Note: This piece contains mention of violence, stabbings, shootings and death.
I’ve had a lifetime of wondering Why? Have you?
This last month has left me asking Why? a lot more than usual, especially after the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. As our nation’s young souls watched their friends and teachers gunned down by one of their former classmates, the aftermath of a movement that has risen from this particular shooting, is hopeful. These young adults have had enough with us “adults.” They have had enough of the violence we introduced them. They are done. Can you blame them?
These young people came in to the world 14-18 years ago – in the height of our angry, virulent, post 9/11 world. War in Afghanistan and Iraq. Syria. A Federal Assault Weapons Ban that ended in 2004. Along with being witness to genocides, heightened crime in our cities, violence in the sports arena, the rise of violent video games (how I long for the days of Pac Man), and violent movies at the touch of a screen. How can our children think a single peaceful, non-violent thought, in this incredibly violent world? A world that we have created.
The response from “adults” about the Parkland shooting is appalling. Calling these young activists “crisis actors,” “skinhead lesbians,” and to top it all off, these students that have witnessed incredible violence, in what is supposed to be a safe place, are receiving death threats. All this, even after Columbine and Sandy Hook. Speaking of Sandy Hook – one of the most perplexing things to stem out of the Sandy Hook shooting and massacre, is not that we still have this problem of mass shootings in schools (which, of course, I ask, Why?), but more, that there’s an actual movement called The Sandy Hook Hoax.
I know you must now be asking, Why?
As I move through the world and work as an activist and theologian that builds bridges, I realize that there is no one correct response to anything. As humans, we all respond differently. However, there is a rational response, and a response that stems from critical thinking and emotional intelligence. This, I can definitely say, is not the norm. Yet, has it ever been? In a truly holistic way? I am uncertain. What I consistently witness is our ability to blame, to not seek understanding, and to react, instead of step back and view the whole picture. Are our negative, lackadaisical responses due to denial? Acceptance? Ambivalence? Ignorance? I use ignorance loosely, because the reality is, in regard to Parkland, the NRA has some very well educated people, yet, look how they are treating, and threatening, Parkland students.
In a world gone mad, are we to blame? Four days ago, a 9 year old brother, shot and killed his sister, because she wouldn’t give him the remote control for the video game they were playing. Let me stress, he didn’t accidentally shoot her. He got mad. He went to the night stand. He aimed the gun at the back of her head. And he shot her. Let me reiterate – he was 9 years old. She was 13. I was struck by this comment from a law enforcement officer who was first on the scene: “I’ve been in law enforcement 30-some-odd years, and I’ve never dealt with anything quite like this. Not with children.” Children, it appears, can be just as misled and indoctrinated as adults. Violent children, become violent adults. In this story, as with all children who commit violence against another, there are fingers being pointed – where were their parents? Why was there a loaded gun so accessible? What video games was he playing?
It’s so easy to blame – so easy to wash our hands and think, Those people are different from me… But, really, are they?
One sunny, bright January morning in 2007, in my daughter’s junior year at Lincoln Sudbury High School in Sudbury, Massachusetts, John Odgren went to school and stabbed James Alenson with a knife. John stabbed James in the school bathroom and James, trying to escape, stumbled into the hallway, where he bled out and was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital soon after.
I wrote about this experience once before and how the media played such a huge, albeit strange, role in this incident. However, what I have never mentioned are the things I heard from my own community about the Odgrens. “Why is this child at Lincoln-Sudbury anyway? He has a learning disability. He shouldn’t have been in a public school.” “He has Aspergers. This is what probably led to him killing John.” “Should we have special education programs at school anymore?” “Where did he get the knife? His parents must have known of his violent tendencies!” I could go on, but, just use your imagination, and I am sure you will think of at least one thing that was said about the Odgren’s in this short, but public witch hunt.
In the spirit of what I had witnessed with the Amish community forgiving a shooter that killed five young school girls only months before in 2006, I wanted to offer support to both sets of parents. In my conversation with the school, I asked if I could be a representative to reach out and let them know we care and help if they needed anything. After all, as hard as it was to admit and sympathize, both parents lost a child that day. The Alensons wanted nothing to do with anyone Sudbury – I can’t blame them. The Odgrens appreciated my attempts to reach out and I set a date to visit with them the week after the stabbing.
Imagine my dismay, when out of the ten or so Sudbury moms and dads I asked to go with me to meet with the Odgrens, only one said yes. One. The responses from the other parents? “No, I am not ready for that.” “No. No way.” “Are you kidding?” “They deserve no mercy! No attention from our community!” “They helped their son kill another kid. Hell no!” Honestly, I was taken aback by this, only because most of these people were from my then church community, and others, were from different, local faith communities. I thought sure that the people I chose to ask, would grant some grace, understanding and the willingness to reach out as one human being, to other human beings, that are hurting and bewildered at how quickly their lives had changed in an instant.
The visit with the Odgrens was, in all honestly, incredibly difficult and taxing. What can you say to a mother and father whose son has killed someone else’s son? Not much. Yet, it was that simple act, I believe, that let them know they weren’t alone; that they were worthy of recognition of the pain they were experiencing and more, the responsibility they will carry for the rest of their lives.
When I left and reflected on the experience with the Odgrens, it was in those moments that I realized how we view each other when things go very wrong – how we choose to label, to demonize, to reject. It was in those moments with the Odgrens that I realized how important it is to ask Why? And more, to let God lead me in those moments of, not necessarily forgiveness, but of sheer compassion, recognition of our common humanity, and the responsibility we have to one another – it was a moment in time that quelled my own human reaction to my fear, my own flaws, and my innermost fallacies.
Too gracious, you say? I always ask myself this – Is there anything, in any religious text or tradition, that tells me not to offer compassion and love to any single living being?
We humans are incredibly closed and the reality is, we are all culpable and accountable in this chaos that is gripping our planet. Our culpability and lack of accountability is what stands in our way. Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Why do we not care that our planet is in peril and our sentient beings are disappearing? Why do we not care that there are multi-year wars with no end in sight? Why do we not care that there is widespread hunger and homelessness? Why do we not care that babies (but what we would rather refer to as “migrants”) are drowning every day at sea? Why do we not care that we are literally harming, crushing, mutilating, and stabbing each other, in the most senseless and heinous of ways? Why do we not care about each other, on the most basic, human level? Because if we all cared, none of those things above would exist. And, our children? Our children certainly wouldn’t be walking into their own schools, with weapons of war, and massacring each other. If we all really cared, we simply wouldn’t be here.
Yes, I’ve had a lifetime of wondering Why? I wonder if God has too.