Jason Byassee: Not to mourn as those who have no hope

What do you say at the side of a grave filled too soon, when you have no words of faith?

Pity poor President Richard Levin of Yale, who after the murder of Annie Le had only thin words of hope to offer. Of course, Levin is not a pastor or rabbi or imam, and Yale is no longer a religious school, so no one should expect religious words from him on such an occasion. All that granted. But I’ve never noticed the absence of words of divine comfort as profoundly as when I read the thin gruel he offered to such hungry, grieving souls. As a theologian I often want to argue with unbelievers, to show the beauty of the life of faith, to try to convince them to our side and defend against arguments used to lure us to theirs. But I’ve never felt outright pity before now.

Here are Levin’s words, offered up at a community-wide candlelight vigil:

"When I see you all assembled on an occasion so sad and so disturbing, I am reminded that we are an extraordinary community, a community of concern.

I think of the values that bind us together. These values begin with the search for truth. As scholars, as learners, as seekers-- and as human souls with empathy and compassion, we find it incomprehensible that life can be so unjust. But Socrates taught us long ago that wisdom and understanding are advanced through dialogue, through conversation. And so, at a time like this, as we ponder a reality that is unsettling and frightening, we must come together, to talk with one another, to try to understand. I urge you to reach out to each other, to support one another.

Some of you, especially those of you who knew Annie Le, are grieving. Others are afraid. You can help one another, and I know you will. But to those who need more, I say please seek help. At your service are your teachers, advisers, deans, masters, directors of graduate studies, representatives of the Yale Religious Ministries, and the mental hygiene staff of the University Health Service. They are all here for you, day and night.

I am especially concerned for the many newcomers in our midst -- first year students in Yale College, the Graduate School, and the professional schools. I ask those of you who know the ways of our community to reach out especially to them, to make clear to them that, despite this horrendous trauma, our commitment to truth, openness, trust, and collaboration-- and to making the world a better place -- will endure.

We are doing all that we can to ensure your security across the campus, and we are cooperating fully with the law enforcement authorities. I am very hopeful that the perpetrator of this dreadful crime will soon be brought to justice.

As our candles burn, let us ponder and let us take comfort in each other’s presence. Our hearts go out to the family of Annie Le, to her fiancé and his family, and to her many friends. We pray for their comfort and well-being, as we honor and remember Annie."

Christians are those charged in scripture to mourn -- but not to mourn as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Tom Long’s brilliant new book “Accompany Them with Singing” speaks of ancient Christians doing precisely what the title says. As they accompanied the body from the place of death to the grave, they rejoiced. For death is not simply a tragic end for those joined in Christ, who has himself passed through the grave and hell on the way to the triumph of the resurrection. We bury our sisters and brothers and say not “goodbye forever,” but “until then.”

I’m tempted to say Levin’s comments suggest a belief in nothing, but that may not quite be right. We might call this a version of Christian Smith’s “therapeutic moralistic deism”-- the description with which he captures the faith of Millenials. Only this is “therapeutic moralistic secularism.” There can be no appeal here to anything specifically religious, though psychological comfort and the language of justice remain on offer. The institution has no word in the face of death beyond “watch out for one another,” “visit the counseling center” and “we’ll catch the guy.” From a Christian vantage point -- one Yale once shared, as most great universities did in this country -- we are empowered by the resurrection to face death with triumphant singing, not with a whimper of acquiescence or tears without comfort.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.