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Diana Butler Bass: The Silence of a Murderer’s Mother

posted by gp_intern

This morning, on my way to Dulles Airport to catch a flight, I was listening to radio coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. The reporter was talking about shooter Cho Seung Hui, analyzing his personality and background, and trying to understand what may have motivated the college student to murder 32 people and then commit suicide.

In the recitation, the reporter made a point of Cho’s religious background. Evidently, his mother is a devout Christian. Cho, the reporter said, experienced a rift with his mother over issues of faith and had rejected her beliefs. Since the shooting, Cho’s family has remained in isolation, issuing no statement to the press. One news outlet reported that his mother had been hospitalized for shock.

Other than being the mother of one of the murdered students, I can imagine nothing worse than being the mother of the murderer, a murderer who committed suicide. How isolated she must be. She, too, is grieving, mourning the loss of her only son, mourning her dreams for him, and mourning her memories of his childhood. She has little – except confusion, guilt (however misplaced that may be) and questions.

One of the things I regularly do as a writer is to listen to stories – happy ones and tragic ones; old ones and unfolding ones – and try to understand the experiences of all those involved. In the Virginia Tech shootings, attention has been rightly directed toward the innocent and toward the guilty. But the grieving mother? Where is she in this story? Other than “Mrs. Cho,” I do not even know her name. This morning’s Washington Post quoted her neighbors as saying that she is “quiet, modest, and hardworking.” No one seems to have known her well.

I am not calling for a media pursuit of this anguished woman. Rather, her absence from the story strikes a heart-breaking cord, causing me – also a Christian and mother – to wonder about her silence.

That silence brings to mind another silence: the silence of Eve. In Genesis, the first words uttered by Eve after the expulsion from the garden are those of joy at the birth of Cain, her son: “I have gotten a man from the LORD!” No long thereafter, she bore Abel, a second son.

But joy turns to tragedy as the two grow to manhood. Cain, jealous of his younger brother, killed Abel. And there, in Genesis chapter 4, right at the beginning of biblical history, the first murder occurs. God chastises Cain and punishes him by making him a “fugitive and a vagabond” upon the earth.

Throughout the story, however, Eve says nothing. She is silent. One can only imagine her anguish: Have I birthed this violence into the world? My son, my beloved son, the firstborn of all humanity, is a murderer. He has killed his brother. Is this my fault? What have I done?

Finally, at the very end of the tale, Eve says one thing. She bore a third son, named Seth. “For God,” said Eve, “has appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew.” Cain is not only a fugitive from the earth but banished from his own family, exiled from his mother’s heart. Only Abel is remembered; Seth replaces him, the beloved son. The sin of murder destroyed more than life – it destroyed memory and motherhood. For all intents and purposes, Cain was dead, too. Eve birthed both victim and perpetrator. No wonder she was silent.

Silence may well be the primal response to sin: a mother’s choked pain, the pain of birthing sin, and the pain of birthing children victimized by sin. What can one say in the face of it all? Nothing, absolutely nothing. We are mute. But we are not entirely alone; we are embraced by the silence of Eve.


Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University. She is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper San Francisco).



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kevin s.

posted April 18, 2007 at 8:46 pm


That is a sad story. They came from Korea, likely to provide a better life for their children. They did everything right, working hard to send their children to Princeton and, obviously, Virginia Tech. And then, her life is ruined, and she is left to wonder whether the blood is on her hands. The analogy to Eve is perfrect.



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jim

posted April 18, 2007 at 9:19 pm


Diana, thank you so much for this thoughtful reminder of someone who is forgotten.



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Sandy Fox

posted April 18, 2007 at 10:01 pm


I too have been thinking of this mother. We must keep her and her family in our prayers as much as the victim’s families. Her life will never be the same either.



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Sue badeau

posted April 18, 2007 at 10:25 pm


Diana – thank you for giving voice to the thought that is always on my mind and heart whenever I hear of a terrible tragedy, or whenever I see a person villified for horrific crimes commited – the very first thought that comes to my mind is “He is someone’s son.” or “She is someone’s daughter.” Last night at dinner while our family was praying for all whose lives were most closely touched by the Virginia Tech shootings, we prayed for the Cho family, along with the other families, the EMTs and police officers and university staff. As a mother of 22 children (adopted from foster care), most of whom have special needs, and most of whom experienced abuse, neglect and other traumas in their early years, I have seen first hand how sometimes these life experiences lead them to lash out and do things that hurt others and themselves. I have experienced the pain of one child wounding another child. The grief to a mother’s heart in times like these is unspeakable. Once, during a moment like this, I wrote these words, “Its like I am in a purgatory, limbo state. If I am going to feel so dead, I would rather just be dead. How can I wake up? How can I get my life back? I don t talk to anyone about this . . . I really don t want anyone to know I am in such a bad place. So my question is how does a parent go on in circumstances like these?? How??? What comfort or truth can God give me tonight???” The comfort I found that night was in the depths of silence, a deep and clear knowledge that God knows this pain too. And in my silence He is with me. And the best gift we can give this mother, and all mothers who grieve is our silent but faithful presence. “My soul waits in silence for God only; From Himis my salvation.” Psalm 62:1



