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A Moment of National Self-Reflection


School shootings are not only horrific isolated tragedies, but symptoms of trouble in the system, trouble in the way we live and rear our children.

Originally published in the Seattle Times. Republished with the permission of the author.


Philip W. Eaton

 Author Notes

President of Seattle Pacific University

 Essay - 5/10/1999

As we move from the pictures of sad-faced, wandering Kosovo children to the fresh news of brutal violence among our own children in Colorado, once again, tragically and desperately, we grope for explanations and understanding. What kind of a world have we created? What kind of a nation are we and where are we going? Judging from the amount of discussion in our newspapers, on television and radio, over coffee, we are engaged in a powerful moment of national self-reflection. For those of us who are religious, we even ask, "Why, oh God, have you turned your face from us?"

The prominent voices of our culture seem very shrill and hollow at this moment - the voice of politics, the voice of the movies or radio talk shows, even the learned voice of higher education. We need wisdom, desperately, and we realize in these moments we have cut ourselves from most ancient sources of wisdom.

In Dostoyevsky's great and wise novel "The Brothers Karamazov," Ivan Karamazov makes a penetrating observation: When we see children suffer in our midst, we are forced to ask the deepest of questions. We can witness suffering all around us and go about our ways, numb and indifferent, but if just one child suffers, Ivan says, we question the very existence of God. The worldview by which we make sense of life in ordinary times is shaken to the core. Faced with the mystery of innocent suffering, we ask the deeper questions and our answers seem so inadequate.

In the Wall Street Journal recently, Peggy Noonan reminded us of Pope John Paul's discussion of the culture of death. "The kids who did this are responsible," Noonan says. "They did it. They killed. But they came from a place and a time, and were yielded forth by a culture." This is where we should focus our most serious attention.

At these tragic moments, events that seem now to repeat themselves over and over, we understand in shocking new ways that we have created a culture that promotes death instead of life. We have learned how to speak a language of death, and we are not even fully aware that this has become our primary language. We have projected an imagination of darkness onto the screens of our lives and none of us is free from the consequences. It is a culture of death, a culture that revels in darkness instead of light. Surely, the Pope is on to something here, something at the deeper levels.

Our movies, our video games and our TV promote a fantastic reveling in death. I am not here just ragging on the media, seeking to find some easy answer, but isn't it true that in the imagination of darkness, life becomes cheap? In the culture of death, shaped and expressed through the power of imagination, we have failed to distinguish between fantasy and real life, between darkness and light, between death and life.

And this culture of death is complicated by a terrible irony in our public square. In a world where we prize tolerance and promote permissiveness, we have outlawed the sources of wisdom that might guide toward what is right rather than wrong. Our greatest fear is that we might offend someone.

I know this sounds oh so traditional, old-fashioned, dictatorially parental. I have worked with university students most of my adult life, and I fear at times we have come to guard the rights and freedom of students so dearly that we hesitate to tell them what we know to be good for them and what we are absolutely sure is bad for them. Parents often feel this same pressure. And for so many of our schools and colleges and universities we have legal restrictions on speaking from the traditional sources of good values. We absurdly restrict those sources of good thinking because they are religious.

The great irony of such tragic events in Colorado is that just when we need to turn to the genuine sources of wisdom, we come to realize we have legislated wisdom from our systems of education. We give constitutional voice for all sorts of opinions, even those that are destructive. And yet, there are many, the ACLU for example, who seem fiercely committed to silence in the public square the voices that promote a culture of life.

Just when a Judeo-Christian value system is most needed, we come to realize we have legislated from our schools anything but a watered-down and mushy system of values, "neutralized" we proudly declare, derived from odd, though acceptable and legally sanctioned, nontraditional sources. In these moments when we see our children suffering, this seems absurd to me. We have legislated wisdom from the public square at extraordinary cost. One of the great questions for our times is why we have grown so fearful of those voices that promote faith in a God who understands suffering and provides a redemptive path to hope and light?

Against the culture of death we must find the way to imagine a culture of life. We must open up to all sources of wisdom. We need the imagination of light to shine again on our desperate situation. We must figure out how boldly to confront the culture of death. Let us find the way to be genuinely pluralistic and yet at the same time honor again those voices, most often religious voices, that can speak of light and hope.

In these desperate moments, there is good reason why we turn to our pastors and our rabbis. Let us create new platforms for the Billy Grahams and the Pope John Pauls and the Elie Wiesels and the Mother Teresas. We need a fresh language and imagination that transcends the noise of our movies and our video games. Let us seek not to shut down those voices among us in the name of some shallow and distorted notion of tolerance and pluralism.

As we pray for the families and children of Columbine High School, and as we brood over the dark faces of the children of Kosovo, let us think hard about this culture of death where we allow our children to suffer. I hope Pope John Paul II is right: "The world is tired of ideology." I pray too that "the time has come when the splendor of the truth [may begin] anew to illuminate the darkness of human existence."

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