There’s been another school shooting, and this one hits close to home for my friends and me. The shooting happened at a high school in Texas — a school a lot like my kids’ school. After a few hours of the usual (because it’s all so familiar now) watching parents stride purposefully in to claim the kids who weren’t shot and seeing the usual parade of civil servants updating the death toll and giving the latest ‘critical’ or ‘stable’ condition for survivors, we were stunned to learn that the shooter was Greek Orthodox, his family members of a parish we know, filled with people we love.
We Orthodox are quick to note that school shootings are another symptom of a culture gone off the rails — and yet, here we are, looking at one of our own kids, raised in the church and pictured on websites in his Greek dancing costume, and trying to square that with the image of a school shooter.
I see online that people quickly jump to the idea that he was ‘not really Orthodox’ but a ‘satanist’ or a monster with no empathy or compassion. Apparently, he wasn’t human at all — he was just pretending, I guess, until the day when he could shoot up the school.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
If only it were so simple.
If only it weren’t possible that a good kid, raised in the Church, could do something so horrifying, so damaging to so many families and so utterly painful to his own family.
If only it weren’t possible that MY KID could do something horrible.
If only I weren’t capable of such acts.
And yet, we are all subject to the ugly temptations of the devil. We all have our weaknesses, and the demonic voices that whisper in our ears play on those weaknesses, and they twist us up so much that we find ourselves committing evil acts.
I keep seeing people online saying, “And where are the parents in all this?”
I don’t know his parents, but I can guess that they are holed up in dark rooms, fighting off demonic attacks right now, as those same voices that twisted their son’s heart now accuse them of having failed him. Perhaps the voices are pushing them to harm themselves. I don’t know, but I pray for them as they battle. I don’t know them, but I’d bet that they are suffering like the parents whose children died yesterday. I think that there is so much grief to go around and they are trying to learn how to wrap their heads and their hearts around so much grief. I can’t really imagine it, but I know it has to be terrible.
But is that what you want to know when you ask, “And where are the parents in all this?” Do you really mean, where are they? How are they? Or do you mean, let’s identify the ways in which they went wrong, and then we can blame them.
What if these parents are just like you and me, and what if they did all the same things that we do, and yet their son committed a terrible crime and now all of them will have to live with it forever?
What if there isn’t some awful thing they did or some wonderful thing they failed to do?
And why do you need to find it?
I keep thinking about a blog post I wrote back in 2016, about how we like to attack grieving parents. Maybe today is a good day to post that again. In it, I talk about how we are afraid of death. Today, I recognize that we are also afraid of evil, afraid that we could do evil, that our children could do evil. Let us not allow that fear to make us less loving, less compassionate. Let’s ask God to help us overcome it.
Please pray for the victims of this horrific slaughter and for their families and communities, and pray that God sends them peace and comfort and strength. Pray for those who now can’t imagine how to return to school and to their daily lives. Please pray for this young man, Dimitrios. I don’t know where his head is right now, but God willing he will someday repent and understand what he has done, and I pray that God be merciful to him and work with him so that somehow he can come back to himself. Pray for his family. Pray for his priest and his parish, that they have the strength and that the Holy Spirit guides them to know how to shepherd this family and this young man through this unthinkable horror.
From 2016’s Grab Your Pitchforks:
A child falls into a gorilla enclosure. Another is dragged away by an alligator as his father fights to hold on.
These are horrific, nightmarish scenes, and they make every parent’s heart seize up in horror. We don’t want to lose our children, and we really don’t want to think that our own babies could be snatched up and brutally battered, killed and even eaten by wild animals. That is terrifying.
We want to go to a zoo or to a Disney resort and find that nature has been pacified, made safe for us to walk our children right into it without fear. We have civilized nature — sanitized and contained it, removed all danger.
In social media comment threads, you’ll see parents ranting about how these children were the victims not of natural animal aggression, but of poor parenting.
