So why ask “why”?

question mark 01The story starts in a church, with a minister trying to figure out how to step into the pulpit and tell his congregation about a great, and seemingly senseless, tragedy in the congregation. Four people were dead and the worshippers were going to ask, “Why?”

That wasn’t the half of it. Here is the top of this Baltimore Sun feature story by Abigail Tucker, Justin Fenton and Scott Calvert:

Minutes before services started, the Rev. Bill Brown still didn’t know what on earth he would say.

There has been a tragedy, he finally told the 100 or so people in the pews of Epworth United Methodist Church. And the victims were church members — John and Tammy Browning and their two youngest boys, all found dead in their Cockeysville home.

At this news, the congregation collectively gasped.

Brown made no mention of 15-year-old Nicholas, the Brownings’ oldest son and a Sunday school regular, who had confessed to the killings. The teenager told the police, a source said, that one by one he had executed members of his family with his father’s handgun while they slept and then returned to a friend’s home to play Xbox.

As if that were not enough, there was one more symbol left to haunt this particular congregation after this particular horror story.

Before the minister continued with his sermon, built on the theological issues linked to that “Why?” question, the worshippers stood to sing Hymn 314, an old evangelical favorite:

It was called “In the Garden”:

I’d stay in the garden with Him
‘Tho the night around me be falling

Not far away, on the edge of the church property, was the prayer garden that Nick Browning had created in the fall as his Eagle Scout project. Nothing blooms there, though. The earth is covered with gravel. The cross — built into the ground — is made of concrete.

Powerful stuff. And the story of the murders and the mysteries surrounding why this young man appears to have done what he did is powerful. It is hard to write a story that is much darker than this one. It does not appear that the father was all that strict, when it comes to discipline, at least not as far as one can tell. Was that enough to ignite a teen-ager’s rage to the point of murdering the rest of this family, including his mother and two younger brothers?

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why indeed?

And, believe it or not, the story — after leading with this ultimate theological question — simply drops it and never really returns to the question of evil in the real world and the mysteries of human choice.

Yes, it is a murder story — a crime story. But the reporters start in the pulpit and raised the big question. Should there have been some kind of follow-up? Perhaps a sidebar on “theodicy” as a discipline in Christian theology?

True, there is this at the end:

“I don’t know why,” Brown concluded in his sermon last Sunday. “I just know that we follow a God who walks through the darkest valley with us.”

Brown, who said he has visited Nick several times in the Baltimore County Detention Center, has said the congregation may one day plant trees and bushes around Nick’s prayer garden of stone, but that the garden itself will always be barren.

For whatever reason, that’s the way Nick planned it.

Big questions and big symbols, leaving a big, big hole in this haunted story.

Making sense of senseless shootings

newlifechurchrockiesA missionary center and a church were the scenes of fatal shootings yesterday in my native state of Colorado. It’s always hard to write good copy following chaotic events, and I noticed there were some inconsistencies in coverage such as fluctuating totals for those wounded and killed. This post will make a few random observations about the coverage.

The New York Times referred to a male security guard who stopped the murderer (police currently believe one gunman was responsible for both attacks), while the pastor of the church said the guard was a woman. Here’s the New York Times:

The Colorado Springs chief of police, Richard Myers, said that after the parking-lot shootings the assailant ran into the 10,000-seat church with his high-powered rifle, and was confronted by an armed church security guard, who shot and killed him. Neither the gunman nor the victims in Colorado Springs were immediately identified by the authorities.

At a news conference last night, Chief Myers praised the security guard, whom he did not name, and said his actions had undoubtedly saved lives.

I don’t know if the police chief had the sex of the guard wrong — I seem to remember he referred to her as a female but can’t find a replay of the press conference — or if the reporter made an assumption. Either way, the Rocky Mountain News covered today’s press conference by senior pastor Brady Boyd, with more information:

Boyd said the plainclothes church security officer who shot and killed the gunman has a law-enforcement background and is a member of New Life. He said the gunman made it less than 50 feet into the building.

“She did her job yesterday,” Boyd said. “She’s a real hero.”

