Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. –Psalm 119:28
When the soul is crushed with the weight of unanswerable questions, how do we begin to bind up our wounds? How many times have we gone through this? How many more can we endure?
We experience such shock each time we hear the news. But at what point do we refuse to dismiss such instances as “random” and “unheard of”? When do as a society begin to take collective responsibly for the lives that have been lost? How many will it take before we examine the “cultural pathology” of mass shooting?
There is a double standard that exists around the explanation of such events. It would not take very many mass shootings in which the perpetrators were black, Muslim, or Latino before we would hear comments about “violent cultures” and the ‘moral bankruptcy‘ of an entire group.
Think that race should have nothing to do with it? Maybe not. Yet when the perpetrator isn’t white, race is routinely injected into the narrative. And no matter how many white male mass-shooter we’ve had, we still live in a society that fervently fears Black men.
Jared Lee Loughner shot former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Tucson, AZ. on Jan. 8, 2011. Six of those shot died.
This is the danger of maintaining cultural white male default. We are blind to the ugly aspects of a culture that is perpetually considered ‘normal.’ If these shooters were black men, there would be a collective shaking-of-heads at their ‘inherit violent nature‘. If Latina women were committing mass shootings at a similar rate, the media would certainly be asking what the cause of it might be. But after the Newton shootings, we will see no law enforcement policy changes that will increase the racial profiling of white men.
It is a chilling aspect of white privilege to be able “to kill, maim, commit wanton acts of violence, and to be anti-social (as well as pathological) without having your actions reflect on your own racial group” (Chauncey DeVega). Time and again, the white men who commit these mass shooting are framed as “lone wolves” and “outliers,” with little examination or reflection on a broader cultural responsibility.
On July 20, 2012, James Eagan Holmes shot multiple guns into the audience at a midnight screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ killing 12 people and injuring 58.
Abagond also notes the trend:
“When white people do something bad it is due to circumstances, a bad upbringing, a psychological disorder or something. Because, apart from a few bad apples, white people are Basically Good. Everyone knows it. But when black people do something bad it is because they were born that way.”
When the shooter is white, we dig into school and psychiatric records in search for explanations as to why someone so “normal” would do such a thing. The shooter is often perceived as the quite, unremarkable “boy next door” that no on ever dreamed would suddenly snap.
Charles Carl Roberts murdered five girls and injured five others at an Amish school in Lancaster County, PA., on Oct. 2, 2006.
When violence is perpetrated by a person of color, we are quicker to be satisfied with broad explanations of terrorism, religion, or turf wars. Indeed, “after Maj. Nidal Hasan carried out the Fort Hood shootings, his Muslim faith became all the public needed to know about his motive.” The news media routinely “pathologize people of color as naturally criminal and violent.” Urban is used as shorthand for immorality.
As sensationalized as inner-city violence is, mass shootings of strangers in public settings like schools and shopping malls are virtually non-existent in urban neighborhoods. And despite gun-blazing stereotypes, the majority of people of color are pro-gun control, in stark contrast to the white voting public.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, killing 13 people and injuring 24.
Finally, the understandable horror that is felt after each mass shooting is in stark contrast to the silence and apathy with regard to the children that are dying on the streets everyday. There are daily cries for change and regulation coming from the mouths of mourning mothers that are never heard. The shock expressed after the events like those in Newton subtly sends the message that “this shouldn’t happen here, in our idyllic white suburban community. We’re not like those neighborhoods where you expect random violence.” These attitudes are reflected in the difference in public attention span depending on the race of the victim, whether it’s a shooting at a Sikh temple, or a missing child report.
When white is seen as the default, any deviant behavior can be excused as the exception to the rule. Conversely, when we limit our interactions with those of other races, we are forced to rely on heuristics to generalize about the “other.” If Adam Lanza were black, it would reaffirm stereotypes of a violent culture. If he were Muslim, the shooting would be a “clear act of terrorism.” But as a white male, he is characterized as a disturbed individual, wholly distinct from the race and culture to which he belongs.
