Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pitched past pitch of grief / 2

My thanks again to the In the Middle community for allowing me this chance to think aloud.

***

After leaving Jason to die that Sunday morning, Rogers moved a mile or so south, where he shot Elizabeth Rumsey at Winchester Lagoon on Sunday evening. He then made his way, apparently on foot, a few blocks away, where he shot Tamas Deak and stole his Wagoneer the next morning, on Monday, after holing up for the night. Deak, a local architect who, like Jason the day before, had gone out early to warm up his car.

After the attack on Deak, Anchorage police knew the events were related, and they swarmed the Anchorage bowl for Rogers. When found Deak's Wagoneer and Rogers refused to stop, APD rammed it on Northern Lights Blvd. Rogers was taken into custody.

***

The UAA press release read, in part:

ANCHORAGE, AK – A memorial to honor the life and work of graduate student Jason Wenger is scheduled for the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 15, on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. All are invited.

Jason’s life was taken on Dec. 2 in Anchorage by a gunman in an apparently random shooting.

Jason, who was 27 when he died, was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program in the UAA Dept. of Creative Writing and Literary Arts. His thesis was in fiction, and he was expected to graduate in May.

Jason’s parents, Mason and Debbie Staub of Brighton, Colorado, will attend. Also attending will be Mike Driscoll, Provost of Academic Affairs. The office of UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer will be represented.

The Potluck and Celebration of Jason’s life will be held 6-10 p.m. in the Campus Den, on the ground floor of the Student Union. The potluck is scheduled for 6-7 p.m. The program will start at 7 p.m. with a prayer from Jason’s father.

Dr. Douglas Causey, vice provost for research at UAA and Dean of The Graduate School, will confer the MFA degree on Jason posthumously and give the diploma to his parents.

Anyone who wishes will be invited to speak in Jason’s remembrance.


Joann Mapson, Jason's academic advisor, included Jason's paper on Levenson as part of his thesis portfolio.

***

According to the Anchorage Daily News, "After his arrest, Rogers told police he was angry over his treatment by family members before the Palmer attack, but said the attacks in Anchorage were largely random, according to a police affidavit filed in court." The report continued, "After two killings Sunday, he kept hunting because he 'just wanted to kill a few more people,' he told police."

***

I attended the memorial last Tuesday night, with my youngest son, an eighth grader, who had to tag along. He didn't have much of a choice. I was his ride home.

***

"Who gave strength to Abraham’s arm? Who held his right hand up so that it did not fall limp at his side? He who gazes at this becomes paralyzed." (Johannes de Silentio via Kierkegaard, _Fear and Trembling_, trans. Lowrie, p. 36)

***

The memorial, or "Celebration of Life" as it was called, was well attended, with about 100 folks from around Anchorage, including Jason's coworkers at ASSETS, a social service agency. A memory book for personal messages, a handsome volume for signatures, photos of Jason, his nearly complete thesis, and other momento mori were arranged on a draped table in the entry to the UAA Den, a small venue in the lower level of the UAA Student Center where a local band might play next week.

I saw several students I knew, a few faculty, and several administrators. The lighting was muted, and small tea candles dotted the tables. Folks sat talking quietly in groups, munching at the goodies from the modest buffet. A small box of tissues rested at the center of each table. But there was cake, too, with Jason's name scrolled brightly in the icing. Every once in awhile I heard laughter. He was well loved by his friends, and even casual acquaintances spoke highly of his kindness.


***

At his arraignment after the murders and his capture, the ADN reported, "an animated, somewhat cocky Rogers cracked jokes and smirked as [Judge] Clark asked if he had money for a lawyer or if anyone else would put it up for him.

"Hell, no," Rogers said. "I talked to one, but I don't really think it's going to help."