This is not the first time New Life Church has been in the news. It was founded by Ted Haggard, the disgraced pastor who was embroiled in a controversy after a prostitute alleged he’d had sex and done drugs with the prominent evangelical. The Times put it this way:

Just over 12 hours later in Colorado Springs, an hour’s drive to the south of Arvada, a gunman also clad in dark clothing invaded the grounds of the New Life Church, a 14,000-member institution founded by the Rev. Ted Haggard, who resigned in disgrace last year after acknowledging a three-year sexual relationship with a male prostitute.

Haggard was fired from New Life Church and he wrote a letter of apology to the congregation, but he never acknowledged a three-year sexual relationship. I’m not saying I believe him — by his own admission he’s a liar and a deceiver — but he never admitted having sex with the prostitute or taking drugs with him. He acknowledged paying for a massage and other unspecified improprieties, but the Times is overstating things. Here is how the Associated Press handled New Life’s famous founder:

New Life, with about 10,000 members, was founded by the Rev. Ted Haggard, who was dismissed last year after a former male prostitute alleged he had a three-year cash-for-sex relationship with him. Haggard, then the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted committing undisclosed “sexual immorality.”

Much better. The broadcast news I saw about the issue kept referring to the locations of the shootings as “religious facilities” or “religious centers.” The print media have been using the preferable terms “church” and “missionary center.” It seems like newswriting 101: be specific. Here is one print example of the former.

It is sobering to think how much worse this tragedy might have been had the security guard not been armed and ready to take action. In so many of this country’s recent gun crimes, no armed individuals have been ready to counter the murderers. Still, I can’t be alone in being surprised and intrigued that a Christian church had armed security guards. I’m still shocked they were needed. I had so many questions about why and how an armed detail came to be. The Rocky Mountain News answered some of my questions:

The pastor said he believes the size and prominence of the church — plus publicity about it — made it a target.

After the shooting at the Youth With A Mission center in Arvada earlier Sunday, Boyd said the church called in more than the usual number of security volunteers and “because of the extra precautions we saved many lives yesterday.”

So interesting. I hope we see a bit more coverage explaining the security detail. I wonder if New Life had been targeted before and, if so, by whom. This Denver Post story says the security guard was Boyd’s bodyguard. The Rocky also had this:

He also reached out to relatives of the gunman.

“Our hearts go out” to family of the shooter, Boyd said.

beatitudeIndeed, there are many families that will need comfort. Two teenage sisters were killed at New Life Church. Tiffany Johnson, 26, of Minneapolis, was killed by the gunman after she refused his request to stay the night at the missionary training center. Philip Crouse, 24, of Alaska, was also killed. Others were wounded during the shootings and are in various conditions. Religion reporter Jean Torkelson spoke with parishioners at Faith Bible Church, which is near the missionary center and loosely affiliated with it:

During morning services Sunday, with the whereabouts of the shooter unknown, police cars ringed Faith Bible Chapel. An off-duty police officer who was also a church member sat on the stage, scanning the crowd, George Morrison said.

Evelyn McHugh, who lives nearby and attends Faith Bible Chapel, noted that recently the quiet suburban neighborhood has had a shooting at the Burger King and a violent car accident on Ward Road that took the lives of several teenagers.

But McHugh said she made a point to go to church Sunday and refused to be afraid even if the shooter is still on the loose.

“I think (God) had a purpose, a goal,” she said. “I’m not fearful. I choose not to live in fear.”

Peter Warren mourned the two young people who died — “they’re like our own kids,” he said — and added that he rejected the notion that the tragedy was somehow “God’s will.”

“This cannot be pinned on God,” Warren said. “God gave free will to people, and this was an ultimate act of supreme selfishness — to take someone’s life.”

If ever theological questions come into play, a church shooting certainly qualifies. It’s nice that reporters aren’t afraid to let sources engage in theodicy. Here’s another story that let parishioners speak freely about the incident and how they prayed in response. One story emphasized the Christian ethic of forgiveness. Another Denver Post story looked at how Christian ministries are vulnerable to attack and how any attack affects the larger religious community. Another one looked at the shooting in the context of New Life’s troubles over the last year.

