During my final year at seminary, I wrote a reflection on the masacre at Virginia Tech. In the wake of the very disturbing news from Aurora, Colorado, I thought I would share this with any who are trying to make sense of the tragedy that took place in that community last night.
Please forgive any typos - I’m sure my professor caught them, but I never corrected the original document.
Today marks the grim, one-year anniversary of the worst mass shooting in modern US History, the massacre at Virginia Tech. Seung-Hui Cho, a senior English major who suffered from severe anxiety disorder, viciously gunned down thirty-two college students and wounded twenty-five others before taking his own life. While reading about this I was struck by the words of people and students gathered together in prayer and remembrance. One professor in-particular, the father of one of the victims, reflected about the loss of his child saying, “I wonʼt be able to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. I wonʼt be able to bounce her children on my knees.”
A natural question for this father, and all the grieving families at Virginia Tech affected by this tragedy, must be where was God? Or, to further articulate the kinds of thoughts that inevitably come to people touched by such suffering, what kind of God lets this happen? Certainly He must not be all powerful, otherwise he would have stopped Seung-Hui Cho from coming to campus that day. If he is, in fact, all-powerful then He must not be all- good, since he allowed such a horror to take place.
If my daughter were old enough to ask the kinds of questions mentioned above, I would probably start by asking her how she felt about this disturbing news. After listening to her personal, specific response to the massacre, I would do my best to help her view this event, and the evil that manifested itself in the mentally-ill Seung-Hui Cho, through the eyes of her faith.
This discussion, for my daughter, would begin by exploring Godʼs absolute love for mankind. Hopefully I could explain to her how this love is real, and is expressed in the freedom he gave us to reject Him, and to turn away from Him. I think she could understand that God did not create robots that do His will without any choice, but rather free beings who are able to express love.
My next idea would be to turn our discussion towards the Cross, a powerful and ever- present symbol to someone in my Orthodox faith tradition. By asking her guiding questions, we would explore the power of God to turn suffering into a means of elevation and transfiguration. Hopefully we would come to the realization that the suffering of Christ on the cross became the salvation of all.
Finally, I would finish by letting her know that itʼs okay not to understand why bad things happen - after all, even the Apostles did not understand the nature of Christʼs kingship. They did not really understand that his suffering and death were for a greater purpose. It was quite some time after Christ’s death and resurrection that the Cross became a symbol of hope and resurrection, rather than a symbol of weakness and brokenness. With that, I would give her a hug and remind her that God does have a plan for us, even if we donʼt always understand why bad things happen.
Yes, this might be how I would theologize and reflect upon these events to my daughter. For many of those who continue to suffer in Virginia Tech today, however, these words are quite empty. Offering them these same explanations and interpretations would not fill the void of their missing loved one. These words would fail to help many of these people understand how God allowed one man to massacre so many young people. Itʼs not because what I say is wrong, mind you. It is because these theological reflections lack authenticity when they come from a person who is far removed from the Virginia Tech communityʼs experience of pain and suffering.
Thatʼs not to say that those of us apart from Virginia Tech do not feel sadness and pain about what took place. I would argue, in fact, that all humankind is affected by these types of tragedies whether we have an emotional response or not. For those of us not directly affected however, it is easier to look at the horrors of that day and interpret them through the eyes of our respective faiths. For those experiencing the loss and continue to suffer, like the father who wonʼt ever walk his daughter down the aisle, it is important we remember that their lens of faith may not be ready to see Godʼs providential care in this tragedy. Their suffering is a long journey that they may never be ready to understand, and it is a suffering that no explanation or article can really explain away. Furthermore, it is not our place, nor is it our right, to jump in and try to explain.
As we keep the people of Virginia Tech in our thoughts and prayers, I hope we all remember that the best thing we can do is pour out love and support any way we can - and save our explanations about Godʼs inner-workings until we have loved, cried and journeyed alongside these people through their suffering. Only when we have done that difficult, sad and dirty work can we offer a meaningful answer to their question: where was God at Virginia Tech? Until that time, we must reserve such answers for our children, and those around us who are ready to hear the answer.