I was a gang member when I was a teenager. A serious gangmember. Our
gang — we called it a “club” — was divided into companies
of six. The proud owner of a 1938 Oldsmobile sedan, built like a tank,
I was the driver for my company of six. We had corporals and
lieutenants and captains and — somewhere up the line yes, there were
generals. The state police estimated that there were two thousand of
us. Maybe so. We were called The Cat Club. I’m not sure why. Cool
We had our uniforms — about as far removed in style from the
present-day goths as one could imagine. We wore long, wide-shouldered
jackets, wing-collared shirts, wide ties, pants “pegged”
tight around the ankles and, of course, blue suede shoes. Our hair was
long, swept into the back, like a duck’s–back end. We wore key
chains. Everyone carried a switchblade. The higher-ups, it was said,
carried guns. I only saw a “general” once. I never saw a
What did we do? We drove around a lot. We beat up people a lot, mostly
other kids — “dogs.” Kids who wore khakis, sweaters
and loafers. We swaggered in and out of diners, movie theaters,
concerts. People — even adult people — moved out of our way, stepped
off the sidewalk, got out of their seats. Local police looked the
other way when we drove through town. People were afraid of us. They
had good reason to be.
It all came to an end after a couple of years when a couple of people
were killed. I was already out. I’d been trapped alone in a
“dog town.” My arm was cut up as I protected my face. That
was enough for me — and my father had said I could get out of the
“club” or get out of the house. Why were we part of all
After it was all over, a sociologist the state hired traced the
phenomenon to the day a New York City clothing store set up shop in
the town where it began and started selling those clothes to the kids.
“The clothes make the man,” they used to say. Maybe so. You
put on the uniform and you belonged. You put on the clothes and people
knew about you. People were afraid of you (scared little punk
that you were). You were somebody — you who, up to then, hadn’t
been anybody, didn’t fit anywhere.
Long black coats. Long white coats. Big black boots. Blue suede shoes.
It doesn’t matter so much what the uniform is so long as it
provides a sense of power, some recognition, attention paid, an
“us” and a “them.” I relived a lot of memories of
those days when I heard about Littleton, Colorado and the horror at
Columbine High School. Like just about everyone, I joined in the
speculation about why it had happened. I thought of the clothes, of
course. Many agreed with that sociologist back then — that we dress
for the party, dress for church, dress for war, violence, dress so as
to recognize each other in the killing fields. The boy named Harris
created a web page he called “Welcome to the works of the trench
But it’s not really true that clothes make the man or the woman.
Clothes may cover us up, cover our unacceptable bodies, cloak the fact
that we have no basic sense of who we are. But clothes don’t make
us anything. And they don’t make us do anything.
What else? Maybe what made those two kids kill others and themselves
was television violence — Texas Ranger, NYPD
Blue; or movies — Matrix, Natural Born
Killers, Die Hard ; or video games — Doom,
Mortal Kombat . It could be that these kids went haywire
because they had been ostracized, isolated, sneered at because they
weren’t jocks or brains. The Adolf Hitler syndrome. The failed
painter; lonely dead-ended little corporal. “I?ll show them. I?ll
teach them to sneer at me.”
Then, of course, there are the guns. Without the guns, it wouldn?t
have happened. Without the guns, those two might have stolen cars, or
set fires, or just disappeared into one of the dark corners of their
own minds. With guns, they were able to kill thirteen people. Maybe
it’s guns that make the man. Alfred
Blumstein, director of Carnegie Mellon?s
National Consortium on Violence Research says
there’s a simple way to address school shootings: eliminate access
to guns. “Guns,” Blumstein says, “transform what is
widespread teen-age behavior into disasters.”
This past week, the United States Senate, acting in disdain for the
people they represent, acting for the people who give them money,
voted not to require background checks at so-called “gun
fairs” and gun auctions. People who want to buy guns could
volunteer to have their backgrounds checked, though. Then, when the
people reacted in anger and incredulity, the courageous Senators
changed their positions. Well, they changed their votes. Most of them
don’t have positions. One wonders what it would take to shame a
United States Senator.
Surely guns are an anachronism in a civilized society? We need guns
about as much as we need siege towers. Guns don’t kill people.