Clearly the Denver papers have been doing a great job covering this story. There will be many new angles in the days to come. Let us know if you see any good angles or bad approaches as reporters attempt to get to the bottom of this tragedy.

Time resolves theodicy

Time Good EvilIn a cover story for the Dec. 3 Time, Jeffrey Kluger quickly jumps into a collective voice, oddly crediting humanity as a whole for the most noble behavior while also blaming it for the worst horrors. As early as the second paragraph, he’s revealing a tone of scientism that weaves throughout the piece:

We’re a species that is capable of almost dumbfounding kindness. We nurse one another, romance one another, weep for one another. Ever since science taught us how, we willingly tear the very organs from our bodies and give them to one another. And at the same time, we slaughter one another. The past 15 years of human history are the temporal equivalent of those subatomic particles that are created in accelerators and vanish in a trillionth of a second, but in that fleeting instant, we’ve visited untold horrors on ourselves — in Mogadishu, Rwanda, Chechnya, Darfur, Beslan, Baghdad, Pakistan, London, Madrid, Lebanon, Israel, New York City, Abu Ghraib, Oklahoma City, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania — all of the crimes committed by the highest, wisest, most principled species the planet has produced. That we’re also the lowest, cruelest, most blood-drenched species is our shame — and our paradox.

Spread across pages 56 and 57 is a photo gallery of the noble (Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama) and the savage (Stalin, Pinochet, Hitler, Bin Laden, Pol Pot). The one-sentence summary for each precludes saying anything of substance, other than to list a few facts of history as if they are an athlete’s statistics.

If ever a cover article cried out for a contribution from the world of faith — which has said more than a few things about good and evil — this one does.

Still, the only appearance of faith comes in these amazingly glib sentences:

One of the most powerful tools for enforcing group morals is the practice of shunning. If membership in a tribe is the way you ensure yourself food, family and protection from predators, being blackballed can be a terrifying thing. Religious believers as diverse as Roman Catholics, Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses have practiced their own forms of shunning — though the banishments may go by names like excommunication or disfellowshipping.

The deck headline on Time‘s cover promises far more than it delivers: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures — and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” Kluger reports on studies showing what happens in people’s brains as they make decisions or feel sympathy for the pain of a spouse, but he comes nowhere near answering the question of why humans are noble or savage.

To think that science ever could explain the why speaks of a curious certainty that science can solve life’s deepest mysteries through chemistry and brain waves and sociobiology. To publish an article that not only makes such triumphalist claims for science, but fails even to acknowledge millennia of religious thinking about these mysteries, is one of the most ridiculous stunts in journalism this year.

Reader reactions to Lobdell’s confessions

rem lmrI’ve been gone for nearly a week to the rain-drenched Texas Hill Country and, during that time, I received all kinds of email about that remarkable page-one essay by William Lobdell of the Los Angeles Times about how his work on the religion beat knocked the foundations out from under his Christian faith. Click here for the quick post I wrote about that essay during my travels.

Frankly, I do not have any new comments to add about his piece, other than to restate what I said before. This was a striking work of personal confession and reflection on the complex and painful questions linked to theodicy, but not a piece of newspaper journalism — at least, not the kind of journalism that editors place on page one in a major daily newspaper. Thus, I still wonder what the editors were thinking.

Meanwhile, legions of Times customers have offered their opinions about Lobdell’s loss of faith. It is interesting to note that, at least in the context of the online chat session that let the reporter interact with readers, people elected to ask him about the faith issues in the piece and not (sadly) the journalistic issues that it raised. This is not a surprise to the GetReligionistas, since we spend quite a bit of time trying to get our readers to focus on journalism, as opposed to doctrinal squabbles and (at times) cat fights.

There was this one exchange, however:

2007-07-24 13:34:03.0 Peggy Normandin: Bill, what do you think made your story “LA Times front page newsworthy”?

