Sunday, April 22, 2007

the virginia tech massacre: my sermon from today

I don't normally post my own sermons, but this one is germane to current events. Also, the media commentary and hand-wringing about this tragedy are really frustrating to listen to. Here is what I say:

Today’s reading from Acts [9.1-19] begins with Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” The reading ends with Saul being baptized and finding both illumination and strength.

“Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went…” that he might bind those whom he found who belonged to the Way.

And Ananias tells Saul that Saul is to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and regain his sight, and be filled with strength.

Here we see in the beginning a man filled with threats and murder, seeking to bind the disciples of Jesus. In the beginning we see Saul under the dominion of Satan, whom Jesus says “was a murderer from the beginning” (Jn. 8.44). And the Hebrew word “Satan” means accuser. And at the end of the reading we see Saul filled with the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. And the Greek word for Holy Spirit “parakletos” means Advocate. In the beginning Saul is under the dominion of the Accuser, who brings murder; and in the end he is filled with the divine Advocate, who brings life.

Last week 33 people were murdered at Virginia Tech, and our society is in the midst of a painful attempt to understand those murders. I believe that, as a culture, we lack the tools to come to terms with what was perpetrated that day, because our culture has become what many are calling “post-Christian.”

As you may know, the killer, Seung-Hui Cho, sent a rambling and vitriolic “manifesto” to NBC on the day of his rampage. While only parts of it have been released, it seems to paint a picture of an outsider, someone who was desperately lonely, who could not find a place for himself in the community in which he lived. In his writings, Cho rails against the decadence of university culture, against the promiscuity and the valuation and display of wealth, against drunkenness, and so forth. Having spent the last eight years of my life in American universities, I can tell you his description is pretty accurate – the social life of universities is libidinous and self-indulgent; it is dominated by pleasure-seeking to the exclusion of much else. And the thing is, in every university (and probably in every social-group or community) there are loners and weirdoes, people who don’t fit in – people who to some degree are ostracized by those who maintain and celebrate the dominant values of the group. My school had several of this sort of people. They didn’t get bids from fraternities; they weren’t invited to parties; they were sometimes openly ridiculed; they often sat alone in the dining hall. After awhile, usually after a year or so, they would give up trying to be a part of the group, and their desire to be accepted would be displaced by a more or less intense animus for the values of the community form which they were excluded – in the case of universities, this means that they often began to display an overt antipathy for the celebration of the passions in drunkenness, recreational drug use, and casual sex, all of which are the cornerstone of the social life of many universities. (Tom Wolfe has just written a novel about this called I am Charlotte Simmons.)

It worries me that American culture seems increasingly Dionysian. We seem increasingly to understand a healthy society to be a society in which the pleasure-seeking of its members is formally ordered and facilitated. It has become a cliché to say “It’s a free country” as a retort to those who question instances of one’s pleasure-seeking. Someone will say “you shouldn’t do this or that," and you’ll respond “it’s a free country.” As a society we are internalizing the notion that no one should interfere with the gratification of our passions. As often as not, this translates into our thinking that no one, not even the most helpless, should interfere with our pursuit of a pleasant, self-sufficient life – not the poor, not the emigrant, not even the unborn.

The thing that strikes me as most tragic about the Virginia Tech killer’s rambling manifesto was his indictment of our culture… that precisely because he was excluded from it, he was able in a sense to see it from the outside, in a clearer light perhaps than we are able to see it from within. Of course this does not absolve him from his actions – and its also not to say that his victims were individually hedonists. From what I hear, his murderous rampage was fairly indiscriminate. He perpetrated a horrendous and heartbreaking evil. But as a culture, to an indeterminate degree, we share in his guilt. To be sure: the blood of those students is on his hands. May God have mercy on him. But their blood is on our hands as well… because we hold up, or at best we tolerate, Dionysian values, and we exclude from our company those loners and weirdoes who are unable to join in our revels.

