Last Thursday afternoon around 3:30 p.m., a senseless act of violence visited Seattle Pacific University, where I teach. Within minutes, squad cars, fire engines, ambulances, helicopters, and TV news trucks had converged on the scene of shooting that took the life of one of our students and injured two others. The campus was on lockdown for several hours. But by 7 p.m., the mayhem had subsided and the campus community did something that has seldom been seen in the aftermath of the many school shootings that have occurred lately. It prayed.
And it was the praying, almost as much as the shooting, which seemed to capture the attention of the media in the next couple days.
SPU is a church-related school. All employees are professing, practicing Christians, and so are the majority of students. It seemed to be the most natural and needful thing for us to do at that moment to gather in the campus church for corporate worship, and then to gather in small groups for prayer and lamentation till nightfall. Another service was held the next day. We were all grief-stricken: but as Christians we are required to bear up with hope. We were shocked and angry: but we are forbidden to be vengeful. We were broken: but we know that it is only by recognizing our own brokenness that we are able to extend mercy and compassion to others when their brokenness is unleashed upon ourselves. So we did what Christians do in the face of senseless evil: we looked to the Source of Goodness. We lamented the fallen and wounded. We gave thanks for the heroes and safety officers and medics. We interceded for the bereaved…and for the gunman.
As we prayed, two things happened: God heard our prayers, and the media watched us praying. The first of these was a mercy; the second was a fresh trial.
That God heard our prayers came as no surprise. For slowly…very slowly…we began to heal. Our anger remained—and had to remain, lest the evil we had experienced be trivialized. But nobody was heard to express vengefulness for the killer. Our grief persisted, and even grew in its intensity. But so did our resolution to trust the One whose ways we don’t understand. Our brokenness was more obvious to us than ever. But expressions of concern and support poured in from families and friends, from loyal alumni and perfect strangers, from sister schools and local churches, from neighbors across the street and neighbors across the world. Banners with words of encouragement sprouted all over campus. Floral bouquets ringed the crime scene.
The fact that the TV cameras were recording all this was another story. We Christians are forbidden to “practice [our] piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Mt. 6:1), but we are also required to “speak [God’s] word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). We are told “to be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls [us] to account for the hope that is in [us]”—but to do so “with gentleness and reverence,” abstaining from self-display (1 Pet. 3:15). On that awful evening, when we needed to huddle together in order to begin healing, we found ourselves the object of media attention. We are required to bear public witness to our faith—but this hardly felt like the proper occasion or setting for that. It was very awkward. We had to pray in a way that was emotionally real, lest we prove ourselves hypocrites before God. But we had to avoid turning our agonized devotions into the grotesque unreality of reality TV by displaying either exaggerated emotionalism or mock-heroic stoicism for theatrical effect. We had to act as if we weren’t being watched, but we also had to act as if we weren’t trying to act as if we weren’t being watched.
When I was a boy, I once complained to my parents that my sister had kept her eyes open during table grace. To which Mother smilingly responded, “And how do you know that?” I learned that day that when it comes to religion, cynical voyeurism is as wrong as sanctimonious exhibitionism. I am praying that the SPU community avoided the latter this week, and that the watching world avoided the former. I am hoping that God’s healing grace can be seen in our campus tragedy—either because of us, or in spite of us, or perhaps both.
Richard Steele is a professor of moral and historical theology and associate dean of graduate theological studies at Seattle Pacific University.