MODEL STUDENT AND CITIZEN: Dajae Coleman, 14, was walking home from a party with friends when he was gunned down. Police say he was not the intended target. (Family photo)
Chicago-area residents were reminded once again of the senselessness of gang violence when 14-year-old high-school freshman Dajae Coleman was shot and killed as he walked home from a party with friends on Saturday night in Evanston, Illinois. It’s an all-too-familiar story: a “model citizen” and “well-mannered” young man’s life needlessly taken. (Police say he was not the shooter’s intended target.)
Making the story even more poignant was news today that Coleman’s school and family released an essay that he had written two days before his murder. Titled “My Belief Statement,” it’s a heartfelt expression of his love for his family and community. “My mom pushes me to do better, she always tells me to never settle,” Coleman wrote. “I think the kids that are on the street not doing anything with their lives don’t get the type of support they need from their family. They probably don’t have anyone to look up to.”
The tragic irony is that Coleman did have positive influences and a bright future. But in a culture of ever-increasing violence and disregard for life, that didn’t matter.
Still, people are finding hope in the life-affirming message that Dajae Coleman left behind. In a Chicago Tribune video, a visitor to the makeshift memorial site for Coleman described the young man’s essay as “prophetic, profound, and part of [Dajae’s] legacy.”
We can only hope that other young people — and adults — will read the essay and be inspired to pursue a more positive direction in life. Just like Dajae.
You can read Dajae’s essay here.
LIFE FROM TRAGEDY: Eli Evans, who survived his mother’s horrific murder in 1995, has found healing in his Christian faith and his athletic ambitions. (Photo: Chris Walker/Newscom)
Elijah “Eli” Evans has grown up with the knowledge that his birth was marked by murder. About 16 years ago, Eli’s father, Levern Ward, and two others killed Eli’s mother and two of his siblings in Addison, Illinois.
Eli was cut from the womb with a pair of shears. One of the killers, Jacqueline Annette Williams, had kidnapped him because she couldn’t have children anymore.
The next day, the group that would later be convicted of the crimes was arrested. Miraculously, Eli survived his violent birth and was rescued by authorities. His brother Jordan, 22 months old at the time, also survived.
In December, the Chicago Tribune wrote about the young man Eli has since become: a high school student trying to set an example for his classmates and a varsity basketball and football player with NFL aspirations. Now 16 years old and living with his grandfather in downstate Illinois, he has forgiven his father for killing his family.
“I always think God has a plan for me since he kept me here,” Eli told the Chicago Tribune. “I was put on this earth for a reason, and I’m still trying to figure out what the reason is. I know it’s going to be something good because not many people could have survived what I did.”
But this contentment didn’t come so easily to Eli. As he was growing up, he bottled up his rage, which sometimes exploded into physical fights.
In a phone interview with UrbanFaith, Eli shared how his Christian faith has led him to overcome his anger and forgive his father. UrbanFaith also spoke with Eli’s grandfather, Sam Evans, about how the family learned to trust God after tragedy. Eli’s brother Jordan prefers not to talk to the media, but Eli said his brother is a major role model in his life.
‘Why Would God Do This to Me?’
From a young age, Eli wondered why God had taken his mother and siblings from him. When he was 6 or 7, he lost his great-grandmother, too.
“I was thinking to myself, why would God do this to me?” Eli said. “Why would he take away the one person who was a mother figure to me?”
After his great-grandmother’s death, young Eli started running through his neighborhood and ended up at his church. There were only a couple of cars in the parking lot, and the doors were unlocked, so he went in. He dropped to his knees inside the dark auditorium and finally let everything out.
“I looked up at the cross and just screamed out, and I was crying,” Eli said. “I was just yelling at God and saying, why would you do this to me? Why would you take away my grandma, everything I got?”
But then Eli remembered that he still had his brother Jordan, who could have easily been killed along with the rest of his family, and his grandfather.
“I felt that God was saying, ‘Hey, your brother is still here and you’ve got your grandfather,’” Eli said. “They’re my family, I love them and I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
The Evans family had recently started coming to church based on Jordan’s lead, and Eli noticed that his grandfather was happier. Sam Evans had been raised by a preacher, but after his daughter died, he had stopped going to church regularly.
