Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Shootings at Virginia Tech

Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

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Sermon deliverd Sunday, April 22.

In this morning's Gospel lesson, we read about how Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Jewish temple leadership, took courage and went to Pontius Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus after He had died on the cross. This was an act of courage because the Temple leadership had taken a bloodthirsty stand against Jesus and eagerly and enthusiastically demanded His execution. Having demanded the murder of one man, it would have been very easy to demand the murder of the man's followers. All the disciples except for John had forsaken Jesus on the cross. The disciples, we are told later in the Gospels, were hunkered down behind closed doors for fear of the Jews. And yet Joseph made the bold move of going to Pilate to ask for the body. Why? Because in his heart, he believed Jesus was the Son of God and he wanted to do the right thing in making sure He got a proper burial.

We also hear about the courage of three faithful women in the Gospel lesson of this morning. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome went in the early morning darkness to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. This was indeed an act of courage -- it would be an act of courage for three women to venture out into the streets of Tampa in the middle of night. But imagine a city without street lights; imagine a city where virtually everyone had demanded the murder of the man they were going to anoint. A group of soldiers guarded the tomb and a huge stone was rolled over the entrance. The woman were facing significant obstacles in their mission but continued on undeterred. Why? Because in their hearts, they believed Jesus was the Son of God and wanted to do the right thing in making sure He got a proper burial.

This week, we have all been inundated with the news stories of the horrific tragedy on the campus of Virginia Tech University. Like many of you, I have processed a lot of thoughts about this awful event. Some of my thoughts went to the video game industry and the virtual reality video games that make killing not only look real, but harmless. When I was a child, back in the day before everyone owned a computer and play station, we used to play video games on the primitive Atari system and in the arcade, where PacMan ate dots and ghosts, where the only things we ever shot at were asteroids, space invaders and centipedes, and the only thing ever hit were barrels with a mallet wielded by Donkey Kong. And we found this entertaining, spent hours and hours in front of our Atari. Funny thing though, neither me nor my brother ever imagined growing up to be either PacMan or Donkey Kong. We left fantasy in our bedrooms when we ventured out of the house.

Today's video games show realistic images of people and places, with weapons similar to ones you can buy in the stores. I'm sure the day is coming, if it's not here already, when you'll be able to put a virtual image of your workplace or school on a video game and put in all your co-workers or classmates who you don't like into the game and spend all day killing them. Perhaps one day someone who doesn't like me will take joy in shooting at me on their computer screen.

I thought a lot about horror movies this week. I don't watch horror movies, never have, never have found that necessary. Yes, I have watched adventure movies that carry an R-rating, but have never taken any interest in the 13th version of Friday the 13th, or Saw 3, or a Nightmare on Elm Street, part 10. Perhaps it's because I scare easily when watching movies. But more than that, I don't take any joy in watching someone get sliced, diced and gored like they were vegetables being prepared for stir fry.

I thought a lot about the gunman behind this week's tragedy -- a loner with a penchant for creative writing with destructive themes. Had he been picked on or rejected by one too many people? Were his destructive poems a cry for help that went unanswered? In chatting with a priest friend this week about what he was going to talk about in his sermon today, he said his theme was going to be: It only took one person to create such a great tragedy. Could one person have stopped it at some point along the way? Sure there were a few people who took notice and were even afraid of this young man. But there were probably many more who rejoiced in seeing writing that was "creative" by a member of an ethnic minority, who even though he appeared mentally off, brought "diversity" to the college campus. Unfortunately, his creativity and diversity of opinion brought murder to the campus last week.

I thought a lot about the victims of the tragedy. I thought about the parents getting that phone call every parent dreads -- the child you raised for 19 or 20 years was brutally killed this morning; come down to Virginia Tech and claim the body. For how many parents was that their only child? How many parents are now childless? How many children are now without a brother or sister? I looked down at my four month old son, and wondered, will I get that phone call in 19 or 20 years-that my child has died at the hands of a suicidal gunman, or because he had too much to drink at the party, or because a fraternity hazing ritual went too far? I wondered if any of those parents thought when they were in my shoes 20 years ago, that they would be in the shoes they are in today.

I thought a lot about how to present this topic today. We are so sensitive when it comes to political correctness, that preaching the truth of Jesus Christ is not politically correct, and even though I am a priest, and preach in my parish, not on the sidewalks of Tampa, I have to be careful what I say in my own church, for fear that the truth will offend people. Issues of morality and righteousness that are made abundantly clear in the Bible and in Orthodox theology books are dismissed as passť, and have been turned into political issues. So, as a priest, I'm leery to comment on certain moral issues for fear of being accused of bringing politics into the pulpit. A family left this church two years ago because I said that the Orthodox Church believes that abortion is wrong. Well, that's the truth. Are we not supposed to say that because it might offend someone? The good news is, that whatever sin one has committed, including that one, the church responds with compassion, forgiveness and healing -- but not endorsement.

I spoke at the outset about the courage shown by Joseph of Arimathea and the Myrrh-bearing women who ministered to Jesus in death. And if there is a message to leave you with today in regards to the tragedy in Virginia, it is that it is time for the Christians to take courage and take a stand for the truth of Jesus Christ. The human being was recreated with free will, and freedom is one of our highest virtues. But freedom comes with responsibility. Freedom, ironically, doesn't come without constraints. When I was a kid, a teacher taught us that the freedom to swing your fist ends an inch away from someone else's face. Swing your fist all day if you wish, just don't hit anyone.