People with guns kill people. There weren’t a lot of guns around
when I was a kid. If there had been, more than two people might have
been killed. We were besotted with adolescence, frightened, depressed,
anxious, lonely and angry. It’s a good thing we didn’t have
The two kids in Littleton had easy access to guns. They were also –
or they felt — ostracized. They were different. Odd. Weird. Their
parents, like a lot of parents, didn’t have a clue. When they saw
their kids going out of the house wearing long black trench coats,
they gave a helpless shrug, perhaps, and thought, “kids, whaddya
Guns. Cliques. Taunting. Violence in the media. Parents in hiding.
Maybe that’s why those two kids killed thirteen people and then
killed themselves. The reason for this tragedy could have been any of
those. Most likely the reason was all of those: the convergence of a
media-violence saturation point, adolescent cruelty (or stupidity or
ignorance), parental denial, the availability of guns and the snapping
point of two seriously disturbed young minds.
When something so tragic, so horrendous as this happens, it is natural
enough to want to have an answer. We want to know why it happened –
why did the plane crash, the train crash, the adolescent minds crash?
We want to know why something bad happens so that we can do something
to keep it from happening again. We look for someone to blame –
the government, parents, the school system, the media. We want
to believe the world is just, that bad people make bad things happen.
We want to be in control so that we can keep bad things from happening
to good people.
It’s a particularly liberal religious outlook to seek for causes,
for rational explanations, so that we can take the appropriate action,
demand the appropriate steps be taken. Once we take God as
“Primary Cause” out the equation, it’s logical enough to
replace the divine with unrealistic expectations about human
capability. But Dr. Jim Mercy, Director of
the division of violence prevention and the Centers for
Disease Control here in Atlanta, says, “It would be
very hard to predict or identify ahead of time the kinds of kids and
the constellation of factors that are likely to lead to this kind of
event.” And Dr. Jeffrey Fagan, Dr.
Mercy’s counterpart at Columbia University’s
Center for Violence Research , says, “Sometimes bad
things happen and we can’t always explain it.” Sometimes,
there isn’t really a definitive answer to the question of why
things happen. And that can be futile, even dangerous, because then we
tend to make up answers and act upon them as if they were real
answers. Like the suggestion that we arm school principals. To
politely paraphrase the bumper sticker, “Stuff happens.”
That, I suppose, is a simplistic reduction of an eastern perspective.
But we humanists of sorts do need to come to terms with the fact that,
just because God isn’t in charge doesn’t mean we are. I
don’t believe God had anything to do with the plane crashes, the
train crashes, floods, tornadoes or the loss of young, innocent lives
in Littleton, Colorado. Suggestions from the pulpits that God had his
reasons for all that sicken me. I don’t believe the devil had
anything to do with it either. I don’t believe the devil exists –
except perhaps as a metaphor for evil. I do believe that evil exists.
At this point in my work on this sermon I was reminded of the sermon I
delivered last year on evil. In that sermon, I attempted to make a
case for a liberal religious understanding of evil that didn’t
depend on gods and devils. Evil, I suggested is the cumulative,
enduring and pervasive effect of destructive human behavior. Speaking
of the evils of Nazism, I said that to deny that evil is — that evil
is “out there” — is to suppose that anyone could have been
born (into the time of the rise of Nazism) and not been tainted by it,
somehow damned by it. To deny that we are born into evil is to suppose
that one can be born into a dominant race and not be infected by
racism, or that we can be born into a dominant gender and not be
corrupted by patriarchy. What child in this era, born into television
violence, raised in the glorification of abuse rapped into so-called
music, arcade and computer so-called “games,” nurtured by a
paranoid populace in a gun-toting culture–what child born into all
that is not born into “original sin” — into evil — and is
just as likely as not to take a rifle and slaughter his
There are some who insist that there is nothing or no one to blame but
those two boys themselves. They chose to do what they did. But surely
it is disingenuous to ignore the reality of evil and to insist upon
some pure freedom of will when we know that each of us is born into a
society, born and raised in a culture, built thought by thought, deed
by deed, sense by sense with every foul thought, deceit and deed of
every equally hapless being who preceded us.
