In case you haven’t noticed, April seems to be a particularly cruel month: the Columbine High School shootings [April 20th, 1999]; the Oklahoma City bombing [April 19th, 1995]; the Virginia Tech shootings [April 16th, 2007]; and now the Boston Marathon bombing. What’s wrong with April? My birthday is April 19th, so I always think about these things this week–particularly since the Columbine massacre in 1999. I am from Littleton, and so that tragedy hit particularly close to home.
I was reminded about Columbine over the weekend, because I finally finished Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree [an AMAZING book–I’ve mentioned it before, and I’m sure I’ll mention it again]. In one of the chapters, he talks about children who have committed crimes, and one of the examples he gives is Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. Solomon interviews Klebold’s parents, who talk about their experience–the love and support they were shown, but also the vitriolic hatred and condemnation. As part of that interview, Solomon notes something that happened in the aftermath, that I find particularly tragic. He writes:
“As Littleton’s period of mourning began, a carpenter from Illinois erected fifteen crosses on a hillside near the school. ‘I was so buoyed by this,’ Tom said [Dylan’s father]. ‘I wanted to be a part of the community. And I thought we could all grieve together.’ Sue remembered, ‘There were flowers, and Dylan’s and Eric’s crosses had as many as everyone else’s.’ Then the parents of some of the victims destroyed Dylan’s and Eric’s crosses. The youth group at a local church planted fifteen trees, only to have some of the victims’ parents arrive with a press escort to chop down Dylan’s and Eric’s trees. At the high school graduation ceremony a week later, there were encomiums for the victims, but the head of the school told friends of Dylan and Eric to make themselves scarce. Before long, reports referring to the incident starting using the number thirteen rather than fifteen.”
It reminds me of how quickly we seek to ascribe blame and distance ourselves from those we label sinners and evil-doers. We want to find an outsider we can accuse, someone who is “not like us,” so that we can protect our own innocence and avoid examining our own culpability. As Solomon points out in his chapter, this has the effect of radically alienating not only those who have committed crimes [particularly those in prison], but also their families and friends–with the result that the church can feel like a place of judgment, rather than a sanctuary of solidarity and forgiveness.
No one has any good answers for why people do terrible things, but the one answer the church does have is the radical love and forgiveness of God, and the community of welcome and grace that incarnates Christ’s own body on earth–a body that, in Jesus’ own historical life, sought out marginalized sinners and talked with them, touched them, and ate with them. The church as Christ’s 21st century body should do no less, as we remember weekly that we are ALL sinners in the eyes of God, equally in need of God’s grace and forgiveness, equally longing for Christ’s healing touch.