The killings at Virginia Tech in mid-April will be linked forever with the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado almost eight years ago to the day.
What more is there to be said about that tragic and horrifying event in Virginia that has not already been said many times over? And we surely did not need, so close to the event, yet another replay of the seemingly endless arguments for and against gun control.
Many of us have seen those bumper-stickers that summon us to “perform random acts of kindness.” I did not realize until I had Googled the expression that there is actually a Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.
No one can really fathom the meaning of the massacre that was perpetrated with such cool determination at Virginia Tech. The victims seemed to have been chosen entirely at random. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One might very well refer to these as “random acts of violence,” with emphasis on the adjective. Indeed, it is their randomness that makes them so difficult, if not impossible, to understand.
One can begin to understand how a combatant can die in war, or how the perpetrator of a serious crime might fall to a police officer’s bullets. Each instance possesses an intrinsic logic. The killings are still tragic in the extreme, but they are not random.
On the other hand, it is their random character that links the terrible episodes at Columbine High School and now at Virginia Tech in some kind of unholy alliance. A student, a professor or a staff person at a university does not expect to be at risk of being murdered in the course of an ordinary work day. The randomness leads us into a moral quandary: Why? Why here? Why these innocent people?
We crave clear, straightforward answers to such questions, but there are none. We can say little more about the tragedies at Virginia Tech than to remind ourselves yet again that our earthly lives are not only temporary, but fragile and vulnerable to random illnesses, random accidents and, as here, random acts of violence, which are deeply embedded in the mystery of evil.
However, what Christians proclaim, together with St. Paul, is that where evil abounds, grace (the just, merciful, compassionate, and loving presence of God) does more abound (Romans 5:20).
We may not have the answers to all of the whys, but we do have faith and hope in the power of God’s grace to overcome the power of evil. Perhaps not now, nor in our lifetimes, nor even within human history itself. But God’s triumph over sin and death will be fully realized at the end, when God’s reign over the whole of creation will be manifested in all its glory.
Does this faith diminish, much less eliminate, the shock and even despair we may experience in the face of tragic episodes like Columbine and Virginia Tech? For many, not at all.
But this faith in the power of God ultimately to overcome sin and death provides a moral framework within which to begin at least to make some sense of it all.
And it also can motivate us to pick ourselves off the ground, so to speak, and continue to do whatever we can to close the inevitable gap between the kingdom of justice and peace which God has promised and the human situation in which we still find ourselves.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.