Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

The shootings at Virginia Tech engendered a huge shock and crushing sadness in everyone who heard the story. As in previous cases of school massacres, we all grieve over the premature ending of many promising, innocent lives and for the loved ones of those struck down.

Whenever this sort of senseless killing happens, we are forced to examine the soul of our nation. Among many Western nations, why do so many rampage killings occur in the United States? Why do they keep happening despite our lengthy national debates on gun control, school safety, violence in the media, and parental responsibility? Are these killings all random, isolated incidents, or are they somehow structurally related? Who is responsible for them? Frustration grows in our hearts as no single, immediate answer appears and no easy solution emerges.

In my opinion, the problem of school massacres and other rampage killings goes beyond gun control, violence in the media, etc.; rather, it has to do with our excessively individualistic ethos. When one examines school massacres in the United States, the most prominent characteristic is that the killers were loners, all withdrawn, suffering from excessive feelings of isolation, often neglected and bullied by others. And many of them have been mentally ill. Seung-Hui Cho is no exception. It was stunning to find out how long and how deeply Cho had been lonely, how long he had been seething with paranoia and anger.

In a highly interdependent, mobile, and exposed society such as ours, our age-old sacrosanct individualistic ethics (the right to bear arms, the right to individual privacy, the right to personal property, etc.) does not work to prevent or to solve the problem. Why? Ironically, rampage killings are rather the consequence of the accumulation of such pervasive individualistic habits on top of the structural changes taking place in our society as it moves from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. This mixture offers the fertile setting for such tragic incidents to occur. We live in a global society where community safety nets are breaking down; many governmental services are cut; people, including family members, are preoccupied with their own busyness and are therefore unable or unwilling to pay attention to the needs of others. Society is gradually turning into an aggregation of strangers lacking even minimal mutual attention and caring.

In consequence, mentally ill or emotionally disturbed people are left unattended to the point that our indifference and negligence miss the danger signals they send out before exploding into rampage killings. We see in retrospect how many early signals of Cho’s disturbing troubles were missed or too lightly treated. But that makes it truly frightening to consider this incident in larger context. Rampage killings account for approximately five percent of all homicides in our nation, and their number–now about 1000 per year–is increasing. According to one study, about fifty percent of all rampage killings are committed by mentally ill people.

The Virginia Tech incident teaches us that individualistic ethics in its current form has a limitation; some form of social caring is indispensable, even for our own safe living. Society’s collective caring for its unfortunate and weaker members (through health care and various other welfare programs) is the minimal price that we have to pay to maintain a community as a community. Reaching out to one another forms a safety net to protect not only those who are mentally ill or otherwise dysfunctional, but also ourselves. If we fail to care for them, one among them might end up “reaching out” to us in a violent rampage. Reaching out to others is the only way to prevent future tragedies; at the very least, when we fail to attend to others, we fail to identify someone who may pose a danger to us.

The combination of individual ethics and its ideological corollary of small government have created a social milieu of indifference, callousness, and meanness: we give tax cuts to the richest of the rich, while our state psychiatric hospitals have emptied mentally ill patients onto the streets. Once on the streets, there is no guarantee that they receive necessary medical care. They literally become “nobodies,” and some among them surely are or will become dangerous “nobodies.” This conservative credo de facto declares that we do not have to be compassionate to, or morally accountable for, those in need. “We” are good people insofar as we do not break the laws; “their” sufferings, troubles, and misfortunes are completely their own. We tell ourselves that we are not their keepers.

From a Christian perspective, this blatant individualism is not only anticommunitarian but also anti-human because it goes against the grain of God’s moral order. God created people as relational beings in God’s own trinitarian relational image, and human beings become human through interdependent relationships and covenantal networks in a community. Scripture teaches that all human beings, whether we acknowledge it or not, are brothers and sisters regardless of race, gender, class, or religion. As such, God called us to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. It is not coincidence that Cain’s retort to God after his killing of Abel–“Am I my brother’s keeper?”–is simply the denial of interdependence with, and accountability to, his own brother.

The violation of other human beings derives from the denial of mutual interdependence. The fundamental solidarity of human life was the basis of God’s commandment for God’s people: to care for the poor, the weak, the widows and the orphans among them. The level of their caring was taken as a barometer of the sincerity of their covenantal relationship with God. God’s preferential option for the vulnerable is an emphatic way of reminding us that we, including those vulnerable and outcast among us, are all related in God, and that respecting this truth is the way to maintain our own humanity. The Virginia Tech tragedy teaches us this divine truth once again in a painful way. If we are able to learn it, we might find the way to see some meaning in the brutal sacrifices of the victims. If we are able to apply our learning by reaching out in positive, mutually caring ways, we honor those victims and we also take steps to stop further violence.

Hak Joon Lee is associate professor of ethics and community at New Brunswick Theological Seminary and serves on Perspectives’ editorial board.