The massacre at Virginia Tech defies description. What can we say? Terrifying? Appalling? Horrifying? They are words that have been so devalued that they seem entirely insufficient – more appropriate for a bad hair day at college than a college massacre. So perhaps we just have to go with the pictures to tell the story. The images that Cho Seung-Hui made of himself for NBC News certainly do reveal a hatred, cruelty and resolve that chill the blood. Here was clearly someone with a bitter grudge. As Time magazine put it:
Federal agents didn’t see a wild rampage, a maniac who suddenly snapped. They saw calculation and… extraordinary effectiveness.
Cold-blooded and vicious.
It defies reason, comprehension and explanation. I was very struck by an article, also in this week’s Time, entitled Nightmare 2.0 by James Poniewozik. He describes how multimedia/cameraphones/wireless technology have all brought this horror to a new level of public awareness. The culture of MySpace, Facebook & Youtube that this generates is such that:
Students are used to living in public. Now they were dying, and mourning, in public.
The last two paragraphs are worth quoting in full, though, because they raise huge questions, which too often, people do their level best to avoid. Until something like this happens…
The V.T. shootings marked the latest step in a long trend of you-witness journalism. The London 7/7 bombings were caught on camera phone; cell-phone calls went live on TV during the Columbine shootings; even the seminal 1970 image of the Kent State shootings was taken by photojournalism student John Filo.
But the shootings also proved technology’s limits. Some online postings about deaths and survivals proved false, while V.T.’s e-mail warnings to students were too little, too late. And the hardware for comprehending cruelty–the human brain and heart–has yet to be upgraded. On April 16, they were overloaded.
Comprehending cruelty? How can we? Is an ‘upgrade’ even available? What can this writer mean? Cho is not the first loner to lose it. His was hardly the first high school/college massacre. This is not the first outworking of human cruelty. Surely the 19th Century optimism of humanity’s constant improvement was exterminated in the 20th Century, the most blood-spattered of them all. It feels like – here we go again. The anti-gun lobby (which as a non-American i completely and instinctively side with – the idolatry of guns is one of the things that as a fairly frequent visitor to the USA i simply can’t get my head around) will be out in force, the pro-gun lobby out on the back foot. The doom-merchants of the west will see this as yet another sign of the inevitable collapse of society and civilization as we know it. And so it goes on. But what does it all mean? What should it tell us?
There is a notice that now hangs in Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp which reads like a grim prophecy come true:
“I freed Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality … we will train young people before whom the world will tremble. Young people capable of violence – imperious, relentless and cruel.” Adolf Hitler
Cho Seung-Hui could be said, therefore, to be Hitler’s child – a terrifying irony. He grew up not in the Hitler Youth, but pursuing the American Dream (South Korean immigrant family with limited English – arriving in 1992 when he was 8). But far from exploiting the melting pot experience he was a withdrawn, troubled and, at times, suicidal loner. So perhaps it was all inevitable – he was simply the product of philosophical forces beyond his control, a worldview that (like Hitler’s) had no room for compassion. But that doesn’t really do justice to it either – for there was surely a profound IRRATIONALITY about it all – not the deliberate application of a philosophy?
What on earth happened to his humanity? Is there any vocabulary for what he did? Are there categories that even begin to do justice to it? This is what Richard Dawkins once said (in an interview in Australia, quoted in John Dickson’s book If I Were God, I’d End All The Pain Matthias Media, 2001)
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt… [you won’t] find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good; nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.
‘The Evolution of the Darwin Man’, publ in 2000 in The Sydney Morning Herald.
He is absolutely right, of course – if this is a godless universe. It’s one of the cloaked realities of atheism – an atheist is not allowed, or rather, not able, to ask ‘Why?’ Not just because in a material universe, there is no one to ask – but because there is no validity to the question. But is that really good enough? You can hardly call the sound of automatic weapons MUSIC. That language in itself sticks in the gullet. It certainly doesn’t do justice to the fact that we all still DEMAND to ask WHY?
In 1939, W H Auden emigrated to the US. In November, 2 months after the outbreak of the 2WW, he went to a cinema in the Yorkville district of Manhattan. The area was largely German speaking, and the film he saw was a Nazi account of their conquest of Poland. When Poles appeared on the screen, he was startled to hear people in the audience shout, ‘Kill Them! Kill Them!’