***

"This attention and this action [to the suffering of the other] are so imperiously and directly incumbent on human beings (on their I's) that it makes awaiting them from an all-powerful God impossible without our lowering ourselves. The consciousness of this inescapable obligation brings us close to God in a more difficult, but also more spiritual, way than does confidence in any kind of theodicy." ("Useless Suffering," p. 94; emph. Levinas)

***

The evening began with a few introductions and thank-yous to those who had helped to organize the evening. The pastor of the Baptist church Jason attended in Anchorage opened with a brief prayer. Jason's parents had flown up to Anchorage from Colorado especially for the occasion. At their table, a young woman held her burbling baby who cooed for her attention. I did not know her, nor her child. A large man with grey hair and beard, Jason's father, rose to speak, carrying a bible and notes to the lectern, right about where the bass player would probably stand.

***

I resisted my natural impulse to take notes while Jason's father spoke. Just the academic in me, I suppose. When people talk, I write. It helps me think.

***

"Abraham's relation to Isaac, ethically speaking, is quite simply expressed by saying that a father shall love his son more than himself." (Fear and Trembling, p. 67)

***

After thanking everyone for their kindnesses, Jason's father said that he was certain of two things: One, that Jason's murderer would be brought to justice and, two, that Jason was in heaven, in the presence his savior, looking down upon us.

He would be remiss and unfaithful to Jason, said the father, if he did not tell us clearly and directly that Jason's greatest purpose in life was serve Jesus. Jason's greatest desire, he said, would be that we too know Jesus personally as Jason did. Jason's father told us the plan of salvation. I specifically remember him quoting Romans 6:23:


"But the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

My son looked at me, an eyebrow arched.

***

"Faith is precisely this paradox, that the individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified over against it, is not subordinate but superior—yet in such a way, be it observed, that it is the particular individual who, after he has been subordinated as the particular to the universal, now through the universal becomes the individual who as the particular is superior to the universal, for the fact that the individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. This position cannot be mediated … " (Fear and Trembling, p. 66)

***

I remember very clearly the day I asked Jesus into my heart. I was at my grandma's house, where she had held a "backyard bible club" all week for the neighborhood kids. I remember a little booklet—no words, only colors—the size of a packet of matches. The first page was green, the second black, the third brown, the fourth red, and the fifth gold. The green was for when God created the world. It was perfect and it was good. The black was because Adam and Eve had sinned. The third was for the wood of Jesus' cross, and the red was for Jesus' shed blood. The gold was the color of heaven, where I would go when I died if I prayed the sinner's prayer.

I understood that I had made Jesus sad by my sins, like I made my mom sad when I did things I wasn't supposed to. This was all very clear to me.

I went into my grandma's bathroom and asked Jesus to come into my heart. I asked him to forgive my sins and to take me into heaven when I died. I came out and told my mom and grandma. I remember they were very happy. They had tears in their eyes.

I was five years old.

***

"Already within an isolated consciousness, the pain of suffering can take on the meaning of pain that wins merit and hopes of a reward, and so lose, it would appear, its modality of uselessness in various ways. Is it not meaningful as a means with an end in view, when it makes itself felt in the effort that goes into the preparation of a work, or in the fatigue resulting from it?" ("Useless Suffering," p. 95)

***

The murder spree began when Rogers killed his father with a machete and wounded his father's girlfriend after spending the night at their house. A few days later the Anchorage Daily News reported: "James Moren went to work Thursday cleaning up a crime scene that included his mother's dried blood—remains of a Dec. 2 machete attack that nearly killed her.

'If she could live through it, I could clean it,' Moren said."

***

Jason's father told us that he actually was not Jason's natural father, though you could have fooled me. He said that Jason's father died when he was very young. But he became Jason's father when he married Jason's mother, and Jason was the only son he'd ever had. He loved him as his own. Although Jason had been taught the scriptures growing up, as a teenager he began to go his own way and ignore the faith he had been taught. His parents prayed that he would be troubled by his sin, convicted of his errors by the Holy Spirit, and return to a life of faith. They provided copies of the book, "The Pundit's Folly," the one that showed Jason the error of his ways, for any of us to pick up and take home.

