Theology breaks out

virginia tech war memorialThe tragic shootings Monday at Virginia Tech tell a story about life and death, and whenever those subjects are discussed religion will no doubt become involved. Tmatt wrote on Tuesday that the “religion shoe” would soon drop. And as predicted, religion did drop throughout the day’s memorial service.

The memorial service Tuesday for the Virginia Tech community has been largely buried by most of the news outlets covering this tragedy. It is difficult to fault the reporters and editors for the coverage of this horrific event so far, primarily because there is so much that we still do not know and cannot know about the events. As the details of the shooter and the murders come out, that will rightly receive most of the coverage.

But I want to take a moment to reflect on the memorial service and consider the significance of the words said. Coverage of the memorial service has been sparse so far, but there was deep theological meaning carried in the speeches by everyone from President Bush to a leader in Blacksburg’s Muslim community. News stories on forgiveness and determination are going to come along with, sadly, stories about attempts at retribution. Both responses are affected by a community’s religious tradition and practice (or lack thereof).

Starting with The Washington Post‘s front-page article by Michelle Boorstein, reporters are picking up on the bits and pieces of the religious language used by nearly all the speakers:

Citing the biblical Job and his struggle to understand suffering, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) told the crowd that violence-weary people around the world are watching Blacksburg.

“As you wrestle with despair, do not lose hold of that spirit of community you have,” he said, asking mourners to help the victims’ families and react in a way that will benefit people watching. “The world needs you to.”

Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News asked in response to tmatt’s post if there was a “more logically consistent” story to use in a situation like this than the one found in biblical story of Job. “As a matter of journalism, I’ve swung at the theodicy pitch several times over the years. The stories are pretty much interchangeable, but for the details at the top about the tragedy of the moment,” Weiss says.

It’s a great question, and similar questions could be asked of the other memorial-service speakers. Reporters could also ask the reasons they were chosen to help the community grieve publicly. The answers would say a lot about the Virginia Tech community.

More from Kaine in this transcript of the service:

A second reaction that is a natural reaction is anger, anger at the gunman, anger at the circumstance, what could have been done different? Could something have happened? That’s natural as well, one of the most powerful stories in the human history of stories is that great story central to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the story of Job from the Old Testament, afflicted with all kinds of tragedies in his family and health, and he was angry. He was angry at his circumstances. He was angry at his creator. He argued with God, he didn’t lose his faith, but it’s OK to argue, it’s OK to be angry. Those emotions are natural as well.

And finally, the emotions of the family members most affected, beyond grief, losing a son, losing a daughter, a brother, a sister, losing a close friend, it can go beyond grief to isolation and feeling despair. Those haunting words that were uttered on a hill on Calvary, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Despair is a natural emotion at a time like this.

Bush’s statement amplified the problem of evil, and made me think that Michael Gerson freelanced a speech for the White House for this occasion.

Virginia Tech is located in the relatively small town of Blacksburg, where I lived in for a summer while working at The Roanoke Times. From my experience, the place is not exactly a town with a church on every corner. But based on my experience there, there is a solid undercurrent of belief. A dominant theme I noticed, and this is probably similar in other college towns, was the strong emphasis on interfaith worship and fellowship. This was represented in the memorial service’s other speakers: Saki Riyadh, a leader in the local Muslim community; Julie Still from Living Buddhism of Virginia Tech; Sue Kurtz, director of Hillel of Virginia Tech; and the Rev. Bill King, director of Lutheran Campus Ministries.

For the purpose of highlighting a religion ghost in the memorial service, I want to compare some of the words spoken by of Bush and Julie Still of Living Buddhism. First, here is Bush:

People who have never met you are praying for you. They’re praying for your friends who have fallen and who are injured. There’s a power in these prayers, real power. In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God. As the Scriptures tells us, don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

And here is Still:

In the words of [Daisaku Ikeda], a well-known Buddhist leader, “when great evil occurs, great good follows, but great good does not come about on its own. Courage is always required to accomplish great good.” Now is the time for us to demonstrate the courage of non-violence, the courage to engage in dialogue, the courage to listen to what we don’t want to hear, and the courage to control our desire for revenge and follow reason.

I am convinced that we are born into this world with an inherit good nature, and together we must restore our faith in humanity. I believe that from this tragedy, courage is the greatest and most endearing honor that we can give in the memory of our loved ones.

Bush and Still speak of overcoming evil with good and Still says that humans are born into this world with an inherently good nature. As words of comfort, what these words say about the individual’s worldview and perspective on life and death, good and evil, is a story worth following. And as Weiss says, “doing journalism about this stuff ain’t easy.”

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  • Dale

    And as Weiss says, “doing journalism about this stuff ain’t easy.”

    Not only journalism, but any thinking and writing about this stuff isn’t easy. Every time I’ve read a book or attended a lecture on the problem of evil, I’ve been left dissatisfied.

    One piece that springs to mind is Elie Wiesel’s The Trial of God. Not very comforting, but thought provoking. Like the Book of Job, part of the message is “beware of easy answers”.

  • tmatt

    Jeffrey, if you have moved over to this thread:

    I think this cries out for basic dialogue coverage between people in various faiths who have wrestled with theodicy for their whole careers. Sometimes we just have to get out of the way and let people talk to one another.

    If that means clashes (think descriptions of Katrina causes) then so be it. Let the readers hear the voices.

    tmatt, speaking in SoCal at the moment

  • Gary Nicholson

    The number of deaths in this tragedy is roughly equal to the number of motor vehicle deaths in the 5-24 age group EACH DAY in the U.S. ( and only about one fourth of all daily road deaths there). I wonder if the impact of them all coming from a single incident is so enormous because it stops us, temporarily, from keeping the reality of suffering at a distance. We simply prefer not to know that death on this scale, even in the technologically advanced world, is a daily event.
    Since we’re thinking theologically,the Bible says “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upwards.” (Job 5:7)

  • danr

    Doing journalism isn’t easy… but it doesn’t excuse the misstatement (hopefully) from reporter in a Reuter’s video on prayer at the school:

    He says that students gathered to pray TO the 32 dead. In religion as in other spheres, little prepositions matter a lot. I doubt anybody prayed to the dead, and probably very few prayed for the dead (unless they were of the rare religious system that accomodates such prayers).
    For the families, school, community, country, yes. To/for the dead, not.
    If it’s a simple miswording (I’ve made some myself) that I’m blowing out of proportion, my apologies. If it’s indicative of religious ignorance on the reporter’s part, that’s disturbing.

  • danr

    Sorry, I misheard myself – he said for, not to. Concern still stands, though mildly diminished.

  • Gary

    Would Martin Luther take part in a interfaith “worship” service? Is not this “worship” service an example of American civil religion?

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Hi-ho. Yeah, getting out of the way may be the way to go, Terry. The tough part then is finding the *right* voices. People who are articulate enough that they *say* something. I wonder how appropriate it is that so many reporters are localizing the story, though. Unless you know someone who was there, do you have anything more relevant to say about this tragedy than you do about the 150 people killed by bombs in Iraq the other day? We insist on nationalizing what is one sad, demented nut who in 2007 was able to easily access the power to do considerable evil. Is that a national challenge to morality or faith?

  • Will

    Meanwhile, a ghost appears in David Brooks’ Thursday column, which refers in passing to the killer’s “dark war against the rich, Christianity, and the world in general.” The rest of the Times coverage, in its vague references to his “troubled” state, makes no mention of Christianity, or for that matter, “the rich”. I can only wonder what Brooks has read that the rest of the paper’s writers are staunchly not telling us about.