You know that terrible Close Call feeling you get, when you think you’ve lost your child at the mall and you are looking and looking and you just cannot find them? When your brain starts to calculate the idea that they could really be gone — taken away by a stranger to live in fear and pain, confused and far from you. It’s a terrible feeling and you begin to feel desperate — and then suddenly a kindly security guard says, “I found him near the tv display” and your chest opens and you breathe in and everything is fine again? For those few moments, you had this terrible fear and dread that overtook your whole body and soul. When a child does not return safely, those moments simply keep going. It doesn’t really get better. It just feels like that — just abject dread and horror and shame and fear — endlessly on for a very long time, until you get used to the idea of the unthinkable.
When we lose our children to sudden accidents and terrible shocks, the devil torments us in our grief, sending voices to berate us for failing to protect our children. This is his opportunity to push us to despair.
The parents of this sweet child dragged away in Orlando are living their worst nightmare, and now online they are subjected to hateful, nasty comments about their failings and weaknesses from strangers who have no idea who they are. They don’t know whether they are capable and loving parents or not, and yet they attack.
I have a theory about that.
When our son died of SIDS in 2005, people would ask me questions: was he on his back? what temperature was the room set to? did he have a pacifier? They were running down the checklist of SIDS-preventing behaviors, trying to work out what I had done wrong to cause my sweet child to die like that. They weren’t strangers in digital forums; they were my friends and neighbors, standing in my living room.
Faced with their own powerlessness in the face of death, faced with the terrible realization that their own children might die at any moment, they were trying to reassure themselves. If they could find my mistake, then they could be sure not to make it: they could ensure their invulnerability by simply identifying and avoiding my errors.
Only that’s not possible. We are all vulnerable.
Human bodies are fragile and subject to death. Human parents are not capable of protecting human children. Yes, you can put up all the safety gates and have lots of talks about good choices, you can hover about like a helicopter and try to make your arms into protective fences. But the truth is that you’re not all that powerful. You can improve the odds, but you cannot defeat death. Not theirs, and not yours.
Our culture is increasingly uncomfortable with death. We struggle to hold on to youth and vigor, stalling death as much as possible. When death finally comes, we send it to the hospital, to the funeral home — gone are the days when a beloved family member’s death bed is in the center of the living room, visited by loved ones and filling the rhythm of the home with those last heart beats. We don’t prepare the bodies of our dead loved ones ourselves, washing and dressing them with care. Instead we send them away, and have their blood replaced with formaldehyde and their faces painted by strangers. We celebrate their lives instead of mourning their deaths, hoping even as we scatter ashes that seem only symbolically connected to their cold, dead bodies, that by not acknowledging that death has come, by not looking him in the eye, we will somehow remain invisible and invulnerable to him ourselves. Maybe he won’t see us.
That’s not going to work.
We’re not going to find a corner where death won’t find us. We can cure all of the diseases, we can safety-proof our homes and our zoos and our lakefront hotels, we can research every accident and find the way to prevent it, but in the end, we will remain the flawed, weak, mortal people we have always been.
Pride declares that we will make ourselves safe. Humility knows that death will come, and that it is only Jesus Christ who defeats death — and even then, He doesn’t escape it. He enters into death. The very instrument of His victory is death as He tramples down death by death. He doesn’t sidestep death but walks right into it, consenting to death and then, having entered into the darkness of Hades, He breaks open its gates and destroys its hold over us.
Death cannot hold us. We will die, but we cannot be trapped in Hades, and our life in the Kingdom cannot be extinguished by death; the life that Christ gives will endure our physical death and then continue forth in glory.
But we won’t escape that physical death, or the myriad of ‘little deaths’ that will come before it — all of the pain of losing those we love, of dying to ourselves. Those deaths will come and they will transform us.
Maybe it’s time to look death square in the face, picking up our crosses and following Christ to Golgotha, so that we might develop the humility necessary to stand beside our grieving friends with loving compassion. We are called to be co-sufferers. Let’s not make believe that we can escape death, but let’s walk into death together, in unity and love.