***

Jason wrote the following, as part of his personal manifesto as a creative writer:

"... it is my responsibility as a lover of fiction to be an active member in my community and world. In the case of many writers, this activity takes shape in politics and action. Here I must again admit my shortcomings. My heart is much more drawn to the individual, rather than the population. I suppose this is again representative of my world view. I believe in individual and personal civil service. I hope to remain humble, and to emulate the example of the servant, Jesus Christ."

Jason's advisor provided this snippet for the memorial's printed program.

***

The ADN reported, "At the [arraignment] hearing, Dana Murphy-Hoffman of the Office of Victim's Rights watched what she called an arrogant appearance by Rogers, whose family she said she has known for years. Rogers has had problems with drinking and drugs, but nothing that would have led her to believe he would be capable of the crimes he is charged with, Murphy-Hoffman said.

His upbeat attitude won't likely last long, she said.

'He's enjoying the attention for the moment, but I think at some point the reality is going to sink in that this is life from now on,' she said."

***

In class we debated the complexities of Hebrews 11:17-19, which reads:

"17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, 
18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: 19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure" (KJV).

Isaac was not Abraham's only son, nor was Isaac killed, but only bound, as Rashi teachers. But how real is the near sacrifice of Isaac if he exists only to foreshadow Jesus, the perfect sacrifice who comes after? Why the horror of the raised blade at Isaac's throat if he is only a figure? What—or who, then—does Abraham receive back after this moment?

***

My mom wanted me to get baptized after I turned twelve. My dad said no, not until I understood better what I was doing and what it meant. I was baptized on my fourteenth birthday. I found out later that the pastor who baptized me eventually left the ministry.

***

In order, as printed in the program, representatives of different UAA offices offered their condolences and presented their memorials. John Roberson, President of Student Government, read a proclamation passed by the student representatives and sponsored a gift, a tree to be planted in Jason's name after the winter ended. Doug Causey, Dean of the Graduate School, presented Jason's degree posthumously to his parents. It was the first time, according to the Dean, that UAA had granted a degree posthumously. An evolutionary biologist by trade, Doug told the story of Alexander the Great meeting Diogenes who said, "Don't stand in the sun." Jason's mother and father accepted the diploma and took their seats again.

***

Jason's creative writing manifesto continued:

"… I do not believe I can earn such grace or mercy. But in striving to live my life like a servant, I pray that God will bless me with the wisdom to suffer the intolerance of my sin, and the ability to strengthen my love for Him and His creation. If in the act of service, I continue to gain ideas, experience conflicts, empathize with characters, benefit my fellow man, and take notes, I will consider myself worthy to be called a writer."

... To suffer the intolerance of my sin ...

***

After his murder, Jason's mother posted a message on the ADN website:

Yesterday someone took my son's life, but only his fragile human body. Today my son rejoices with his savior. My heart aches for my loss, but Jason knows no pain or sorrow any more. Those responsible will some day face the judge of all the earth, The Lord Jesus. Seek forgiveness while it may be found.

***

I was very active in church as a teenager. I went to church all day Sunday and again on Wednesday for prayer meeting. Tuesday night was bible study and Friday night was youth activity night. I loved singing in the choir. We sang special programs at Christmas and Easter. I wrote and acted in dramas and puppet shows. I went on mission trips. I did street witnessing and knocked on doors to tell people about Jesus.

I can still recite "The Four Spiritual Laws" tract pretty much by heart
.

***

The Anchorage Daily News reported that when "Judge Brian Clark read the charges at the Anchorage jail court Tuesday: two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder in the first degree. Christopher Erin Rogers Jr., the defendant, yawned."