2007-07-24 13:36:22.0 Bill Lobdell: I think it’s a story that almost everyone — including the saints of the church — grapple with. Everyone identifies with a struggle over faith. Some people have criticized the paper and said it was only on the front page because I ended up without faith. If I ended up with my faith intact, it would have gotten the same play. The editors were interested in how my spiritual journey was impacted by my professional life.

Ah, yes. I would ask the same question. I think this piece would have been right at home in a Sunday magazine, the op-ed pages or some other essay-oriented section of the newspaper. I also do not think that Lobdell is right when he says that the story would have ended up on page one if it affirmed his faith. It was a story about a crisis. That was the “news” hook in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Times also received this email from a reader. In fact, this appears to be the very first email that the newspaper received — of the 1,200 and counting — in reaction to this piece:

1. I’d be interested to know if the Los Angeles Times ever printed an article of similar length on how someone came to faith and held onto it through dark times. If not, why not? Dare we imagine a bit of bias?

Submitted by: Thotful
10:15 AM PDT, July 24, 2007

Let me add that, should the Times decide to publish some kind of “how working as a journalist strengthened my faith” piece, I am not sure it should be published on page one.

The bottom line: I still have journalistic questions about all of this, as opposed to theological questions.

Dark night of a reporter’s soul

09064 2The editors of the Los Angeles Times made an interesting decision when they decided to give page-one play to religion reporter William Lobdell’s soul-searching essay, “Religion beat became a test of faith — A reporter looks at how the stories he covered affected him and his spiritual journey.”

That headline is actually stating things rather mildly.

This is a first-person account in which Lobdell describes his journey from born-again Protestantism (and his prayers that God would let him cover the religion beat) to his near conversion to the Roman Catholic faith and finally into a state of dismay and what certainly appears to be, at the moment, a tragic loss of faith. He also says his trials on the religion beat have led him to ask that the editors give him a new job.

This is not a news story, so it is hard to give it a standard GetReligion critique. Although there are moments when the reporter in me wants to ask questions, that is hard to do when you are reading a story as painful and gripping as this one. This is a spiritual reflection, not journalism. It is hard to tell Lobdell that he is wrong — even though many readers will question his conclusions, for reasons of their own.

Essentially, this is an essay about ancient questions linked to theodicy — putting God on trial for the painful reality of evil in this world. Although the writer mentions several issues that pushed him over the edge, it certainly appears that his fury is rooted in his attempts to cover sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic priesthood and the cover-up by many bishops. Lobdell cannot come to terms with this. Who could?

That leads to the heart of the story:

As the stories piled up, I began to pray with renewed vigor, but it felt like I wasn’t connecting to God. I started to feel silly even trying.

I read accounts of St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” a time he believed God was testing him by seemingly withdrawing from his life. Maybe this was my test.

I met with my former Presbyterian pastor, John Huffman, and told him what I was feeling. I asked him if I could e-mail him some tough questions about Christianity and faith and get his answers. He agreed without hesitation.

The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he’s never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?

In one e-mail, I asked John, who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?

He sent back a long reply that concluded:

“My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don’t know. And frankly, if I’m totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, ‘You, God, are infinite; I’m human and finite.’”

John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn’t reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.

And I considered another possibility: Maybe God didn’t exist.

REM tableau 2What can you say about a page-one article of this kind?

Actually, I have more questions that I wish I could ask the editors than questions I would ask Lobdell.

Don’t get me wrong. There would be much I would say to him in person, most of it rooted in the idea that it is better to wrestle with eternal faith issues in the context of a living, vital faith community than on one’s on. But that is hardly a journalistic comment either, now is it? As C.S. Lewis noted in The Horse and His Boy, there are times when God tells each person his or her own story and others simply have to urge them to listen. We cannot hear their story or claim to know what they should be hearing.

I have only known one or two professionals who felt their faith was threatened by covering religion news. I have known people who found faith on the beat — one or two (I will name no names). I have known people whose faith changed while on the beat. And, as I have said many times, I have known excellent religion writers who had a fierce intellectual interest in religious issues and events, but no faith at all.

This is journalism and there are all kinds of people who can do this journalistic work with skill and integrity.

