Mich., in 1965 when someone decided to place poison and razor blades in Halloween candy and apples and give this to little kids. I remember the Jonestown mass suicide, the University of Texas sniper killings, Columbine, and of course, Sept. 11. The “Why?” question in each of these incidents was never answered to the satisfaction of many of us.
The recent killings at Virginia Tech cause us again to ask, “Why?” How could a person move among us with so much anger and hatred, while we are unaware of the awful bitterness festering deep inside? How does life produce such anger that a person could be moved to murder innocent others?
In the days since this tragedy I have searched my mind, trying to come up with an answer. I was frustrated and despondent at my inability to make sense of this event. But then in prayer I realized I was posing the question to the rational side of my brain, when tragedies like this are not understood through rational thought and process. This act was irrational and can not be explained away with rationality. This event defies logic. No matter how much we analyze and seek to piece together an answer to the “Why?” we will at some point conclude that we may never be able to put into plain words an answer to the senseless act.
Then I began to accept that there are people, incidents, and actions that human beings, with our limited knowledge, can never understand. A part of me fights against this reality, because I so desperately want to be in control of myself, my environment, and somehow ensure my own safety. If I accept this as an unexplainable act, then I can never truly protect myself, my family, and those I love from senseless tragedies.
I am told that the shooter suffered abuse, taunting, and rejection from his peers, and those experiences may have boiled over inside him. This makes sense until I realize that many people grow up in similar or even worse conditions, and they don’t turn to violence or self-destruction or become consumed with anger. They have not allowed the cruelty of others to turn them against others. In fact, some of these people go on to become great contributors to this world. Life is complex and difficult to figure out because people are complex and difficult to figure out. So what do we learn from this?
I think we can learn to be careful how we treat each other. We never know if what we do for fun could become another log on the fire inside someone’s heart. We never know that if we seek to treat each other with kindness, we may positively affect a person’s maturity. We need to realize that we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We must learn that we are called to care for each other not only when tragedy strikes, but when we are getting on an elevator, racing for a choice parking place, or merging on the freeway. We are called to care when we listen to music that’s too loud, when we disagree on the best candidates for elected positions, or when we see poverty, disease, or people needing a helping hand.
We also need to understand that our ultimate safety is not found in our own arms, in weapons we possess, homes we live in, jobs we have, or intellect we possess, but it is in the hands of a benevolent and loving God. It is this Almighty One who turned the awful tragedy of the crucifixion of his son Jesus into an instrument of salvation. From this we learn that evil will never have the last say. At the empty tomb we learn that good conquers evil, love conquers hate, generosity conquers selfishness, positive is stronger than negative, and even death must bow to life. On my visit to Africa University, I met Shirley DeWolf. Shirley is a lecturer on the faculty of theology at Africa University’s Institute of Peace, Leadership and Governance in Zimbabwe. She and I exchanged cards, and she sent me a copy of a lecture she gave at the Bonhoeffer Lectures on Public Ethics. She tells this story:
In my teaching I am guided by my own student experiences at Wesley Theological Seminary in the early 1970s, which showed me that real learning is what you are left with after you have forgotten everything you were ever taught in the classroom. I am driven by the words of a man I met in the dark in some back street of this city of Washington at 3 o’clock in the morning. I had signed up for a course in Emergency Room Ministry at Georgetown University Hospital, and one night I persuaded the ambulance drivers to break their rules and allow me to ride with them, because they went into people’s homes and as a foreigner I wanted to get to know this city in its most vulnerable moments. It wasn’t long before we were radioed by the police to pick up a man they found lying unconscious in a gutter. He had alcohol poisoning and was close to dead. As we struggled to lift him up, a policeman suddenly pointed menacingly in my direction and asked, “Who’s that?” Knowing I was breaking someone’s rules and thinking the Immigration Department was going to come crashing down upon me, I confessed that I was a seminary student. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he barked at me. “I’m learning how to be a pastor,” I explained. It took us quite a while to get the unconscious man into the ambulance, and when we were ready to leave I slid back into my seat and closed the door, hoping the policeman had forgotten my presence. But no, here he came straight toward me and pulled my door open. “Lady, I just wanted you to know that if I ever meet my pastor down here in this neighborhood at 3 o’clock in the morning, pulling bodies out of the ditch, I’ll go back to being a church member,” he said, and off he went.
If there are other potential killers out there, may we as disciples be found in a city neighborhood at 3 o’clock in the morning pulling bodies out of the ditch. I close with the usual closing of my friend Mike Watson, resident Bishop of the South Georgia Annual Conference, who says, “Dear Lord, let it be. ”