Auden was stunned. Amid all the changes of heart and mind he had passed through in his life, one thing had remained constant: he believed in the essential goodness of humanity. Now suddenly, in a flash, he realised two things with the force of an epiphany. On the one hand, he knew beyond any argument that ‘human nature was not and never could be good’; the reaction of the audience was a ‘denial of every humanistic value’. On the other hand, he realised that if … such things were absolutely evil, he had to have some absolute standard by which he could judge them.
Here Auden realized, was the fatal flaw of his liberalism: ‘The whole trend of liberal thought has been to undermine faith in the absolute.’ Or as he remarked to a friend, ‘The English intellectuals who now cry to Heaven against the evil incarnated in Hitler have no Heaven to cry to.’
Time for Truth, Os Guinness (IVP 2000) p109
Human beings are never as evil as they could possibly be – although it is hard at the moment to believe that of what Cho Seong-Hui did. There are no cardboard cut-out ‘baddies’ in real-life. Remember the film Schindler’s List – even the monster Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) shows an incongruous tenderness towards his Jewish maid Helen – before eventually going on to beat her. The images of Hitler dandling children on his knee with delight and joy … don’t fit with the tyrannical force behind the Final Solution. Even the most evil are tempered in some part of their lives by goodness. But the reverse is also true: human beings are never as good as we should be either. Taking Schindler’s List again, the protagonist (played by Liam Neeson) is not exactly a paragon of virtue and yet does this amazing and risky thing to rescue his Jewish labourers.
Any categories to comprehend the incongruities and unpredictabilities of human nature must always be nuanced. As far as i can see, the ancient psalmist of Judaism had it right – human beings were indeed “made a little lower than the angels” and “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 2 & Hebrews 2). This is what we were created to be. But as the writer of Hebrews comments on these verses in something of an understatement: “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to [humanity]” (Heb 2:9). We have been marred; we are damaged goods; we are not what we were created to be. We have the incredible potential for good; but our bias towards selfishness always gets in the way. Our determination to live in God’s world without God’s ways pulls us down – what the Bible calls sin. There is great evil lurking within every one of us – if you don’t like that, blame the person who first put it like that: JESUS (in Mark 7:20-23). I say all this because, apart from the fully nuanced doctrine of sin (which is light years from the populist tabloid version of the word) I can’t see any other way of comprehending what goes on in the world. When I lived in Kampala, I had students who suffered intolerably during the Rwandan genocide of ’94 and the more recent D.R.Congo chaos. No other language did justice to their experiences.
And yet…the problem remains that it’s simply not possible to write off as ‘evil’ all the perpetrators of such crimes – without facing up to what is actually lurking there right in my very own heart.
The Christian thinker and writer, Ravi Zacharias, describes a meeting he and a friend had with one of America’s most successful businessmen on the top floor of his huge corporate building. The friend was direct, to say the least, but surely apt:
Our entire conversation revolved around his question of so much evil in this world, and a seemingly silent God. Suddenly interrupting the conversation, a friend of mine said to him, ‘Since evil seems to trouble you so much, I would be curious to know what you have done about the evil you see within you.’ There was a red-faced silence.
Deliver Us From Evil, Ravi Zacharias (Word, 1996) p148
Cho Seung-Hui was a drop-out who didn’t fit into his family’s adopted home. He was clearly troubled by psychological demons and traumas. Was what he did evil? YES. Was there evil within him? YES. We must not be afraid to use such language. For no other word does it justice. But was he totally evil? NO. He was made in the image of God, he was made to be a little lower than the angels. But what seems to have happened is that he lived without recognising who sat in authority above the angels. That is what lies at the heart of the problem – human sinfulness. And without recognising the rightful lordship of the one above all things, life is one long, lonely DIY exercise with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Outside Christ, there is no law, no hope, no meaning. You and you alone, are the determiner and the definer of the essentials of life; you and you alone are the architect of your own moral law; you and you alone craft meaning for your life; you and you alone risk everything you have on the basis of the hope you envisage. As a cynic once put it, ‘we are all in this together – alone.’
Can Man Live Without God? Ravi Zacharias (Nelson, 2004 new ed) p133