The question, for me, is why this story ended up on page one, rather than in a Sunday feature section, a pullout magazine or some other part of the Times that carries essays, rather than news features or breaking stories.

Were the editors trying to say something about journalism? About faith? A warning about what happens when people of faith work on this beat? That, to me, was the mystery linked to this piece.

Photos: REM’s “Losing My Religion.”

Where the *&^# is that ABC story on hell?

Vision of HellOne of the many, many things that we GetReligionistas do not do very well is handle religion news carried on broadcast and cable television. There is, however, a good reason for this. Actually, there are several of them.

One is that I don’t watch very much television. Not because I am some kind of elitist snob. It’s just that I’d rather watch movies rather than news. I would rather read the news or interact with multimedia news online. Surprise.

I realize that there are some wonderful archives of television news stories online. However, the whole matter still seems to be rather hit and miss. And the “miss” side of things really ticks me off.

Take, for example, what I understand was a rather interesting 20/20 feature the other night on hell. What time does 20/20 come on, anyway? However, I know about the piece because Jeffrey Weiss wrote about it the other day at the Dallas Morning News religion weblog:

I’d love to post a link, but the stupid ABC site is just about unnavigable and I can’t find what I heard last night. But I noted two interesting items:

(1) In an extended discussion about the Christian idea of salvation, including an interview with what was described as an evangelical pastor, I never heard the word “Jesus.” Maybe I missed it?

(2) The segment claimed that Satanists are all actually atheists. And interviewed a self-styled Satanist who filled the bill. That seemed to be a serious stretch. It’s not like there’s a Satanic “pope” who sets “doctrine” for everyone who claims to be a Satanist, after all.

Now if you go to the 20/20 site, you will find a story, “Touching Heaven and Hell — One Man’s Brush With the Beyond Changes His Life,” by reporters Sylvia Johnson and Rob Wallace. It starts like this and quickly turns into yet another standard-issue NDE ratings booster:

Matthew Dovel says he calls himself “a hostile witness to heaven and hell.” Dovel is one of the thousands of Americans who have reported what are called near-death experiences. Although science can find no facts to support the notion that people have actually glimpsed the afterlife, many people brought back from the brink of death swear they’ve been to heaven.

Far fewer report visiting hell, but Dovel believes he’s seen both. And he’s had a few brushes with death.

That doesn’t seem to be what we want to find. So maybe what we are looking for is this Good Morning America story about one evangelical pastor — repeat, one — wrestling with timeless issues of God, free will and theodicy:

A prominent Tulsa, Okla., minister was scandalized not by sex or embezzlement, but by his belief in hell. When Carlton Pearson began wondering if modern believers still need a medieval pit of fire, it cost him his congregation.

Breaking news: Christians only believed in hell during the Medieval era. Forget all of those Eastern Orthodox icons, passages in the New Testament and other hellish references in the early church. And forget John 14:6, while we are at it.

ladderBut it appears more likely that the story for which Weiss saw a promo was this 20/20 feature by Rob Wallace and Farnaz Javid: “The Fascination With Hell’s Fury — Hell Has Played a Role Across Cultures and History, but What Does It Mean Today?” And, yes, if you search the short print version of the report it appears that the word “Jesus” is “not found.”

We are told this:

This afterlife for so-called sinners has fascinated society since the dawn of time. The very thought of the place inspired Dante to write his “Inferno,” giving us history’s most detailed description of the underworld.

Since then, artists from Michelangelo to Marilyn Manson have shaped our opinion of the infernal abyss. Most religious teachings describe hell as the netherworld anyone might end up in who strays from the straight and narrow. That view seems to be changing in this age of logic and political correctness.

A decade ago, 56 percent of Americans polled said they believed in hell. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the number shot up to 71 percent (polls conducted by Harris and Gallup), then fell in recent years, but this pattern is not a new phenomenon. Man’s definition of the abyss has shifted since the dawn of humanity. And through it all, it seems the more sinister hell is made out to be, the more it is mocked and embraced. It is a surefire punch line on television and in movies, and it’s used to market everything from comic books to chewing gum.

