Those of us who live in Alabama have cringed recently at the spate of church burnings in our state over the past month. We know full well that such news draws the wrong kind of attention to the Yellowhammer State and stirs up ugly memories from our racially-tinged past. Although authorities felt that the recent incidents were not racially-motivated hate crimes, their investigation focused mostly on rural residents who might have special knowledge of the backroads and backwoods where the church burnings took place. In other words, they were looking for stereotypical, Alabama “rednecks.”
However, yesterday’s arrest of three upper-middle class Birmingham area college students caught everyone–victims, authorities, family members, teachers and classmates–by surprise. The three, two students at Birmingham-Southern College, a reputable private liberal arts school and the other a former BSC student who had transferred to UAB, were deer hunting in rural Alabama when they experienced what was likely an alcohol and marijuana-enhanced collective brain-lock and decided to burn five churches as a “prank.” A few days later, presumably after they had sobered up a bit, they decided to burn four more in an effort to throw investigators off the trail.
Prior to their arrest, the three were active and well-regarded members of their university communities. Now they are accused felons, each facing up to 45 years of prison, and their families, friends and victims are reeling from this latest news.
It’s difficult to make much sense out of situations like this. Why would three students who had so much going for them and looking ahead to a bright future throw it all away for a spree of destructive revelry? The president of Birmingham-Southern College, Dr. David Pollick, has been searching his soul and asking that same question, and this is what he had to say:
“These cruel and senseless acts of destruction have profoundly touched our college community. Where there once existed such a clear line between the harmless and playful and the harmful and cruel, we increasingly see young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct. Boundaries are all too often exceeded. The social use of alcohol moves easily and too frequently to dangerous irresponsibility. Innocent and healthy stages of interpersonal social encounters too frequently degrade to violent and personal acts of violation. We see symptoms of a culture of personal license so powerfully magnified in the actions of these young men.”
This latest incident is a clarion call for all of us who have passed through the difficult and dangerous years of adolescence and young adulthood to step up and model the kind of behavior and provide the kind of guidance that will help young people navigate these treacherous times. Too often, though, we fail in this regard, either through our own sins or through neglect.
I have already talked with my three sons about this latest incident and once again warned them that even good people can allow themselves to be trapped in circumstances which can quickly escalate out of control. I’m hoping that they’ll take this lesson to heart, and I pray for the victims and these young men and their families, that they all may be able to heal and discover a path to redemption through the difficult times ahead.
Yet, there is hope that something good and lasting will come of these dark events. Once again, to quote Dr. Pollick:
“The entire community of Birmingham-Southern College—students, faculty, and staff—pledges to aid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labor. Together we’ll stand as a reminder of the strength of communities that transcend the differences of religion and place, as well as the effects of mindless cruelty.”
Perhaps this lesson– that together we must work to make things right–will be the most important lesson that will rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes of this tragedy.