So, then, was it not their fault? The devil made them do it? Are they
not responsible? No, the devil didn’t make them do it. Their acts
were their fault, their own doing. They were neither god nor
devil’s puppets. They were responsible. But when we recognize the
reality of evil, the evil that has been done, that lingers, permeates
existence, then we recognize that there is no innocence. Each of us
participates in evil and perpetuates it as surely as we breathe the
air we are born into.
What difference is made by accepting this doctrine of evil? It has the
advantage of allowing us to take evil seriously–without having to
admit to Satan and a horde of devils– as a force to be contended with
that exists in the world. Accepting the reality of evil may liberate
us from that liberal naïveté that tends to leave us
blindsided when bad things happen to good people of good intent in
spite of all the good things we have done to prevent it.
We cannot save ourselves or our children from destroying or being
destroyed by thinking good thoughts, living by the golden rule, saying
please and thank you and being all that we mean by being good.
It’s not enough to teach children that guns are dangerous when we
allow our representatives to play politics with gun laws. It is not
enough to teach our children conflict management and allow them to sit
transfixed before hour after hour of literally mind-numbing violence.
It is not enough to teach our children honesty when dishonesty is a
way of life in just about every adult endeavor.
It may not have been possible to predict that those two boys would be
the ones, this time, to wreak the violence, do the unthinkable. But
the nature of the world in which we live is such — the nature of
existence is such — that we can predict that, if not them, another,
two others, one mad, medieval-minded leader or another is from time to
time going to wreak havoc. And it may indeed be an exercise in
futility (or arrogance) to think that we can do anything to prevent
it. Yet, we must think it. We must think about causes and solutions.
As one psychologist said of the seemingly futile search for solutions,
“One could make a good case that it is the only rational
response.” Though there may be no foolproof solutions, no
absolute answers, we must chip away at evil’s incarnations
wherever we can. One of the Apostle
Paul’s less offensive and more useful declarations
was “Be not overcome by evil but overcome evil by good.”
If an ounce of good comes out of such tragedies as the slaughter at
Columbine High School, it must have to do with the requirement to
think about it, that rational response to the wildly irrational, the
wake-up call to those of us who occasionally nod off during the long,
exhausting struggle against evil.
Wake up! Did you hear that? Gunfire. Screaming. Children crying in
pain and terror. Did you see that? Children running for their lives.
Children lying still and gone in pools of blood. Wake up. It is still
there, as present as beauty, as potent as the good, as real as
laughter: the ever-ready antidote to life and love. Evil. “Be not
overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
How silly is it that if a gun seller has a license, you have to have
your background checked before you can buy a gun at a gun show but, if
the gun seller doesn’t have a license, you can
volunteer to have your background checked but you don’t
have to? Overcome evil with good. Call your Senator and ask him if he
is really that silly and, if he is, would he consider another line of
work less likely to support the evil that destroys us?
How hard is it to suppose that minds that are continually exposed to
films, games, web pages, music filled with blood, gore, hatred, death,
the cheapening of human life to worthlessness – how hard is it
to suppose that those minds will eventually lose faith in human worth?
Overcome evil with good. Write to the producers who fatten from it all
and tell them you won’t watch it, you won’t buy it, you
won’t let your children watch it. There’s one thing they
understand — and it isn’t goodness or morality — it’s
And, for the sake of all the children like these children (displaying
the names of the children killed at Columbine, printed on the front of
the Order of Service), let us not forsake the role of parenting, a
role which involves the responsibility of making decisions — even in
doubt and from dubious authority — when we believe we act out of love
and care. “Yes” is a good word. So is “No.” A
shrug is the surrender of responsibility. Pretending there isn’t a
question in the air is riding for a fall on the back of that wily old
metaphor, the devil.
Our children are the children of darkness, as are we all, for the
darkness is finely interwoven with the light. But our children are
also the children of the light, as are we all, for the light is finely
interwoven with the darkness and, blessedly, in a dark time, briefly,
the light shines more brightly, and we can see a step to take here and
a step to take there. Now, then, even as the shadows of forgetfulness
and disheartenment seep back into the light, now is the time to serve
the hope which may save our children’s children.