This report, however, is only 626 words long (whew, as opposed to 666). Surely this is not the whole story on such a complex topic. And, alas, there are no atheist Satanists in sight. Perhaps that was in a different feature?

That’s how things go, when you try to cover television online. The images flicker past or you miss them altogether because you have to do something like cook supper for your family, take a walk or go to church. Then it is hard to find what you are looking for with the search engines.

So let me end by joining with Weiss and asking: Did anyone see any of these reports? Are there illegal versions of them somewhere user-friendly, like YouTube?

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.”

Underneath the bonnets and straw hats

Amish straw hats JPGIt’s very hard to write a column about one subject when your mind is locked on another.

So I did something I rarely do yesterday. I switched column topics, even though that meant trying to do extra reading, research and telephone work during a day when I had classes to teach in the morning and the afternoon. I write at night and ship the column to the bureau at dawn on Wednesdays. It’s that “lead time” thing, you know.

The goal, of course, was to write about the Amish tragedy. It was clear that new details would keep coming out all week, but I still thought there was ground to cover from the very first day or two of the story. I knew that the media would, of course, leap into stories linked to “theodicy,” and that’s valid. That is part of the “why” question, after all.

But I was haunted by the question of justice. I know enough about the Amish and the Mennonites to know that this was the other half of the discussion that would be looming in the background, coupled with forgiveness. But who to talk to on such short notice? You can talk to academic experts on the Amish and what they believe, but this rarely gets you inside the minds under those straw hats and bonnets, let alone inside their hearts and souls.

So I decided to try to reach Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof Communities. This is a Christian group that is very similar to the Amish and the Mennonites in many ways, in terms of European roots, traditions and beliefs. However, they are not opposed to modern technology, especially not the Internet (thus the website link above). I have talked with Arnold in the past and, thus, I hoped he would take my call in such a stressful time. Sure enough, the Bruderhof communities had already sent volunteers down to Lancaster County, Pa., to help counsel and help the Amish handle the media storm. The Bruderhof were also highly involved in helping survivors of the Columbine High School massacre. Like the Amish, the Bruderhof folks do not fit easily into media stereotypes.

Arnold was able to give me some time between my classes. That led to a column that began like this:

The helicopters kept making circles in the air so that the cameramen could keep showing the dairy farms and country roads, the bonnets and wide-brimmed straw hats, the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room schoolhouse framed in yellow police tape.

Soon the facts started going in circles as police recited a litany about 600 rounds of ammunition, a shotgun, a semiautomatic pistol, a stun gun, explosives and, later, the killer’s sick collection of chains, clamps, hardware and sexual aids. Witnesses said Charles Carl Roberts IV was angry with God, angry with himself, haunted by guilt, fed up with life and driven by a hellish grudge.

Then journalists began asking questions that went in circles, the questions that nag clergy as well as state troopers. Why? Why the Amish? How could God let this happen? How can justice be done now that the killer is dead?

“Like everyone else, I could not believe what I was seeing on my television,” said Johann Christoph Arnold, senior elder of the Bruderhof communes. While sharing many beliefs with the Amish and Mennonites, the Bruderhof (“place of the brothers”) embrace some modern technology. Still, these movements share European roots in pacifism, simple living and an emphasis on the sanctity of human life.

“The Amish are our cousins so I know some of what they must be feeling,” said Arnold, in his thick German accent. “I know these parents are hurting, I know they are asking questions, but I know that they know the answer is forgiveness. … Tragedy and pain can soften our hearts until they break. But if we trust God this will help us to feel compassion.”

And here is the end:

In this case, the gunman left suicide notes that showed that he was driven by guilt and a grudge that he would not surrender. It appears that Roberts could not forgive God and could not forgive himself.

In the end, this killed him and through him this grudge killed others.

“If you hold a grudge, it will live on in your heart until it leads to violence of some kind,” said Arnold. “If you do not forgive, then you cannot be healed. Forgiveness can heal the forgiver as well as the one who is forgiven. This is what the Amish believe. It will take time, but this is what they now must strive to live out for all the world to see.”