Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Why? The Virginia Tech Murders

Fr. Stanley S. Harakas

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Last month our nation experienced a horrendous and terrifying experience with the senseless and murderous events at Virginia Tech University in Blacksville, VA. An obviously emotionally deranged young man for difficult to comprehend reasons chose to end the lives of thirty two people, including himself with a bloodbath in a hail of bullets.

Immediately the question "Why?" arose on the lips of everyone -- from the President of the United States to the man and woman on the street sought to explain the event.

Some blamed the wide availability of guns in our society, but some said if students had guns on campus lives would have been saved. Some pointed to the educational system as the real culprit, while others said that it was not at fault. Some pointed to the permissiveness of our society and others faulted the lack of freedom of expression. Some looked to the culture of violence on TV in the movies and in the music of our day, while others said that this mock violence serves to channel repressed anti-social behavior, so it is actually beneficial. Some blamed the lack of religion for the violence, while some saw the cause of such outbursts in the existence of religion. Some analyzed that the cause of these murders was America's low morality; and some blamed the consequences of what they think is repressive morality. Some pointed the finger at the failure of the school's administration, some highlighted the failure of the judicial system and some put the onus on the mental health system.

Why? Well it is clear that, no one has the full answer and probably no one will ever be able to fully explain the 2007 tragedy of Virginia Tech.

The one thing that the whole world agrees upon was that the killing of those innocent people should not have happened. But the question lingers. It was an act of malice and evil. Why did it happen?

One way of getting at an answer is to see it as part of a pattern of behavior in our country. If this was an isolated incident, we could remain transfixed before it and try to figure it out. But we know that is not the case. Shortly after the Virginia Tech murders, a rash of copy-cat killings took place. Unfortunately, senseless school, workplace and home killings are not unusual in our country. They have become a weekly occurrence and most of us barely give the media accounts of them a cursory glance. We have become insensitive to most murders perpetrated in our midst. We don't have quite the numbers that Iraq now has, but we are in the race!

So, there are too many variables, too many specifics, too many concrete circumstances to point to one or two "causes." It is hard to figure out the "Why?" But, what is new in the last few decades in our country seems to be that when some persons become dissatisfied, thwarted, upset, disappointed, exasperated, angry, hopeless or deranged, they don't find any inner obstacle to taking out their frustrations upon others with guns. Frequently, we see them kill others and then kill themselves, as did the Virginia Tech murderer.

Now, I ask, why didn't their conscience hold them back from murdering people as a way of taking out their frustrations? Could it be that no one ever taught them that murdering people was wrong? Could it be that our society has changed the way that it deals with inculcating in the depths of the hearts, minds and consciences of our children and young people foundational principles of moral behavior? Well, yes!

There was a time in America, when young people in simple grade schools were taught the Ten Commandments in their school books. It was standard fare for people to recognize that these rules for living as having authority not only over their lives, but also as one of the most important sources of moral standards for American society.

This is true to the point that in 1935 when the present Supreme Court Building was constructed, in addition to famous law-givers of ancient civilizations of Persia, Babylonia, Greece and Rome and different religious groups, Moses and the Ten Commandments were included in the artwork of the structure. On the Internet, I was able to find a site that describes the high frequency of the presence of Moses and the Ten Commandments at the Supreme Court Building. Here's the list: Moses with Two Tablets on the East Face; Moses on the West Exterior Façade; Ten Commandments on Front Bronze Doors; Moses & Ten Commandments in Great Hall (8 times); Ten Commandments on wooden interior Courtroom Doors; and the Ten Commandments in the frieze above the Supreme Court Justice's Bench.

Clearly, there didn't seem to be much of a problem about displaying the Ten Commandments in the highest court of the land seventy years ago.

But all that has changed. The website continues: "In Stone v. Graham in 1980, the Supreme Court held that Kentucky schools could not display the Ten Commandments on classroom walls because "[i]f the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments," which, the Court said, is "not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause." More recently, the Court ". . . told McCreary County, Kentucky that its Ten Commandments display had to go, but that a Ten Commandments monument in Texas could stay. Perhaps mindful of the irony, the Court excused its own Ten Commandments display because it is 'in the company of 17 other lawgivers, most of them secular figures.'"

But, at least two decades ago, concerns about the separation of church and state began a process of deliberately seeking to discourage "children to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments!"

Later, in 1999 efforts were made in Congress to reverse the trend, when significantly, the House of Representatives passed the "Ten Commandments Defense Act Amendment" to a juvenile crime bill, which was never signed into law. Clearly, in the minds of the legislators, an antidote to juvenile crime was teaching children something about the Ten Commandments.