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Mary Liepold

posted April 18, 2007 at 11:13 pm


Diana, the Cho parents have been on my heart as well, and I agree with almost everything in your beautiful reflection. But I take exception on two points. I don’t believe that Cain was exiled from Eve’s heart, any more than this lost son is exiled from his mother’s. I have told my four grown children from the time they were very young that there is nothing they could ever do that would make me stop loving them. I know this is how God loves us and I believe it is how God wants us to love each other — at the very least, our children. I also take issue with your use of the word replace, in “Seth replaces him.” I have lost a child — two, in fact, in one year — and I gave birth to another a few years later. Though I love him fiercely, I would never say that he “replaced” the lost ones, and neither would their father. I know you wrote these words quickly, and I truly do not mean to chide — only to introduce another perspective. I work for Peace X Peace, an organization that promotes and facilitates conversation across cultural divides, and I am learning rather late in life that peace grows from moving through our differences, not from skirting around them.Respectfully, Mary Liepold



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Sue badeau

posted April 18, 2007 at 11:23 pm


Mary – excellent points. Like you, I have told all of my children that nothing can separate them from my love. And like you I have lost a child to death, I have also “lost” two to prison. None are exiled and none are “replaceable”. In each of these experiences and losses we see glimpses of the heart of God for us – collectively – this broken, fallen village of humanity.



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Paul

posted April 19, 2007 at 12:35 am


Diana, Thank you for raising a very important issue. It has been truely said that the only thing worse than being an offender is being the parent of an offender. My prayers are with her also. cheers, Paul



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Deno Reno

posted April 19, 2007 at 1:08 am


Mary the mother of CHRIST also fell silent bearing pain like a sword through her heart as well. What a insiprational and thought provoking article “Great is Diana” in writing such a piece.



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Doug7504

posted April 19, 2007 at 1:38 am


Diana-what a profoundly touching piece. In this age of instant information, those associated with a killer are equally vilified as if they had committed the crime…”there must be something wrong with them too!” was a comment I heard not long ago about the parents of an accused murderer. I cannot imagine the agony of a parent who sees the tragic result of their child’s acts, whether rational or not. Talk about living in hell on Earth! Thank you for reminding us that this tragedy extends to the families of ALL the dead, including Cho’s mother. Peace.



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Scott Kushi

posted April 19, 2007 at 2:21 am


Ken Fong, an Asian American pastor here in Southern California, has a blog and he’s discussed how Asian American culture might contribute even further to the kind of pain this family might be experiencing: http://www.xanga.com/sedaqah/584591198/feeling-any-shame-now-that-you-know-the-shooter-was-asian.html



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Richard

posted April 19, 2007 at 2:56 am


Excellent piece! I wonder how we could send Cho’s mother a sympathy card? As you said she probably feels very isolated and alone. When the Amish children were killed at Nickel Mines the Amish reached out to the killer’s widow to comfort her. Can we do any less?



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Kauko

posted April 19, 2007 at 3:21 am


I’ve often thought of the killer’s family in the last few days and how awful this must be for them. Certainly she is not at fault for her son’s actions, and yet I can’t help but wonder if she does feel like she does to some degree, and that’a a terrible burden to bear in addition to the loss of her son.



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Bill Samuel

posted April 19, 2007 at 3:46 am


Yes. I have been thinking about the pain all the parents, other relatives and friends have been feeling on the loss of their loved ones. But it must be a particularly acute pain for the family of the troubled young man who did the shooting. Most of the others can remember the dead as happy, achieving people. This family is reminded of how troubled this young man was and the terrible tragedy that resulted. I feel it particularly strongly because my wife is Korean-American. That whole community is feeling a particular pain in addition to the common pain felt by all. As a minority often discriminated against, they fear that people may respond with ethnic hatred. I saw a report about one Korean-American young woman in the area the shooter grew up who reported that people she knows won’t even look at her now.



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Mike Hayes

posted April 19, 2007 at 4:03 am


How upsetting it must be to a parent to watch the aftermath of a child’s violent behavior. What causes that violence? Could the parents have done anything to prevent it? Maybe… maybe not… At some point, parental responsibility for a child’s behavior ends, and the child becomes responsible.