“If it wasn’t for God, I’d never be able to get through the funerals,” Sam Evans said. “Picture walking into a church and seeing three caskets, not one: your oldest daughter, your granddaughter and grandson. I wrestled with God about that.”
Overcoming Pent-Up Anger
When the family started coming to church, Sam Evans started doing Bible studies with his grandsons and showed them verses about handling anger.
For years, Eli got into rough fistfights because he couldn’t control his pent-up anger. Kids at school knew his family’s history and would sometimes use it to taunt him.
“I had a couple of kids who I fought who said they’d kill my family like that, like my mom was killed,” Eli said. “I always told myself, if I could go back in the past, I could stop it all by fighting them off. But when someone threatens my family like that, it brings up stuff.”
Over the years, Sam Evans helped Eli work through his anger, and he realized his grandson was bottling everything up. “He just wouldn’t talk about things,” Sam Evans said. “You could just see it building up in him.”
Together, they turned to Scripture, and Sam Evans showed him how Jesus was violently abused but chose to model love and forgiveness.
“If someone hit me, my grandpa would always tell me, ‘You’ve got to turn the other cheek, just like Jesus did,’” Eli said.
As he matured, Eli found another outlet for his anger: prayer. He poured his anger out to God instead. By high school, he had grown spiritually and stopped fighting.
“That was my new way of letting it out,” Eli said. “Fighting wasn’t working, because it still made me angry in the end.”
FAMILY TIES: Eli was raised by his grandfather, Sam Evans (left), a part-time preacher who grounded his grandson in the faith. (Photo: Chris Walker/Newscom)
Sam Evans said he has enjoyed watching Eli grow into a mature young man.
“It’s kind of cool when I get a call from a teacher saying, ‘He doesn’t let people pick on the underdogs,’” he said. “There is a sense of pride there. It’s like, ‘Wow, he’s taking a stance.’”
Eli harbored anger against his father for years, but around age 11, he decided to forgive. Now, he can talk about the tragedy without getting angry.
“It was a hard thing, a long process,” Eli said. “But as I got older and more spiritually developed, it got easier for me.”
Eli’s father, Levern Ward, was sentenced to life in prison; the other two convicted killers, Jacqueline Annette Williams and Fedell Caffey, received death sentences that were later commuted. Williams has sought release from prison, and Caffey has been hoping for a new trial. The Evans family hopes they’ll stay locked up, but Eli said he’s not going to allow the outcome to affect him.
“I’m not going to lose sleep at night, and my family shouldn’t lose sleep either,” Eli said. “I let that stuff go a long time ago. I put it in God’s hands and that’s what I want to do again. Whatever happens, it’s in his hands, not mine.”
Eli believes it would have been right for the killers to be put to death for their crimes. But since they’re still alive, Eli has thought about eventually meeting his father.
“I wouldn’t go see him at this age,” Eli said. “If I did go see him, it would be with my brother, we’d both be older, and it would be a decision we both made.”
Sam Evans is interested in ministering to people coping with tragedy, who sometimes reach out to him after hearing about what the Evans family has been through. He’s ordained and preaches occasionally.
“I want to encourage people to look to the Lord for comfort,” he said. “If I can do that for somebody, I’m willing and able.”
MOURNING THEIR LOSS: Afghan men gather in the Panjwayee district of Kandahar for a memorial ceremony for the victims killed by a rogue U.S. soldier on March 11. (Photo: I. Sameem/Newscom)
As Christians, we believe every life has value. We believe every life represents a soul, and that Jesus is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34). Despite external circumstances, God shows no partiality to anyone; he loves us all equally.
But what about us? Are we “respecters of persons”? Do show favoritism? Are we prejudiced? Our actions often indicate something altogether different than what we’re called to as people of faith.
It is nightfall. You’ve just finished saying prayers with your family and putting your three kids to bed, and you and your spouse are in your own bed. Life hasn’t been especially kind to you and you are no stranger to death and loss, but it seems that things in your village are finally settling down. You drift off to sleep, not realizing that you will never wake up. You don’t know that your spouse will not wake up. And worst of all, your precious small children, innocent in their youth, filled with promise and aspirations, will never wake up.