***

In contrast to Levenson, Solomon Spiegel asserts unequivocally,

"The Akedah story repels once for all the primitive notion of the sanctity of the human first born and its derivative demand for the literal sacrifice of children. The Akedah story declared war on the remnants of idolatry in Israel and undertook to remove root and branch the whole long, terror-laden inheritance from idolatrous generations." (The Last Trial, p. 73; emph. Spiegel)

***

Jason loved to play softball, and he helped put together a team in one of the local co-ed summer leagues. At the memorial, the team's coach told a story about the time they played the league's leading team. You know the kind: arrogant, trash talking, loud mouthed, widely disliked, but really good. Jason's team was leading because of a technicality as they made the last out, and all they had to do was get off the field before the official scorer caught the error. The coach hurried everyone off the playing field, but Jason stood in right field and refused to budge. The coach screamed at him to get off the field, but Jason said, "No. We're not going to win like that. We're going to beat them fair and square." The teams returned to the diamond, and Jason's team lost by ten runs in the next inning.

Everyone at the memorial agreed that that was a good Jason story. Stick it out to the end, the right way, or it didn't count.


***

Sometimes I think I don't take my boys to church often enough. I don't take them at all anymore, really. Sometimes that puts a lump in my throat.

***

The only words Isaac speaks in the Akedah are simple and straightforward:

"And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Genesis 22:7, KJV).

Isaac calls his father's name, and that is what he wants: To be recognized by his father. To be recognized as his father's son. Not as one object among others in the sacrificial preparations: fire, wood, lamb.

Isaac's fear, his foreboding arises because he recognizes the accoutrements of sacrifice and understands that something is missing. But how can that be?

If the Akedah is the singular event that displaces child sacrifice with an animal substitute, how is it that Isaac knows that something is missing?

He's seen this before, or something like this.


***

"Is not the evil of suffering—extreme passivity, helplessness, abandonment, and solitude—also the unassumable, whence the possibility of a half opening, and, more precisely, the half opening that a moan, a cry, a groan of a sigh slips through—the original call for aid, for curative help, help from the other me whose alterity, whose exteriority promises salvation?" ("Useless Suffering," p. 93)

***

Could a son utter a more desperate cry of help than to say, "My father"?

***

Considered authoritative in several early lists of canonical works, 1 Clement 31.1-3 (c. 90-100 CE) states:

"Let us cleave then to His blessing, and consider what are the paths of blessing. Let us think over the things which have taken place from the beginning. 2 For what reason was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith? 3 Isaac, confidently knowing what was going to happen, was gladly led as a sacrifice."

What did Isaac know? How could he know it?

And why does Abraham's blessing require Isaac's immolation?

***

At the memorial, I lived again a moment I have suffered dozens, maybe hundreds, of times before—being preached to by someone of the utmost sincerity and purest motive whose only concern was my earthly happiness and eternal salvation. Someone who is utterly confident in his command of these mysteries, of this suffering.

I've sat unaffected by these kinds of appeals in the past, but never in the penumbra of a student's murder. A kind of willing sacrifice, I was being told.

I was 15 years old again, at church camp, ashamed of my failings and looking for forgiveness.


***

"This is the kingdom of transcendent ends, willed by a benevolent wisdom, by the absolute goodness of a God who is in a sense defined by that supernatural goodness; or a goodness invisibly disseminated in Nature and History, whose paths, indeed painful but henceforth meaningful, subordinated in one way or another to the metaphysical finality glimpsed by faith or belief in progress. Beliefs presupposed by theodicy!"("Useless Suffering," p. 96)

***

Jason wrote me about falling behind in class, but it took me a couple of days to get back to him, and our emails crossed paths in the digital ether. In the manner of a 'reply' email, my later email is above his earlier message:

Subject: Re: Class tonight

I did get it, Jason (for which many thanks) but I was letting it simmer before I responded. I understand completely the problems of being overburdened, and so I'm glad that you have made a decision to keep yourself healthy and not sacrifice yourself to something that ultimately will not benefit you.

See you tonight, and I hope we'll have a chance to meet up again--

dkline

---

Subject: Class tonight.

Hello Dr. Kline,

I never received a response from you on my last email, so I hope you got it. Either way, I wanted to inform you that I'm withdrawing from the class. I'm coming tonight to say my goodbyes. Bring the knife and the wood.