The 19th Century philosopher Friedriech Nietzsche was a proponent of Dionysian values – he advocated giving free reign to passion. Indeed, shortly before his death, he went insane and began signing his letters “Yours sincerely, Dionysus.” Nietzsche saw Christianity as a kind of slavery that stifles passion and prohibits people from flourishing, by constraining their freedom to do what they want to do. Nietzsche seemed to feel this personally, and he advocated a metaphorical devotion to the pagan god Dionysus, whose followers in antiquity would worship at wild parties, with drunkenness, ecstatic dancing, lewd sexuality, which would end with the ritual slaughter of a sacrificial victim, often an animal, but in the myths also sometimes a human, and indeed always (it was said) Dionysus himself. The god would then be reborn endlessly, to be re-murdered endlessly, to perpetuate the cult of passion and ecstasy. As with much of pagan mythology, there is a keen insight about human nature in the story of the cult of Dionysus, an insight that Nietzsche understood and embraced, but which we as a culture do not seem to see. The insight is this: the lust for violence is an integral component of the unbridled reign of human passion. Violence and murder are inevitably entailed by servitude to our appetitive desires. We can see this in the domestic abuse that often accompanies addiction; we can see it perhaps on a geopolitical level in our society’s addiction to oil, and we can see it in an excruciating way in last week’s tragedy in Virginia. The government of the passions sustains itself by violence and murder. And societies or communities that construe their self-purpose as guarding liberty in the basest sense of protecting an individual’s right to gratify his lusts… these kinds of societies are doomed to contend with violence and strife. And indeed in America: as our social ethics have become increasingly libertine, so have we seen a dramatic increase in violent crime.

So what is the answer? It may not surprise you to hear me say it: the answer is Jesus Christ, and him crucified. There are striking similarities between the story of Dionysus and the story of Jesus. Both are gods who are murdered and who return to life so that their followers can flourish. But there are striking dissimilarities too: for one thing, the myth of Dionysus was just that: a myth. Even pagans in antiquity understood this. Pagan myths were stories that explained the human condition - they were really allegories about invisible and impersonal gods, stories the efficacy of which was found through their ritual enactment. In Christianity, on the other hand, while we do find similar typologies, similar allegories, we are not dealing with a mere allegory. Our god is a real, historical person, who had flesh and blood – and this is a fact that is emphasized in the cycle of gospel readings after Easter, including today’s. Our God is not only the the undifferentiated Maker of Heaven and earth, dwelling in inaccessible darkness, but he also cooks breakfast for his friends. Our myth really took place; and whereas the pagan stories found their power through ritual enactment – with us, our ritual enactments have power in (and ONLY in) the historical veracity of what we are reenacting. Its reversed. Most significantly, however, our God is not a god who enables the gratification of our lusts through and endless cycle of being murdered and reborn. Rather Christ dies once for all, to bring about our flourishing by delivering us from slavery to our lusts. And we return again and again to our rituals – the sacraments – to access that once-for-all gift of deliverance and life, the gift which Jesus himself is, not merely on some distant and intangible Olympus, but in our world, on a hill outside Jerusalem, in the most holy sacrament of the altar, and in the hearts of all his faithful people.

The night before Jesus died he said “Now is the judgment of this world.” Because the work he was about to do was undertaken precisely to end, once for all, the cycle of human bondage to carnal desires with its foundation in vengeance and murder and the ritual placation of demons. This was something only a god could do, and not just any god, not Dionysus, but only the Lord of Lords. And this shows what Jesus meant when he said “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” – the sword that is the judgment and the destruction of secular culture – a “sword that no human being can fail to dread or resent even though” (or perhaps because?) [Rene Girard] it represents God’s love for us, and is the overthrowing of the powers that bind us in darkness. To some degree we’ve all fallen in love with our captors, and Christ's judgment of "the ruler of this world" is hard for us to bear.

