Encore: Grab Your Pitchforks

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.

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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 SolzhenitsynThe Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

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.

10 comments:

  1. There is one more point for us to ponder, as American Orthodox. Some Orthodox parishes have become attractive to alt-right ideologues. The Southern Poverty Law Center has catalogued this. In some Orthodox ethnic youth organizations, there is tolerance of extreme nationalism. It is even encouraged and spread by clergy. We must always be Russian, or Greek, or whatever. They hate us – whoever they are – Muslims, Turks, Albanans. Nazi momorabilia and Confederate flags are viewed as “an interest in history” and not an interest in hate. We have had many opportunities to confront the ethno-centrism at our core. This is yet another chance. It is existential, because if we do not stop being ethnic Orthodox we will not continue.

    1. That is a good point, and that problem floats around at the edges of this situation too. There is a question of whether he really was interested in Nazi ideology and whether that raised red flags with the people around him. On the other hand, I think a lot of that may be coming from fake social media profiles created after his arrest. We’ll have to wait a while,I think, to gain a clear understanding.

  2. We all STILL patronize and watch the daily news media, which systematically stimulates the allure, satisfies the curious for gore and carnality, and sensationalizes the glory and attention the weak-minded who are attracted to these “events”. I don’t care what church this young man went to one day a week, while for 7-days a week he was subjected to a common core public school curriculum, pop culture, and a media that is obsessed with creating a group think that is designed to destroy our constitution, our national love of God, and create the crisis’ to make us crave more control from our government, which in the end has proven to not care about our safety– but more and more about gaining more control over it’s citizenry. We’ve been told that it takes a village to raise a child… but, when that village creates a monster, suddenly, the parents are called to task and castigated as evil failures. As long as we are not willing to turn off our television sets and start to think for ourselves, we will continue to be served these “events” on a predictable time table and we will continue to be told that the only solution is to give up what made this country great… our freedom and faith.

    1. On the one hand, people recognize that there is a serious problem in our culture, and yet on the other, as they decide how much to really embrace the faith (weekday services, fasting, etc.) those same people will often hold back, measuring their investment by a mainstream standard. It’s really true that if we Orthodox trust that the Church is a spiritual hospital, and if we can see that our culture is spiritually ill, then we need to take the next logical step and start living by what the Church is telling us rather than by what a ‘mainstream’ or ‘normal’ life looks like. We can’t worry about looking different or seeming strange to the neighbors. I love your point about “it takes a village” — we cannot trust this particular village to lead the way. (And it’s true: they tell us to trust the village, and then as soon as something goes terribly wrong, it’s the sole responsibility of the parents. That’s a great point.)

  3. This is my first time reading your blog. Overall, very good points. I would disagree with a commenter that schools are to blame with “common core”, which is simply a method of teaching Math, Science, etc. When I was coming up we were just entering the MTV era, things were still rather tame. What is a problem is how much our society, including our children, are bombarded by overt sexual content in advertising, popular music and all mediums; how the television shows on the myriad of channels available produce shows that highlight interpersonal conflict, fighting, selfishness, greed, and violence. How video games have changed to feature continual violence that can desensitize. The world is more connected than ever through social media yet has no personal connection; people do not really know how to communicate one on one. Some individuals can become numb, feel unseen, have no clear sense of self, buy into the hype, cannot see beyond disappointment in their younger years to how things will be different out of high school, do not have the resiliency needed and then lash out. Some do, some do not. I worked for a great Public School District, and hate seeing schools demonized in generalities. The District I worked in has programs that teach and promote kindness, understanding and resiliency in concrete ways. Along with parents, the teachers and counselors truly work to know every child. Every person is different and can react differently to what they immerse themselves in. With the Holy Trinity’s help, we need to continue to make deep personal connections at Church, in our families, in our immediate communities, so we can address the things that our youth and adults are faced with, and help them navigate those things. And, yes, I was thinking and praying that soon the young man’s priest will be able to see him and he has the opportunity for conversation, clearing up the mass confusion he is experiencing between the grandeur of what he planned to do and the temporary rush of what he did, and the reality of what he has done. And eventually confession so he can be forgiven and heal. He will still need to face civil punishment for his actions. And pray for healing in the community. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

    1. Thank you for all of your work in education! Our schools here around Austin also teach morality, compassion, etc. — and frankly, they do a good job of it. That may not fix every problem, but I would not say that they are creating the problems. I completely agree that what we really need is to make deep personal connections and to be available and vulnerable to walk this path with young people. Absolutely. This is a confusing and difficult world, and they need mentors and friends who pray for and with them.

  4. An amazing arlticle, Elissa. I have thought of these points many times. We are experiencing a grandchild in prison and have endured rejection by church members and even pastors. Without going into great detail, it has been very hurtful for us to endure this rejection from other Christians. There are many Christians, however, who have not passed judgment on us. That is a blessing. When I read about these tragedies such as the one recently in Texas, I always think of the family. What they are enduring. It is unthinkable. How terrible it is for them. Because of our situation, my heart has been changed forever. I now see the perpetrators of heinous acts, as ones who are still children of God, made in His image. They are in darkness and confusion, but still, not totally depraved because of God’s imprint in them. We tend to think of them as complete evil. But I do not see them in that way. I appreciate your perspective very much, and I am so glad this was posted to my church’s website. Thank you for your Godly insights and wisdom. I look forward to more of your thoughts and wisdom.

    1. Thanks be to God! It’s true — it is so hard on a family when one of its beloved children commits a crime and goes to jail. I’ve experienced this growing up, and our family struggled with it in many ways. Of course, prisons cannot lock God out, and He can work wonders in there. May He do so for your grandson!

      1. Thank you, Elissa. God is working miraculously in his life. Thanks be to. Our Great God and Saviour.

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