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Amazon Creek

posted April 19, 2007 at 7:33 am


Thank you for an important reminder that this woman needs our prayers – for faith – for surely all the wanted answers must be unseen.



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Donny

posted April 19, 2007 at 3:08 pm


Every Christian from hundreds of miles around this mother, should flock to her side. Her unbearable sorrow can only be put into the arms of Christ. No human words can soothe her grief-stricken mind, body and soul. I just learned that she is a Christian, but I felt the same way yesterday.Remember that she lost her child to a culture of death and anti-Christian teachings that confuses even the most educated among us. (Only the Islamic world compares to secularism in its scope of anti-Christian and violence-promoting culturalism being taught to children to as they walk through life into adulthood.) Cho will be followed by other children that grow up in a world where the only absolutes held up as worthy, are those disproving the Bible’s truth. His convoluted view of Jesus bears witness to that fact. How many innocent people were just killed today and yesterday by Muslim men raised in loving homes by loving mothers? Can we afford to ignore that, why we berate American culture of secularism and apathy towards suffering outside of our communities? How many children will watch “and” enjoy violence produced by Hollywood today? How many children will slaughter humans in video games today? How many people will die for real to gang and inner-city violence while politics talks about taking away guns?We have to change hearts and minds. It is the First Amendment that spreads violence among our youth and “their” society and culture. The Second Amendment (like the First) was put into place as a protection from violent people. Let us not forget. Let us not forget, that the Gospel is illegal in our schools, but sodomy is taught. I respond to so many blogs on Beliefnet by railing against Liberalism and Progressive ideology and social politics. Because, these are the very things that teach and promote a culture of relativism where 5 x 5 can be 17, “if that’s how you feel.” Christian fundamentalism, is peace and non-violence. There is no vengeance to the Gospel. As Paul puts it, “Why not rather be wronged?” Certainly “he” learned that by Christ and through Christ. Cho had no right to kill anybody for their personal choices and behaviors. Hedonism is deadly, but only to those (except the unborn) that willingly embrace it.Why not try to change hearts and minds the fundamental Christian/Gospel way? Something to think about when voting for a pro-choice Democrat. Something to think about when dealing with the silence of the Western world on mass-murders commited in many countries every single day by Muslims. No one has the right to murder another human being.Cho’s mother doesn’t deserve our ire or our apathy. She deserves to be given the Love of Christ Jesus from His followers.This world is truly as evil as that which manifested itself in Cho, but we do not have to choose to be part of it. This world is also as beautiful as that which exists in Christ Jesus and His Church triumphant. Hopefully Franklin Graham will take his “evangelical” message to the home of Cho’s mother.



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Kwind

posted April 19, 2007 at 4:30 pm


Thank you so much for posting your article. I find your words heartening, if thats the right word. I am sad that this man, who so clearly needed help, didn’t get any. He was mentally unstable. All the people around him knew that, yet nothing was done. I hope his family can move on. I hope they can eventually find peace.



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Roger K Ridley

posted April 19, 2007 at 4:46 pm


Diana, What beautiful words you wrote. I’m going thru a hard time with my daughter and your words are tonic. Mary you are right but I would have said nothing as the overall message is so appropropriate. So could we organise some flowers for Cho’s mother as well as a card. Roger Church Planting Aussie in Germany



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moderatelad

posted April 19, 2007 at 5:34 pm


There are many victims here – the parents and family of the murderer should not be painted with the same brush that has been used by many on Cho. Evil can come in and take over anyone of our lives if we are receptive.Grace be to the parents and family. Later – .



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squeaky

posted April 19, 2007 at 6:03 pm


beautiful article. When Columbine happened, the parents and their lives were scrutinized, but what gets lost along the way is that these parents have also lost a child–but I can’t imagine how horrible it is for them, expecially since their child is the person who caused all the grief. They may not even feel they have the right to grieve the loss of their own child. A couple people commented on the Korean aspect of this. I heard a piece on NPR about the South Korean response. they are horrified that one of their citizens would perpetrate such violence. The story told of how the entire nation feels shame over this. And for Cho’s family, that is doubly injurious–they also have to deal with the national shame their son has brought on their home country. I have also read the Korean leadership say they hope there is no racial backlash concerning this tragedy. I am saddened to think they fear that. This didn’t happen because he was Korean or an immigrant–it happened because he was a very disturbed young man, and his race has nothing to do with it. I know some of the survivors have already come out expressing forgiveness. I hope they are able to reach out to Cho’s family with that forgiveness–it’s one way for the love of Christ to shine through in this horrific event.