If we are to be honest, we have two choices: Dionysus or the Crucified. With Dionysus we get the gratification of our carnal appetites and the will to power, but (as Nietzsche understood), we must also embrace the violence and death on which its built. As a culture , if we choose Dionysus, we must be prepared for more and more Columbines and Virginia Techs….. Or we can choose the Crucified; we can submit our lives to him and find in his government of our hearts a life transformed by the power of the only true God, who not only is alive, but who is the Lord of life. In him alone, as St. Paul bears witness in today’s reading from Acts, in Christ alone are we delivered from threats and murder; in Christ alone will we find illumination and strength.


father thorpus said...

Well done, Fr. WB. I loved the line about Jesus cooking us breakfast. I took my son out for breakfast on Saturday, just as my father did with me when I was young. It can be a very intimate meal. The image of Jesus cooking me biscuits and surely the best sausage gravy ever is a warm one to my heart. Thanks for the inspiration.

J-Tron said...

I've been thinking about this sermon all day, which I suppose is a mark of its brilliance. But still I'm puzzling over certain aspects of it. It says a lot that I agree with, a lot that I think is right, and yet... yet something is unsettling about it.

Let me start with what I can affirm.

I like the way you set up the correlation between the advocate and the accuser. I also think it's interesting that you're able to weave in Cho's own observations, still acknowledging that he did something horrible and yet not dismissing all of his observations as complete dilusion the way that many of us have, myself included.

I also think there's great strength in this piece as an evangelistic apologetic, reminding us that while the myths that lead us to elevate our passions into gods have some universal hold in our psyches, it is the historical reality of Jesus that we must heed if we wish to escape from our slavery to sin. Indeed, it reminds me a bit of the way that C.S. Lewis talks about his journey into Christian faith, his feeling that he had finally found the myth which combined all of the important sociological elements and also had the added benefit of being true.

Also I share Fr. Thorpus' sentiment that the idea of Jesus cooking breakfast for his friends is a wonderful image which brings home the reality of the incarnation and the beautiful contrast between the selfless servanthood of Jesus and the self-centeredness of the world's gods.

I guess I'm hung up on two things. One is methodological and may just be a personal reaction on my part. The other is more substantive.

When I read this sermon I was somewhat stunned because I couldn't imagine preaching it in my own context at a moment like this. I've been interacting with students and alumni who are very much in the throes of deep grief and uncertainty. I would not have preached to them, however well meaning, about the moral decay of university life in the midst of their grief. It would have made me seem petty and utterly removed. But, again, that is my context and not yours. I have no idea where you preached this sermon. It may have made perfect sense for you to preach something moralistic where you are. So I confess that my first bit of uneasiness has more to do with me than with what you've written or even what the Lord may have been leading you to say.

But there's still a piece of this that I can't get past. I think it's the strict dichotomy you articulate between the Dionysianist on the one hand and the Christian on the other. I agree that there can be only one Lord and that it must be Jesus, that a giving over to passions will only lead us into further disaster. But I wonder, as a Christian and a sinner, how I am to really do what you suggest. Because I am one who attempts to submit myself to the Lord, yet I fail constantly. So where does that leave me? Where does that leave all of us? Christians, it would seem, are no more or less immune to these leadings than anyone else. Cho himself, in your estimation, articulated well the decadent evil of the university culture. He even called himself a Christian, although in his extreme confusion and derangement he also found place to compare himself with Christ. But he still fell, hard, and he took a lot of folks with him.

I imagine, knowing your theology, that the answer is to continually re-submit to the Lord, to strive for a life of holiness to the greatest degree possible and pray that in the end God will have mercy upon us and wash away whatever sins remain. I would agree with this too, that our lives are meant to be lived striving for holiness, asking God for the grace to be holy. But I wonder if we aren't trying to do too much ourselves and not recognizing how much God does for us. And I wonder also if the Church wouldn't be better off acknowledging the ways in which our passions can be expressed in a healthy, godly manner rather than condemning all passion itself as pagan and base. After all, it's not pleasure that is our enemy but the turning of our hearts from God. If we explore our passions properly, we should find that they lead us back to God instead of away from him. As Augustine says, the only thing we truly enjoy is God. All else we use to reach that true enjoyment.

father wb said...