A soldier from another country has slipped out under the cover of night and murdered you and your family, along with others — a total of 17 people — in an act that even he can’t explain.
One must believe that, worldwide, there is outrage. There are protests, and there is a plan to address this massacre of innocent human beings. After all, you’re just like most citizens of the world; you aren’t fighting in a war. You’re in your own home. The world is full of good people, who must certainly shudder when thinking of this tragedy, right? Surely, people of all faiths, including Christians, were heartbroken over the crime and took swift action to ensure that these types of acts don’t happen again … Right?
After hearing of the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians, 9 of whom were children, my heart sank. I expected outrage from folks across the world. I expected that the American soldier guilty of the crime would be castigated by millions of people; I expected that churches and several prominent organizations would demand justice for the lives of those lost.
But I heard little. The mass killing occurred on March 11, 2012, and aside from a few reports on NPR, and an initial investigation from major media outlets, the story has been all but forgotten.
The few stories still revolving around the murders are examining whether or not the soldier is suffering from post dramatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the psychological dangers of multiple overseas tours. It’s certainly important to have concern for the mental health of our soldiers, but somehow in the spin of the news cycle, those 17 innocent Afghans have been conveniently moved to the background.
A few weeks earlier, back in the Western Hemisphere, another shooting occurred. By now, everyone’s at least moderately familiar with the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain spotted Trayvon walking around their gated neighborhood, decided he looked suspicious, and reported him to the local police. While the 911 calls are recorded, other details are murky. We do know that Zimmerman followed Trayvon at least for some time, there was some type of scuffle, and in the end, 17-year-old, unarmed Trayvon Martin lay dead and Zimmerman alleges that he killed Trayvon in self-defense.
The news circulated throughout the Black community, largely due to social media, and within a few weeks was picked up by major media outlets. And once it was picked up, there was no stopping the provocative story. In a matter of days, everyone had some type of understanding of the Stand Your Ground Law, Zimmerman’s background, Martin’s background, and everyone had an opinion on it. Many people, including our President, have alluded that Trayvon could be their son or brother. Celebrities took to Twitter to comment on the saga. People updated their Facebook profiles with images of themselves in hoodies. On blogs and websites, people have argued passionately that Martin was a martyr and Zimmerman a racist, or that Martin was a thug and Zimmerman a hero. We’ve analyzed and asked questions about this case from every angle, and for good reason. A young, unarmed man has been killed and it’s possible that race was a motivating factor.
UNFATHOMABLE TRAGEDY: The bodies of an elderly Afghan man and a small child are pictured in Alkozai village in Kandahar. They were two of the 17 people massacred on March 11. (Photo: Mamoon Durrani/Newscom)
And yet … 17 citizens in what seems like a faraway land are dead. We are silent.
Humans are wired to empathize with people who are like themselves. As Americans, it is understandable that we are most concerned about what goes on in the lives of Americans. But what about our role as Christians?
The divides created by nationalities and various faiths should matter infinitely less once we decide to follow Jesus. Do we think Jesus wept more for Trayvon than for those families in Afghanistan? Do we really believe Jesus has a special place in his heart for people from a particular part of the map? Does Jesus care more for those who are dark brown than those who are light brown?
The answer is clear. The Bible verse says, “God so loved the world.”
Just as Jesus’ love is unconditional and inclusive of everyone, so should ours be. The Black community has done an excellent job in addressing what many believe is injustice in the killing of Trayvon Martin. After all, it’s relatively easy to support a cause when you believe that you could be the next victim.
What we need to work on is our ability to address injustices against people who may not look like us, or worship like us, or live next door to us. The very thing many are accusing George Zimmerman of doing — prejudging another human being based on stereotypes — is what we do when turn a blind eye to suffering that doesn’t feel personal.
One L. Goh, the 43-year-old South Korean immigrant who is charged with killing seven people Monday at a tiny Christian College in Oakland, California, reportedly felt picked on by members of his mostly Korean school community.
“People at the school ‘disrespected him, laughed at him,’ Oakland Police chief Howard Jordan said, according to the Associated Press. “They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students.”
