Thursday, September 6, 2007

Seung-Hui Cho and Religion (Take 2)

UPDATE, 9/11/07: This also appeared in today's Roanoke Times. Please discuss below or at their blog.

This is a slightly edited and expanded version of an earlier post, which deals too with the release of the Virginia Tech Indepedent Panel investigation.


In the August 26 Roanoke Times, Duncan Adams has an article that succinctly wraps up what we know about Seung Cho to this point, before the Virginia Tech Independent Review Panel releases its final report (probably sometime this week, possibly even before this op-ed appears). Adams’ article answers some old questions and highlights some new ones that have yet to be answered – questions, I think, we all hope will be addressed in the final report. What really struck me, as a researcher in the history of religion, was the section entitled "Demon Spirits" and specifically the comments of the pastor Dong Cheol Lee from the One Mind Church in Cho's hometown of Woodbridge, VA. Cho and his family didn't attend that church but the pastor felt compelled to reach out to Cho on the recommendation of a neighbor.

Pastor Lee believes that Cho was basically a good person but that he was possessed by the devil or some sort of "demonic spirit" when he murdered all those people. And this, I think, raises a significant point, one which has thus far been generally overlooked in the reporting about the events of 4/16 – the role of religion in motivating Cho to do what he did (something I earlier suggested should be examined more closely). Look again through this article. Look again through the rest of the coverage of Cho's manifesto and look how often he evoked God/ Jesus. And look again at these new snippets in Adams’ article: the Bible as Literature class that he felt so "content" in, his contact with a particular type of Christianity during his upbringing, how he told Nikki Giovanni she was going to hell.

Mr. Adams may have actually been more right than he knew when he ended the whole article with: "During one session, Giovanni described having once eaten turtle soup. Students shared experiences of consuming other unusual animal fare. Cho's poem the next week lashed Giovanni and the class. 'He told us we were going to hell,' said Marciniak-McGuire. During Cho's short, tortured life, he knew that territory well" (my emphasis). Cho’s mental illness made him live in a world of his own creation but that world was one with recognizable roots in the Christian tradition – a world populated by God and the Devil, in which they are both still active forces in the world; a world where Cho could choose sides in this struggle and think that he was doing God's work; a world where violence in the name of religion is justified because the stakes, one's immortal soul, are so high. Cho likely thought himself to be a “soldier of Christ,” like the crusaders, like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, like Eric Rudolph and Paul Jennings Hill who killed to stop abortion, and like the student Mark David Uhl from Liberty University who was arrested before he could blow up protestors at Jerry Falwell’s funeral. Mainstream Christianity, the vast majority of Christians, may not – and does not – condone such actions but perhaps it’s time to stop burying our head in the sand, pretending that such ideas aren’t ultimately understandable, if still unfortunately familiar.

And now the Independent Panel’s report has been released. Virtually nothing on Cho’s, and his family’s, experience with religion. The only reference comes in Appendix N, the “Theoretical Profile of Seung-Hui Cho” by a Forensic Behavioral Scientist, who characterizes Cho as deficient in every way. “Spiritually, [Cho] showed little interest and dropped out of his church before experiencing a growth in faith.” Or maybe not. Maybe he took something from these experiences or maybe he took something from the pastors who counseled him and thought him possessed by the devil. If he showed so little interest in spirituality in college, why did he keep a Bible by his bedside even before he enrolled in the courses he took on religion? Why did the poem he entered into the research exposition the year before 4/16 have the same themes – suffering, martyrdom, salvation, all in a Christian context – that his manifesto did? Why does the report ignore religion?

Maybe if we look right by it, if we pretend it isn’t there, maybe the problematic relationship between Christianity and violence will just go away. Then again, maybe not.

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