FT & JT,

Thank you for reading it! I find that I must constantly remind myself of the reality of God in Christ: that Jesus is the eternal Word through whom all things were made, and obversley, that the Word, the only and eternally begotten Son of the Father, was a particular man, living at a particular time, going around Galilee, eating meals, smiling, weeping, pooping, sleeping, coughing, etc. etc. and finally dying a particular death. That's what struck me about the image of our Lord cooking breakfast after his resurrection: the realty of WHO IT IS that is doing this very partcular, historical, mundane thing.

JT -

Thank you particularly for engaging my sermon so thoughtfully. I think, yes, that audience is a big determiner of tone, and I'm not sure I would have preached this to students immediately after the massacre. On the other hand, I have found that people appreciate godly admonishment and even confrontation. My intuition tells me that people would react defensively or negatively, but generally they don't. So I tend to err on the side of hellfire and brimstone, and I try to make myself not shy away from speaking bluntly to people about the guilt and danger we all share. They usually like it.

And with regard to your concern about whether the issue is as cut-and-dry as I present it: I take your point to a degree. Particular lives (and also cultures - precisely because they are constituted by particular lives) are an ongoing narrative of conformity to, or drifting away from, the divine narrative written in the flesh of the incarnate Word. And what matters is the conformity of the WHOLE life - constituted as it is by a long series of good and bad choices, etc. Yet in the end, and also in the case of each moral choice with which we're faced, the issue is simple: Christ or not-Christ? And, JT, you're absolutely right about my prescription: continually re-submit yourself to the Lord, through prayer, frequent self-examination, acts of mortification (e.g. fasting), and confession. Only because this is the prescription of the Catholic Church and of those ascetics and physicians of the soul who have had resounding and numerous successes (e.g. the Cure d'Ars, the Desert Fathers, inter alia).

The way I see it is this: the fundamental choice is whether to believe the Lord. Once you deside "Yes, I believe" and you are baptized, your life becomes a process of growing into the unity of faith, perfected knoweldge, and "the full stature of Christ." And a sacramental life of prayer, penance, and instruction in the faith is how this has always been done.

ck said...

"To be sure: the blood of those students is on his hands. May God have mercy on him. But their blood is on our hands as well… because we hold up, or at best we tolerate, Dionysian values, and we exclude from our company those loners and weirdoes who are unable to join in our revels."

As I read it, you say the blood of the VTech students is on my hands. As I read it, that is the same as saying I am culpable for their deaths. That is the same as saying committed sin (actually 34) that day on the VTech campus.

In the sense that I am a sinner and sin in general facilitates such things, it almost makes sense.

But doesn't sin require at least some degree of both free will and understanding? In what way did I will those 33 victims and one killer to die? In what way did I understand that by having breakfast and going to work that day, I had contributed to their deaths?

When someone's blood is on my hands, shouldn't I take that to the confessional? Were I to come to your confessional, what sin should I confess so that you could absolve me of my culpability for these young peoples' deaths?

Had I wished death, yelled, "Raca!" or simply hated any or the victims (or even the killer), I could understand your logic.

As it is stated, the logical conclusion of your statement is that as sinners we are culpable for EVERY sin anyone might ever commit. I sin. I tolerate sin, so when someone sins, I am culpable, right? The blood is on my hands, right?

By your logic, if I were to get my gun out of my closet and go on a shooting rampage at the rather hedonistic University which employs me and offer the same justifications as Cho, then you Father, your congregation, and everyone in the world for that matter would be culpable.

That Father, is something I cannot believe.

father wb said...


We are guilty because we indulge concupiscence. Nietzsche's insight is that the reign of the passions (on a cultural level) entails violence and strife. As Rene Girard, whose train of thought I was following in this sermon, put it:

"Nietzsche mentions the violence that accompanies and often precedes Dionysus everywhere. All epiphanies of the god leave ruins in their wake."

That is what secular American culture will not admit. By buying into an appetitive culture, we lay the spiritual material condition (so to speak) herald Dionysus, who leaves ruins in his wake.