I've said, in ministering to people in tragedy, that if something isn't good, it's not from God. God does not create tragedy. People create tragedy. If the tragedy of this week causes something good to happen in our society, the good will come from God. But in no way did God create a tragedy to provide an opportunity for good. A sadistic loner who left clues that few picked up on and no one acted upon is the reason that 32 people died at Virginia Tech this week. Perhaps his accomplices were ignorant of fellow students and teachers, perhaps the video game industry played a part, maybe horror movies, maybe a college culture that ostensibly promotes diversity but in reality creates an environment that says if you aren't a hard-partying rich kid, you don't belong. God was not an accomplice in the tragedy this week.

So if it's not good, it's not from God.

As Orthodox Christians, the primary focus of our lives is supposed to be our relationship with God. It is supposed to be purifying the heart and soul so that at the end of life, we are ready to gaze with joy upon the uncreated Light of the Triune Godhead. And so, I offer, that a solution in avoiding tragedies like the one that occurred last week is to evaluate things to see if they are really good things before we do them.

Is it a good thing to throw a football around in the back yard with your kids? Yes, it is. Even though that might not seem like an activity that gets one closer to God, and perhaps it isn't, throwing a football around helps build relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters, and friends -- healthy relationships where people can laugh and have a good time. Is it a good thing to eat an ice cream? Even though that might not seem like an activity that gets one closer to God, and perhaps it isn't, eating an ice cream cone is something that brings one internal joy, and as long as one doesn't eat ice cream every day, the only expense is a few calories. Ice cream doesn't hurt people, and internal joy brings peace and peace is one of the fruits of the spirit. So, ice cream goes into the good category.

And you can put a lot of things into that category-like watching a hockey game, grilling out on the patio, having a beer, walking the dog, playing Frisbee at the beach and a whole list of activities I could spend the rest of this afternoon reading.

So, what isn't good? Is there anyone who can tell me that a virtual reality game where people get killed in various gory and graphic ways is a good thing? Is there anyone who can tell me that if their 10 or 12 year old spends hours in front of Play-Station killing people, that that is a good thing? I've heard, "well it's good for hand-eye coordination." Well, so is tennis, building with legos and washing dishes.

How about fantasy? Is that a good thing? I guess that depends on what your fantasy is. When I was a kid, I had a baseball video game. And I spent a lot of time playing that game. I had several teams going, each one playing a 162 game schedule, just like the major leagues. I played that game for years. When the family went on vacation and I couldn't take the video game with me, I daydreamed about it. I daydreamed about being a baseball manager, making all the right moves and match-ups to win games, just like the real thing. And if you asked me today, I can still remember all the names of the players on my teams, that's how much time I spent playing that game. Fantasy can be a good thing. Perhaps wanting to be a baseball manager in some way equipped me to manage a parish or a summer camp.

But what if I spent countless hours in front of a video game where the goal was to kill and destroy as much as possible. What if I spent my family vacations daydreaming about killing and destroying as much as possible. See my baseball fantasy was just that, a fantasy. And I knew it was a fantasy, because I was a terrible baseball player and knew there was no future in that for me. But for the person who daydreams about harming other people, the line between making a fantasy a reality is indeed very narrow-it's as close as a knife in the kitchen, a fist, a foot, a car, or any other weapon of mass destruction we have all around us.

And as for loners, every person at some point in life, is a loner. We all have moments when we feel alone, like nobody cares about me. And so if we know that we will each feel like that at some point, it stands to reason that someone in this church feels like that right now. It stands to reason that someone who you work with probably feels like that right now. It stands to reason that one of your children's friend's parents feels like that, or one of the coaches at little league or one of the mom's at the PTA or one of your neighbors. And the question is, what are we doing about it? Human beings aren't created to be loners, we are created to live in communities, to love other people. And so the loner will eventually get frustrated and act out in some way. Does it take a tragedy to get us to deal with the loner? How many more tragedies will it take?

It's time for us as Orthodox Christians to take courage and start doing the right and Godly thing. Why? Because in our hearts, if we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, we'll want to do the right thing, just like Joseph of Arimathea, just like the Myrrh-bearing women. We don't be like the other Disciples who forsook the Lord and fled because all of a sudden, He wasn't popular.

Will this tragedy disappear from our consciousness as fast as we throw out this week's newspapers? Will it be forgotten as time passes? Or will it be a catalyst for change-if not in society at large, how about in our own community, in our own neighborhoods, in our own families? Is it time for us to evaluate the things we do in our lives, and the things we allow our children to do in theirs and ask, is this really a good and worthwhile thing? Is this getting me closer to God or farther away from Him? Is my expression of freedom somehow compromising the freedom of others? Do I engage in fantasies that have the potential to harm me or cause me to harm others?

As I reflect on the past week, I am seeing that I have two choices: take courage and start to do the right things, say the right things, stick up for the right things, or start fantasizing about getting that phone call 20 years from now, because if I don't change, if we don't change, that fantasy, that nightmare, is going to become a reality for a lot more people. Amen.

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the pastor of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, Florida, and the director of St. Stephen's Summer Camp for the Metropolis of Atlanta.

Posted: 27-Apr-07

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