May 17, 1999
Columbine and Matters of Religion
-- Martin E. Marty
By no means are the returns all in on the Littleton, Colorado, killings. The name of the high school, "Columbine," is likely to become a code word for a trauma, just as "Assassinations" and "Space Shuttle Challenger disaster" and "Laramie" and "Pearl Harbor" and "Jonestown" and "Waco" and "Heaven's Gate" have become.
Each of those words in quotation marks condenses and represents an effort to capture a complex phenomenon and to make it available for exegesis and interpretation by all sorts of citizens.
What they all have in common is that religion--was it "a private affair" in Littleton?--becomes very public and central to all interpreting. An individual assassin's bullet changes the course of history and lets the irrational rule. So the nation turns to rituals of mourning and rites at which citizens set resolves. And the voices of faith speak up.
"Columbine" has represented a field day, albeit a killing-field day, for critics and analysts on all the fronts of faith. We reach to our extensive clipping files to recall a few themes: Some critics have derided the "grief counseling" profession for pseudocounsel that does not go deep enough. Where are the priests and confessors, the preachers who will help people cope with tragedy?
There have been ugly incidents in which citizens at Littleton have attacked the placing of two crosses for the killers alongside those representing victims. Debate rages: who gives whom the right to decide what the divine disposition of such murderous souls should be? Even suburban evangelical sanctuary architecture and appointments provoke debate. Are they soulless? Or does the lack of traditional symbols in them help them welcome others?
Church and state arguments, of course, have raged. Did State of Colorado funds go into the support and subsidy of worship that celebrates a particular religious tradition? (All religious tradition ends up being somehow particular.)
At the moment, we hear most frequently that the faiths do best at reteaching a culture that there are dense black holes of evil, embodied in the last acts of the killers. Does the secular world have a language to deal with such evil? Ask that question and another comes: does the religious world also have a language to do more than notice such evil? Resolve these debates as we will, their very presence suggests how much unfinished business remains in this religiously pluralistic society.
As the various interpreting factions fight to a draw, it is tempting to let the debates concentrate only on issues of gun control, the blaming or nonblaming of parents, and other political and psychological themes. But the theological remain, to plague and inspire much of the public.