Maybe you never indulge concupiscence in the way that our culture is constantly urging all of us to do. But I certainly do, much more often than I like (Rom. 7.15). I find it almost (ALMOST) impossible not to. MArketing departments long ago realized the money-making power of appeals to carnal desire.

But every act of concupiscent desire we indulge helps to build a Dionysian culture, with a logic of violence at its foundation.

But thank you for your challenging thoughts.

If you're interested in this train of thought, I recommend Rene Girard's "Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World", if you haven't read it. (Girard is a Roman Catholic, and one of the "Forty Immortals" of the Acadamie Francais.)

ck said...

Perhaps, I have taken this too personally. When you said that the blood of these students is on our hands, I assume you mean everyone, and not simply those in your congregation. So let me dare to speak for the parents of the murdered and the murder. You have declared them culpable in the slaughter of their children.

Their sin injures the universal body of Christ. As sinners, their sin like yours and mine creates an environment that makes it easier for others to sin. So, they are therefore culpable for any sin someone might commit, right?

So, if they come to your confessional, and confess that they watched a movie with some skin, had a extra couple of drinks, told a lewd joke, or didn't invite and outcast to their party, then you will absolve them of their sin of being an accessory the murder of their kids?

I'm afraid that regardless of what Girard or Nietzsche says on this, I cannot agree. They do not speak ex cathedra. Those who do say that our sin requires us to have at least a degree of understanding and to act (or abstain when we shouldn't) with a degree of free will. Our culpability depends on the degree of our understanding and our freedom in committing the sinful act or abstaining from that act that would have prevented it.

You Father, have written and declared that like me, those grieving parents are accessories to mass murder and suicide.

Perhaps you have a different criteria for what qualifies as sin than my church fathers, but if you don't, it doesn't matter what Nietzsche says. For your statement to be true that they like the rest of us are culpable for mass murder, it must be true that there was an act that they willfully and knowingly committed that led to this, or there was an action that they willfully and knowingly failed to take that could have prevented this.

If you or anyone anywhere can demonstrate this, I challenge you to go to them and offer then the sacrament of reconciliation that they might confess their sins to you that you may absolve them of their sin of being an accessory to the slaughter of their children. If you can't do this, I am afraid that I am unimpressed by the train of thought regardless of where you found it.

Words, Father, regardless of there origin, mater.


Anonymous said...

oops, matter


ck said...

I'm afraid that my comments above may have been too aggressive and not adequately charitable in their disagreement. If that is the case, I am sorry.

The crux of what I found so offensive is not just my fervent disagreement with the assigning of universal guilt in this sin. It concerns me when you said that you wouldn't deliver this message to the students immediately after the massacre. I understand that to everything there is a time and a season. Therefore you might not say one thing at a time when something else might be more appropriate. As an officer of God's universal catholic church, I would hope that your message would be universal. If that is true with this message, then there would ultimately be a time for the parents, families, and friends of the slaughtered to hear of how the blood of their beloved in on THEIR hands. If there would never be such a time when it would be appropriate for them to here that message, then I respectfully assert that this is not a universal message, and further assert that at least in part, it should be retracted.

father wb said...


Thank you again for you challenging comments.

The image of blood on hands is a bit astringent, I admit. But you will notice that I was careful to say that "AS A CULTURE," and "to an indeterminate degree" we share in Cho's guilt. Much in the way that if you starve and beat a dog, and then the dog bites the mailman, its your fault too. But here the dog abuser stands in for our culture, constituted as it is by individuals. "We" as a culture have blood on our hands.

I don't mean to be didactic or condescending, but I really recommend Father Thomas Hopko's talks on primordial, generational, and personal sin. He can explain the foundations and ramifications of what I'm talking about much more clearly than I can. If you like, I can email you the mp3's. They really changed the way I think about these kidns of issues. Again, I don't mean to suggest you don't understand hamartiology; I just mean to say that people like Girard and Fr Hopko - both of whom are very orthodox - can explain these things much better than I. And I know that the thesis of my sermon is provocative.

