Thursday, March 09, 2006

Church Burnings Hit Close to Home

Today's topic is a little off my normal beat. Yesterday three students were arrested for setting fires at nine churches in Alabama. Two of them are students at Birmingham Southern College, and the third had been before transferring to the University of Alabama. I don't know these guys personally, but I could.

Birmingham Southern College is the opposite number to Centre College, where I teach. Both are classic small liberal arts colleges. Both are church-related, Methodist in the case of BSC, Presbyterian in Centre's circumstance. Both are part of the Associated Colleges of the South, an association of the premier liberal arts colleges of the South. I don't know these guys, but I easily could – I have students just like them.

The early accounts say that all three are pranksters and aspiring actors. They were almost certainly drunk when they set the first fires – the official condemnation by the Birmingham Southern president implies as much. An unnamed witness quoted in all the news reports, no doubt a friend of theirs, said the fires were "a joke that got out of hand."

How do we make sense of this? When the story first broke, the reaction of the press and most attentive middle-aged people was that these fires were racially motivated. Church destruction near Birmingham naturally suggests white racists, possibly in hoods, burning black churches. But the story couldn't play that way – the churches were mostly white Baptist congregations out in the country.

Now that the culprits have been caught, the story may unfold a different way: reckless rich kids with no respect for faith arrogantly destroy working-class people's treasures. They were caught through the records of the new SUV tires of one of the three, a doctor's kid who had taken the other two for a night of deer shooting. We don't have a statement from the miscreants themselves yet, so it is too early to tell, but this is my best guess about what happened.

The condemnation by the college's president and the head of security tried an alternate theory: kid's today are worse than they used to be. "We increasingly see," President Pollick and Chief Youngblood wrote, "young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct." Now, collecting young people, especially young men, who engage in destructive conduct is something that colleges have specialized in since the dawn of the university. I don't think things are any worse now than they ever were in that regard.

I am a silver-lining seeker. Here is the silver lining I see in this story. The headline on this story today is not "Methodist College Students Burn Baptist Churches." To even write it seems a silly idea. And that is a blessing to count.


Stuart Gordon said...

I tend to be skeptical any time someone starts singing with Paul Lynde, "What's the matter with kids today?" As an undergraduate in the 1980's, at a small, church-related, liberal-arts college, I saw plenty of foolish and destructive behavior. With the rest of the college, I was regaled at a convocation by a famous alumnus, who told similar stories from the 1940's. I'm sure it goes back further than our memories.

All the same, is there a question here to ask, not about kids, but about colleges? Things HAVE changed in that regard, haven't they? Once colleges acted in some sort of role as local parents to undergraduates, and held up standards for behavior. Rules were broken, for sure. Expectations were variously met and missed. But there were shared expectations!

Colleges are no different from any other institution of society these days in this regard: they function as if their constituent members are autonomous individuals, who are not accountable to the body.

I no more expect colleges to "go back to the way things were" than I expect mainline Protestant churches in this country to exercise their historic function of "discipline" or "mutual accountability."

However, maybe I should expect colleges not to scapegoat their students, for whom they provide no real expectations and no community of accountability, until they get caught burning churches on a lark!

In truth, we're all accountable.

Denis Hancock said...

I am NOT drawing any kind of "moral equivalency" here, but 80 some years ago Loeb and Leopold murdered a young boy just to see if they could get away with it.

They were University of Chicago students at the time.

So this is not a thing that is just now becoming more common, and I have to question the BSC president's judgement in trying to make that case.

I have to say my gut response was that I would have felt better had it been acts of racism -- at least then there is some kind of twisted sense to it all.

Denis Hancock said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. said...

These guys need the book thrown at them, what they did was terrirble. I don't care that it started out as a prank. They deserve the harshest punsihment that can be dished out.
Raymond B

Paul M. said...

Silver linings . . .

A week ago today, one of my students from last semester rapidly drove an SUV through the most crowded spot on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus in an attempt to kill as many students as possible.

Mohammed Taheriazar was one of my brightest students, a senior for whom I turned out a dozen glowing recommendations during his grad school application process only two months ago.

He was ostensibly going to get a PhD in psychology and study the problem of violence in young American males.

Now he is in prison, probably for the rest of his life.

The silver "lining," I suppose, is that he didn't succeed in killing anyone. Unfortunately, the much larger, dark "core" to this event is that his aligning his actions with a desire to serve Allah have polarized campus here.

Unfortunately, the first thing that pops up when you Google his name is my composition course's website, which means many of my students have had to unplug their phones to get rid of relentless reporters. I have refused to return their calls myself.

It's hard to know what to do in this situation. I've put in a request to visit Mohammed and resume some of the philosophical conversations he began with me in my office last fall. I'm not sure he'll take me up on it, but I'd appreciate your prayers.

In the past weeek, the news has confronted us with a number of disturbed young men, with violence against buildings as some crazy rite of passage, and violence against people in the name of religious belief.

Graduating from Centre with a B.S. in psychology and one of Dr. Passariello's cultural anthropology courses under my belt in the early 90s, I thought I had a pretty good handle on human behavior and motivation.

Eleven years of marriage, ten years of teaching, and five years of parenting later, I know far more . . . and understand much less.

SPorcupine said...


Gruntled is too sick to blog, or I know he'd write this himself. Of course you have our prayers and concerns, and so does your student. Asking to see him, and thinking of a human being who has done great wrong as still human, is surely an important thing you can do. Take care!

No Spring Chicken said...

to Paul M. -- I hope you get permission to visit Mohammed. It must be very painful to see a talented young person toss away all his opportunities and the joys of life. I feel real anger toward those older leaders who have encouraged so many deeply sensitive young people to express their faith through acts of violence toward others and negation of themselves. Instead of becoming saints and scholars they use themselves as weapons.

Gruntled said...

I think Mohammed Taheriazar has been sold the same kind of reasoning that we see in the Dubai ports debacle (see