In May of 2001 the Governor of Indiana, Frank O'Bannon asked the Supreme Court to overturn lower court decisions that prohibited him from erecting a seven foot stone tablet of the Decalogue in front of the capitol in Indianapolis. The Court refused to take the case, which was repeated in February of 2002. About that time nine similar conflicting court opinions were winding their way through the courts. And of course everyone remembers Judge Roy Moore who lost his job in 2001 because he put the Ten Commandments in his courthouse and refused to take them out.

The issue of course, is that the Ten Commandments are understood to be purely religious statements and as such it is considered that the teaching of the Ten Commandments to children would be a government endorsement of a particular religion.

So what started happening in our country as the teaching of the Decalogue began to erode, and when the legally dangerous practice of "induc(ing) the school children to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey the Commandments" was outlawed?

On October 1, 1997 a 16 year old shot two fellow students in Pearl, Mississippi - perhaps no one told him "Thou shalt do no murder."

Just two months later on December 1 that same year three students were shot to death by a 14 year old classmate at the West Paducah, KY High School - surely, no one in that school was allowed to give him the Ten Commandments to read.

Three months later on March 24, in 1998 two boys age 11 and 13 shot and killed four girls and a teacher at a Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas - clearly no teacher was allowed to direct the boys to meditate on the commandment that prohibits us from murdering people.

Less than a year later on April 20, 1999 two students deliberately but randomly murdered 12 schoolmates and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado before both of them committed suicide -no dangerous and illegal veneration for the Ten Commandments in that school, of course.

Then on March 21, 2005 at a Minnesota Indian Reservation High School a 16 year old murdered a teacher and five classmates and then committed suicide -of course, no class assignment was allowed to teach him to obey the Commandment "Thou shalt do no murder."

It was no student who did the shooting, but someone who did grow up in an educational system that refused to teach the Commandment against murder, who killed those six pure and simple girls in the one room Amish school house in Lancaster County, PA before he put the murderous weapon to his own head - thanks to the courts he was free from reading, meditating upon and from being instructed to obey the one Commandment which would have deterred him from murdering all those innocent children.

Now we have experienced the biggest slaughter of all with 32 horrendous deaths at the hands of a fellow student at Virginia Tech University -what if some one had urged him to (horror of horrors) venerate the Commandment "Thou shalt not murder"?

The truth is, no one knows. But if part of early moral education in our public schools included the kinds of values inherent in the Ten Commandments, it just might have been the case that there would have been second thoughts, some hesitancy even in the most deranged of those murderers, if they had been inculcated and imbued from their earliest years that murder is wrong.

But how can that be, since as interpreted today, the Decalogue is religious, and our schools must stay separate from the teaching of anything religious?

Too bad that America has not learned of Orthodox Christianity! For, you see, the early Church writers in the first three centuries of the Christian era had a much different view of the Ten Commandments.

In September of 2003 I wrote an editorial in The Hellenic Voice on "The Ten Commandments Controversy." Among other things, I wrote the following. "Early Church teaching held that the Ten Commandments were a specific expression of a general natural moral law that is part of every organized society. What the Ten Commandments express in the Old Testament can be found not only in the legal systems of many diverse cultures, but also in the sacred writings of most religious traditions."

Specifically, I pointed out that "In the Decalogue, the second tablet deals with social relationships. It commands respect for parents (family integrity), prohibits murder (defense of life), condemns adultery (support of marriage), bars theft (protection of property rights), reproves lying (requires honesty), and rules out the jealous desire to take the possessions of others for one's self (supporting personal integrity). The first several commandments in the Hebrew Decalogue are more religious. They speak of respecting the One God, honoring His name and not worshiping other gods. But this is at the same time a natural commandment because any society that does not honor and support its central beliefs and undercuts them, cannot ultimately survive."

If America had a broader understanding of the Ten Commandments, like this Orthodox Christian perspective, we could find ways to present the content of these fundamental essential rules for living in a way that actually taught our young people how to live. In the past, such teaching helped create civilized societies and cultures which limited evils such as the routine recourse to expressing frustrations by randomly shooting people.

Would it be a hundred percent solution? Of course not. But would it be worth making an effort to get the fundamental message of the Ten Commandments back into our nation's classrooms? It's getting to a point where we need to do something. I hope it's not too late.

Fr. Stanley Harakas, a retired Priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, taught Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts for 30 years. He has written monthly Guest Editorials in The Hellenic Voice for the past three years.

This article first appeared in The Hellenic Voice. Reprinted with permission of The Hellenic Voice.

Posted: 02-Jun-07

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