Jason Wenger


***

I've taught many classes but never had a student stop by to say goodbye and how much he enjoyed the class, even though he had to drop. So the class members told me.

I was a couple minutes late though, and Jason had to leave. I didn't get to tell him goodbye.


***

"So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went down together to Beersheba and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba." (Gen 22: 19)

There is no mention of Isaac, returning. Abraham never again speaks to God.

***

The last line of Jason's final email to me: "bring the knife and the wood."

What can I say?

What is there to say?

***

We had to leave before the memorial was over because we had a long commute. My son slept most of the way home, the half-light of the moon reflecting off the snow limned his face in shadow.





9 comments:

New Kid on the Hallway said...

(o)

IndieFaith said...

Thanks again for these beautiful posts. The only thought that I have floating around is the relationship between Levinas' "uselessness of suffering" and your process of meaning-making. Do these in any way conflict or create tension? I do not know Levinas and cannot comment on that.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Dan, this was so moving. You are quite a writer. I can't imagine a better memorial for Jason.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I also want to share these lines, from Eileen Joy and Mary K. Ramsey, lines that have haunted me since I read them and that seem appropriate here:

Bodies (both alive and dead), history, and language, and all of the fiercely tangled relations between them -- what do the dead want from us, what might we want from each other at any given moment, and how might we sufficiently record our past and present histories in order to lend some kind of meaning and ethical content to what some of us fear, deep down, is a kind of unscripted chaos? ("Liquid Beowulf" LIII)

Karl Steel said...

Finally had a chance to read this, Dan. I'm shaken.

I had that little colored booklet too, when I was a kid, and I can't help but be reminded of being a child and promising my love, each night, to Christ, praying that I not be sent to Hell, but knowing that I claimed love only to avoid Hell, and knowing that Christ knew this too. I know, then, that it was hopeless, and so each night I prayed in terror, wracked by my inescapable insincerity.

I can't help but connect, or think through, this terror (and, on a larger scale, Jason's murder) with 'useless suffering.' I don't know how yet to do this, but all I can wonder is how my inescapable eternal torment could call anyone to responsibility. And I wonder what the suffering of the dead does, how their lives call on us, even or especially when we've missed our chance.

MLP said...

To comment at all seems presumptuous, nonetheless:

1) the course seems a fitting meditation in its own right; I wonder how the rest of the class has mediated their experience of suffering and the texts.

2) you have begun to accomplish for Jason what the writers and commentators have done for Isaac (and for Jesus): preserved his memory and probed the suffering (his, his parents,' your own) for meaning.

3) I still take my kids to church (and go myself) not because any of these stories have the answers, but because they can bear the questions.

dtk said...

indiefaith--you smoked me out way ahead of time and your question is the one that's been gnawing at me the most. I hope I addressed it somewhat in the last post.

jeffrey--thanks for your feedback and support and most of all the invitation to struggle with some of this aloud in the midst of such a great community of folks.

karl--*i'm* stunned, that someone else knows this little wordless text that has cast such a shadow over my life, for good and ill. i hadn't thought about it for years until Jason's memorial. i too don't really *know* how the dead call us to responsibility. i just know that they do and the echoes continue

msp--i've spoken with some of the class members and their experiences run the gamut from just moving onto the next thing in life to establishing an ongoing dialogue with me about these questions to literally laughing in my face about the way it caught me by surprise. teaching can be a tough business!

IndieFaith said...

Your posts have been wonderful. I am left needing to reflect more on the issue of violence. I am a pastor at a Mennonite church and I certainly realize that being in a peace church tradition does not absolve me from violence. And if we cannot be absolved from violence than how do we articulate that? No responses at the moment. But thanks again.

Erin said...

I was one of Jason's classmates in the MFA program. This is a powerful post. The confusion of combining so many elements to make a larger story mirrors exactly the way I feel about what happened to him. It's hard to process.

As hard as it was to read this, I'm so glad to see that Jason was able to touch you in the brief time you knew him. He was like that, though. You couldn't know him without being affected.