To blame is human

Jinhee and I were on top of our bed covers, staring up at the popcorn-stucco ceiling. We held each other, and said nothing. We were trying unsuccessfully to make sense of it all: 33 murdered at Virginia Tech. We mourned and prayed for the victims families and friends — and for the campus.

The ones who need something to blame are already starting to point fingers: why didn’t the school administration lock down the campus right away? Isn’t this what happens if we don’t have stricter gun control laws? Or, isn’t this what happens when students cannot arm themselves in self-defense? Doesn’t this happen when we let too many foreigners into the country? It’s such a human instinct to blame something — anything — when crap not only hits the fan but also punches us in the face.

The incident feels close and personal to Jinhee and me. We both work in the university context, and have a great love for college students. We also sulk with our heads a little lower for another reason: the gunman was Korean American. For us, it makes sense to us why we haven’t heard from his parents, who would feel the most shame for bringing someone like that into the world. It’s probably not their fault, but in their minds, what their son did reflects on them. We fully understand why a president of a nation on the other side of the world would issue a statement of shock, sorrow and sympathy. We Koreans are a collective, and one student’s actions on that fateful Monday somehow stains us all.

In seeing something like this, I have to pull up an old-school word to describe it: evil. Frankly, it’s not the way things are supposed to be. The university is supposed to be a place of ideals, of visions, of inquiry, of what could be. Students’ eyes are supposed to grow bright at the thought of dreams, untainted by the wear-and-tear of a world that doesn’t seem to budge. But two days ago, we lost something. At Columbine eight years ago, our children had their innocence stolen. On 9/11, our country lost its security and bravado, and entered into a world of fear. And yesterday at Virginia Tech, we lost our dreams. A place of learning transformed into a site of bloodshed, and I wonder if there’s anything left that’s sacred. It’s in this place, where we’ve lost so much, that it’s tempting to blame.

Oddly, another story of the week is relevant here. Imus, a radio shock jock, lost his job after calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team, “nappy-headed ho’s.” While civil rights leaders called for his head on a platter, the team showed great dignity and accepted his apologies. They didn’t even demand his dismissal. Whereas Cho blamed all who might listen, saying “you forced me into a corner and gave me only one option,” the Rutgers team forgave.

They stopped the cycle of blame — and its potential evil — cold in its tracks and began a cycle of freedom and forgiveness, one that was started near the height of the Roman Empire by a Jewish stonemason and carries right up to the present. He didn’t blame, but instead absorbed the evil, even to a humiliating death on a cross. One of his last words was, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” To twist an old saying, to blame is human, but to forgive, divine. The Rutgers team may not actually be divine, but they did show some class.

Getting back to Cho: not only is he Korean, but he’s also a human being, a part — whether we like it or not — of the collective. Koreans are feeling shame, but as human beings, shouldn’t we all? We thankfully don’t go to his extremes, but this same evil lurks in all of us and has often played itself out on the stage of history. Our time on the planet is littered with periods where ordinary citizens did despicably cruel things. This shooting adds even more to the growing pile of evil that stinks to heaven. Father, forgive us, for we do not know what we do.

Jinhee and I are still mourning. It may take us a bit. I just read another article about Virginia Tech with tears welling up in my eyes. And Jinhee, as a TA, gets a little nervous about crossing students these days. But if there’s hope out there in a world full of great evil, I can’t help but think that it’s in forgiveness.

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  1. Thanks for processing here, James. I think it’ll take me (a lot of us) a while too…

    All this week, I’ve just been out of it. Tuesday was really bad: his face was plastered everywhere. I felt like *we* were all so exposed– to the world’s scrutiny and analysis. When J came home, I just broke down.

    I feel so torn up for the students, families, and the shooter and his family too…

    Lord, have mercy on us all.


  2. I’ve got a question…
    if we were to have a unified prayer/worship event for all Christians on campus, what would reconciliation for the korean community look like?


  3. Good post James.

    I suppose it is human nature to try to find some reason or explanation behind an immensely tragic event that admits no logic — it was simply a senseless act of violence committed by a guy who completely snapped.


  4. Very thoughtful post, James.


  5. Josh, I had no idea that you’re at VT. Good to hear that you’re safe. I wanted to send you an email, but I couldn’t find a contact on your website. Would you email me? I have some questions in response to yours. Just hit the “Email” link at the top of the page.


  6. I pray that NO ONE blames the Korean population for Seung Cho’s actions!

    Could the massacre that took place at Virgina Tech Monday morning be the result of a life-long speech impediment — and the ridicule of classmates?

    Read the linked blog for evidence and my hypothesis! BTW, I would post it here, but the info is too long for a comment.


  7. thanks for an eloquent response that gets straight to the heart of the gospel. As I’ve read the bios of victims, my heart has broken for them. And as I’ve learned more about Cho, my heart has broken for him, too. I wonder, how can I be Jesus to others like him who are drowning in turmoil, even psychotic turmoil? My heart breaks for the sin in the world, sometimes manifesting itself as outright evil.


  8. thanks for the post, james.


  9. hey james!

    i think we lost something more than 2 days ago… i imagine whatever evil broke the young Mr. Cho has been operating for a very long time. sigh.

    anyway, i relate a lot to what you said.


  10. amen to your thoughts. i have some of my own that im shaping up that touch on issues of collective shame/guilt and how that fits or doesn’t.


  11. […] and indeed for all Asian Americans. How could it be that one of our own did such a horrific act? A friend of mine commented that to him it makes perfect sense that the family would sequester themselves. How else […]


  12. thanks for the post. very insightful and helpful.


  13. […] Relevant Reads: Cho Family Statement [Sun Kyung Cho], Guilt, Shame,and Corporate Identity [elderj], To Blame is Human [James Choung], A Lesson in Your Apology [Philadelphia Enquire Editorial], One of Our Own [Bo Lim], […]


  14. great post, and great to find your blog.. i don’t know if this any indicator that you might post more often, but you have a great perspective on this.. what I do hope that we learn from this collectively, as Koreans and Asians, that people needlessly suffer under shame and stigma, when they aren’t the stereotypical over-achieve or well-adjusted, and that it’s okay to ask for help, get help, and be encouraged to get help.


  15. Hi James,

    Isaac told me about your blog – glad to know you’re on the web!

    Thoughtful and cogent reminder of the fact that we live in an evil world, where the simplest response (to forgive) is the hardest.

    I’ve got you in my reader!



  16. I’m starting to think that your next blog entry is going to be the one offering news of your son’s birth – still 7 weeks away! You’re readers are getting restless!


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