Oikos University nursing instructor Romie Delariman disputed that assertion, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that Goh “can’t deal with women” and is “mentally unstable” and “paranoid.”
Jordan said Goh had gone to the school in search of a female administrator who he felt had done him wrong, but she wasn’t there when the shooting took place. He also said Goh was expelled in January for “unspecified behavior problems” and “anger management” issues. Goh, thus far, has shown no remorse for the killings, investigators said.
The Link Between Bullying and Suicide
While few would accept or condone Goh’s explanation that mistreatment led him to kill seven people, injure three others, and traumatize an entire community, the narrative that bullying causes young people to kill themselves has become a widely accepted one in recent years.
The suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, for example, became a rallying cry for national anti-bullying campaigns in the fall of 2010. Clementi killed himself shortly after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a web-cam to spy on him and another man as they engaged in an intimate encounter. Ravi then took to Twitter to invite others to watch a second hook-up.
Late last month, 20-year-old Ravi was convicted of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, and tampering with the police investigation. He faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years and possible deportation back to his native India. Ravi was not charged in connection with Clementi’s death, but it is unlikely that he would have been indicted apart from it and Clementi’s family sounds firm in the belief that Ravi’s actions caused Clementi’s suicide.
In his first public statements (published at the New Jersey Star Ledger) on the case, Ravi insisted that he didn’t have a problem with his roommate’s sexuality and said he didn’t take a plea deal that would have spared him jail time because he could never get up in court and concede to the charge of bias intimidation.
“I’m never going to regret not taking the plea,” Ravi said. “If I took the plea, I would have had to testify that I did what I did to intimidate Tyler and that would be a lie. I won’t ever get up there and tell the world I hated Tyler because he was gay, or tell the world I was trying to hurt or intimidate him because it’s not true.”
A lengthy New Yorker profile of the roommates asserts that it is anything but clear that Clementi was “bullied to death.”
The Problem With Simplistic Narratives
So, what’s the harm in raising the alarm about bullying? Controversy surrounding a new anti-bullying film provides some clues.
At a website for the new documentary Bully, readers are told that 13 million children will be bullied this year and 3 million will miss school because they don’t feel safe there.The movie has won rave reviews and is being widely advocated as an anti-bullying resource for children, even though it initially received an R-rating for language. But Slate writer Emily Bazelon, who has been reporting on high profile bullying cases for the past few years, worries that the film could do “some good” and “a lot of harm” because of what it doesn’t say about mental illness in its narrative of main character Tyler Long’s suicide.
Bazelon said what is missing from the storyline is Long’s diagnosis of ADHD, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome and the fact that his parents didn’t disclose their concerns that their son might be suicidal to counselors. Ann Haas, a senior project specialist for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, shared these concerns, telling Bazelon that leaving Long’s mental health history out of the film was an “egregious omission.”
“The filmmakers had the opportunity to present bullying as a trigger, as one factor that played a role in a young person’s suicide. But to draw a direct line without referencing anything else—I’m appalled, honestly. That is hugely, hugely unfortunate,” said Haas.
Incomplete pictures like the one painted of Long’s suicide in Bully and of Clementi’s suicide in the press have the potential to create a risk of suicide contagion, which Bazelon describes as “the documented phenomenon of people mimicking suicidal behavior in light of media representations.”
“One message of this move is: ‘Bullying kills’—as if it’s a normal response to kill yourself, when of course most people who are bullied don’t do that. Young people who feel bullied could harken back to the movie, and it could be a powerful draw to suicide for them. If Tyler had been accurately portrayed as a kid with mental health challenges that were very hard for him to manage, he wouldn’t seem so attractive,” said Haas.
The filmmakers disputed Bazelon’s critique in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, saying it downplays clear evidence that Long was bullied in the “days, weeks, and months before his death,” but Slate’s deputy editor defended it, saying Bazelon was only pointing out the potential harm in a one-sided, simplistic approach to the subject.
What do you think?
Could bullying cause someone to commit murder or suicide, or do these simplistic narratives have the potential to do more harm than good?