Pastoral Perspectives

A Lament for RVHS

The killing that happened in River Valley High School on Monday was a tragedy that would’ve stirred many emotions in us—from disbelief to shock, from resentment to grief. This is an unprecedented incident in our national history, and none of us would have expected a young boy to be violently killed by his senior in school. When I first saw the news headlines on Monday afternoon about a boy who was allegedly killed in River Valley High School, I was in disbelief: Surely, something like that couldn’t have happened! Perhaps the boy is still alive, just badly wounded? We’ve always regarded our schools to be sanctuaries for growth and learning; long have we seen news of fatal school shootings in North America and never thinking we would encounter something similar here in Singapore. It took a while—and the corroboration of other news sources—for the shocking reality to sink in my mind.

As parents of young children, Abigail and I couldn’t help but feel grief and pity for the two sets of parents implicated in the tragedy because we know their lives would never be the same again. One would’ve lost a young son so suddenly and senselessly. Would they have known that morning would be the last time they bade farewell to him? Would they have expected him to depart from this life in such a brutal manner? The other would’ve to bear the shame of having a son who committed a brazen act of killing and battle the guilt of failing in their parenting. Did they do enough? Could they have done better? Regardless, what’s certain is that the incident brought about the end of cherished hopes and left them with only anguish and sorrow.

It’s difficult for anyone to make sense of what can only be regarded as senseless violence. We know the two boys weren’t acquainted at all—the older boy simply wanted to kill someone, anyone, and the younger boy was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. We now know the older boy was suffering from a long-term mental condition, but whether his actions were a result of that remain to be seen. Even so, that won’t justify anything—nothing justifies the taking of a life. Yet, the situation leaves us uneasy because there seems to be no one we can point fingers at and no one who can bear the brunt of the guilt. Could the older boy really be culpable for his actions if he has been mentally afflicted for a long time and was beside himself? We are allowed no neat resolutions.

Nor should we be tempted to give tidy theological explanations as consolations for such egregious evil. We all desire to justify or make sense of the evil we can’t square with a good and powerful God. Yet all too often, such rationalizations end up sounding callously glib or verging precariously on the blasphemous before the bare facts of evil. While we hope that such human evil will be transformed into something meaningful and redemptive by God, theologian Karen Kilby counsels that “we cannot even begin to imagine what that might be, to conceive of what could make meaningful, or understandable, or acceptable, the terrors that befall other people.” Perhaps we ought to refrain from rationalizing so quickly. Rushing into rationalization is merely avoiding confrontation with the sheer meaninglessness and senselessness of evil that emerges from a world of brokenness. Let’s not use our minds to lull our hearts into believing that evil has meaning and purpose, and is part of God’s programme. It doesn’t and isn’t.

Rather, we ought to give ourselves over to lament in the face of this tragedy. When we lament to God, we’re opening our eyes to evil, confronting it head on, and expressing to God our sorrows and frustrations with it. We’re telling him we can’t make sense of it and we’re asking him to deal with it in ways we can’t as finite creatures. Laments are often given short shrift in our prayer because we’re uncomfortable with acknowledging the egregiousness of evil in this world. Yet, if we consider the Psalms the “prayer book of the Bible,” then God clearly wants us to lament more because more than one third of the psalms contain laments. Certainly, lament offers us no real closure from our side—and indeed, it’s not meant to—but it offers us closure from God’s side, something that we can’t see but can only grasp by faith.

We know God didn’t deal with evil in the world by giving us good reasons for it and rationalizing it away. He dealt with evil by sending his Son Jesus Christ to suffer the meaninglessness and senselessness of it alongside with us in a broken world. Just before he died on the cross, framed for a crime he never committed, Christ cried out a lament familiar to him: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the throes of his suffering, it felt as if God was absent. But most paradoxically, it was God himself (in the person of the Son) who made the lament, and with it he joined himself to the lamentation of every single human ever to have experience evil: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Who was it who raised a protest against evil but God himself? And so, Christ died.

However, God the Father heard the cry of his Son, and on the third day raised him up by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s resurrection demonstrates that our laments aren’t for naught; they aren’t merely cries into a void. While God may seem absent in the face of evil, he hears all our laments, and he laments with us. In the resurrection, God has shown that he has “kept count of [our] tossings; put [our] tears in [his] bottle” (Ps. 56.8) and he will one day act decisively to “wipe every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev. 21.4). For Christians, lamentation expresses the hope we have against hope, that even though we can’t quite fathom how it can be so, no human tragedy is beyond the power of God’s love to heal and transform. It’s trust that though we have no answers, God himself will provide an answer to all human tragedies when death is finally swallowed up in victory and evil is no more.

Until then, we are allowed to lament. Nay, we should lament—we must. As long as evil remains with us, lament must remain on our lips. So now we lament together, in solidarity with all who are in pain because of this national tragedy. As Christians we come before God on behalf of our nation to lament. We bring before God those mixed emotions which constitute our grief: numb disbelief and sad bewilderment; the bitterness of anger; the deep sense of loss; and our helpless and vulnerable feelings when confronted with meaningless and senseless evil in this broken world. We lament over the death of a young boy, a life taken all too quickly; we lament over the brokenness within the older boy, for the evil that has overcome him; we lament over the lives of two families irrevocably marred by an act of evil; and we lament over the trauma which the other students, staff, and parents had to go through. May all who’re drawn into this tragedy find their ultimate closure in Christ. And may our lamentation move us to more kindness, compassion, and empathy that we may breathe the love of Christ into a broken world. Amen.

Pr Png Eng Keat

July 25, 2021