Once again, thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. If you're interested in Fr Hopko's lecture, send me an email (my email address is toward the bottom of the sidebar), and I'll forward the mp3's to you. They really are very, very good.

ck said...

As I said, sin begets sin. However, there is a difference between that and saying one's sinful state CAUSES another specific sin. I understand the beaten dog analogy but that dog doesn't meet the requirements for a sinful act. Unless you would take that abused animal analogy to the parents who were a part of the the same culture and therefor have the blood on their hands, then it really doesn't apply to the WHOLE culture in my opinion. It also still does not meet the requirements for culpability of understanding and free will as I detailed earlier. If you would someday deliver this message to the grieving mothers and fathers so that they may repent of their sins that lead to or at least facilitated their children's murder, then perhaps you have a greater understanding than I. Otherwise, I'm afraid that I simply, but very deeply disagree with you.

father wb said...

"I simply, but very deeply disagree with you."

That's fine.

But I'm right. ;)

ck said...

You say so.

ck said...

...a clearer statement of the why I find you incorrect on your explanation of culpability. It centers on the distinction between the sinful state and the sinful act.

As I have said, sin begets sin. Adam's individual sin introduced a sinful state to humanity that carries on to each of us. That facilitates my present and future sin. Still, despite Adam giving me my sinful state, I still have a degree of knowledge and free will which allows me to make a moral act. My degree of knowledge and free will determines my responsibility in acting or failing to act for good or evil. So when I sin, despite Adam making me a sinner, he doesn't make me do it.

As a sinner, if I were to be introduced to a sinless society, I would likewise introduce a sinful state to that society which would facilitate others sinning. Still, were I to leave that society, I would not be responsible for every sin they would subsequently commit because those in society would still have the choice to avoid sin. I would not be forcing them to sin.
To a degree, I would have facilitated that act, but to a degree the cement factory worker facilites the mob letting someone take a long nap. In neither case could the critera for the moral (or immoral) act establish culpability for any SINGLE action, despite having contributed to the state that facilitates that action.

As sinners, each of us injures the body of Christ. Each of of contributes to a sinful state of the collective which may allow for but does no cause any single individual sin.

As for declaring that we all (including the the parents of the dead) have the massacred's blood on our hands, in the sence that we as sinners bear the mark of sin in world, OK. But given that, I bear as much blood on my hands for that massacre as I do for the guy that lies on his taxes or the teen who lies to her parents about who he was out with that night.

Essentially, the blood that is on my hands in the blood of Christ. While my baptism may have cleansed the sin of Adam and sacramental reconsitlation may be good at getting the blood out, as I live I seem to keep getting more of His blood on my hands. As a crucifyer of Christ, perhaps every sin that injurs him get a little more of His blood on my hands.

We have 34 well documented sins occuring one moring on the VTech campus. In 33 murder and 1 suicide, 35 people's blood was spilled. I already had the blood of one of those people on my hands. Maybe along with my fellow sinners, I got a little more of His blood on my hands. Those nameless billions out there who neither committed at moral act to cause this nor failed to commit one to prevent it missed the blood of the other 34.

The Ranter said...

Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. I spend a lot of time in Universities, and just like when Columbine happened a few years ago, I absorbed the news with the feeling that our society has the blood of those students, and the blood of the shooter, on its hands... that it is a tragic, corporate sin that we all hoold culpability in, at varying levels, even though we did not go in and pull the trigger.
I don't know what can be done about corporate sin. I feel up to my neck in it, on so many levels, much of the time. It sucks and pulls. And it is absolutely everwhere. The world is screaming for redemption, at the same time, is unwilling/unable to see what is dangling in front of it. May God have mercy on us all.

father wb said...


What can we do about it? Repent! I believe that just as sin is contagious, so is the love of God (which means repentance). Its just that sin is easier, and therefore more pervasive.

The Ranter said...

I guess I didn't put that right... I don't see how to, or perhaps I am not willing to, extract myself from all of the human systems which perpetuate oppression, aside from checking myself into a cloistered monastery and never leaving. Is that repentance you speak of even possible in this life?