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Alyssa Loukota

posted April 19, 2007 at 6:25 pm


Thank you, Diana. She was foremost on my mind when I heard the news. I am sure they are receiving a lot of hate right now, as tends tobe the case in such tragedies. We all need to blame someone or something when it doesn’t make sense. I pray she hears Christ’s message of love and mercy. I pray Christ comforts her and the family now and always. They need our prayers.



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Janet Rainey

posted April 19, 2007 at 7:28 pm


Thank you for giving voice to the things I have been feeling. While everyone (and rightly so) mourns the tragic deaths of the victims, I have been grieving in my heart for the parents of the shooter. I have found, however, that it is not a popular sentiment to voice and that some are even eager to blame the parents for what is obviously a manifestation of severe mental illness. As the mother of a mentally disabled young man, I wondered if they had encountered the woefully inadequate mental health system in this country. I wondered if their son had “slipped through the cracks” of the system, and if they had felt the pain and frustration of trying to find help where little is available. I pray that the mother’s faith will sustain her in these horrible, dark days as she grieves for the death of her own child as well as the ones whose death he caused.



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debbieh

posted April 19, 2007 at 7:37 pm


Hi Diana, Thank you for this article, I have been thinking and praying a lot for the parents. Can’t image their feelings. Especially on this day the debate is all about whether or not to show the tapes left behind of their son. I also agree with you that the press need to leave them alone. debbie



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Megan McCullough

posted April 19, 2007 at 8:42 pm


I am so comforted to know that I am not the only one thinking of this man’s family. Obviously he had severe mental problems and I feel for his mother who not only has to now look back on that, but to see what came of them. I wish the media in this country could be more sensitive and realize there is not just “good and evil”. There is a woman here mourning for her son, who in reality was lost to her long ago. Now, unfortunately, there are 32 more people lost. I will continue praying for all of their loved ones as well as the Cho family.



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sarah diligenti

posted April 19, 2007 at 10:50 pm


Thanks Diana for for your article. I had been talking at my daughter’s school this morning in one of these parents’ chat meeting (pre-scheduled a long time ago, but of course the VA Tech massacre came onto the agenda at the last minute) and was confused and sad that noone would understand me when I mentioned how lonely and how terrible it must be for Cho’s mother. I even mentioned the Amish tragedy (which they had already forgotten) and offered that because of the Amish’s sense of forgiveness, there was no other way for us but to follow in their steps and reach towards Cho’s family in their time of sorrow, incomprehension and potential feeling of guilt. I am so glad you wrote this article because I was feeling like the outsider at this meeting.



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Danielle

posted April 19, 2007 at 11:18 pm


Thank you for remembering his mother, whose grief is as deep, if not deeper, as that of the victim’s mothers.



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Diana Butler Bass, Ph.D.

posted April 19, 2007 at 11:21 pm


As a follow-up to readers of this post: Sadly enough, CNN reports tonight that Cho’s parents (Wolf Blitzer did not mention the sister) have received death threats.



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Bender

posted April 20, 2007 at 4:45 pm


Eve says nothing. She is silent. One can only imagine her anguish: Have I birthed this violence into the world? My son, my beloved son, the firstborn of all humanity, is a murderer. He has killed his brother. Is this my fault? . I don t know about that. True, technically it was through Eve that sin first entered the world, but her particular sin was a rupture between man and God. But it was Adam, not Eve, who first blamed his problems on another person. It was Adam s (second) sin of thinking and saying that it was all Eve s fault that is the rupture between man and man. . It is Adam s sin that more easily and naturally leads to Cain s misplaced blame of Abel for his own problems and, thus, his retaliation against Abel. I don t think that we can put that one entirely on Eve.



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Andre Lash

posted April 20, 2007 at 5:55 pm


Ms.Bass: Thank you SO MUCH for voicing what has been on my mind ever since Cho was first identified as the gunman. I cannot imagine the pain his parents are feeling–how does one deal with the loss of so much hope (which the other parents and families had also experienced) while also dealing with the devastation of knowing and loving the perpetrator? I am thankful that you VOICED the thoughts that obviously had been going through so many of our minds.



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Tracy

posted April 25, 2007 at 5:48 pm


“Silence” is too subtle to explain or examine. And it truly isn’t just a reflection of anguish.



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phoebe

posted April 28, 2007 at 5:21 am


while cho’s mother’s pain must be very great, i trust that she is consoled by jesus who knows all the ins and outs of the situation far better than we ever could. thank goodness for jesus who never fails to help and console us, and who never witholds forgiveness, no matter how messy our situations or terrible our crimes. may any silences borne of grief, guilt or confusion gently be turned into joyful witness of the risen one and all his incredible, healing love.



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