Exorcising evil: lessons from the fatal shooting in Taber

Published June 1, 1999

DALE LANG’S RESPONSE to the shooting death of his son Jason gave people something to think about. In some television reports the day after the school shooting in Taber, Alta. it was clear some reporters were uncomfortable with the fact that Mr. Lang, an Anglican priest, was holding a news conference about the death of his 17-year-old son wearing his clergy collar. One sensed almost an embarrassment that this person was obviously a Christian leader. Some media outlets, especially national newspapers, didn’t take long to explore that angle of the story. Eventually Mr. Lang’s tenacious witness to his faith and ministering to the community forced even skeptical media to deal with this aspect of the story. What caught perhaps the most attention was Mr. Lang’s “exorcising” of evil from the school. Although not the formal, rarely performed exorcism, the average person who saw or heard it perhaps best interpreted the act. Mr. Lang quite straightforwardly named evil as having entered the area. And who could argue with that? Theological abstractions aside, almost anyone would agree that such a horrific act does incarnate evil in some way. And we all knew something dramatic had to happen to change the situation so that students would feel not just safe but at home in their school once again. What Mr. Lang did was name the situation for what it was, call Jesus into the centre of the situation and then hand the cleansed school back to the students. It’s not that it was a charismatic exorcism that counts, it is that a Christian priest handled a difficult situation with pastoral sensitivity in a way that went toward restoring that school and that community to normalcy. Mr. Lang’s powerful Christian pastoral witness also contrasts with the way some other communities have dealt with awful tragedy. It is not to say they were wrong, but one can’t help feeling that the politicizing of both the recent Littleton massacre and the horrendous murder of Matthew Shepard took away from both the humanity of the victims and their survivors but also inhibited God’s humanity in Jesus Christ being recognized by those communities as a source of strength. By keeping a strong focus on God in the Taber incident, and by calling the Incarnate God, Jesus, into the middle of the horror of incarnate evil, Mr. Lang at least gave people the chance to at the fundamental level of sorrow and anger. That is important, because human emotions need to be honoured. But just as important, the grieving didn’t stay there. It moved past those emotions to a level where students could think of returning to their violated school. God’s humanity, the aspect of God we can most relate to, especially under such trying gestures, provided a way forward for people. In all this, Dale Lang was certainly a model pastor. What is remarkable, however, is not that, but the fact that he was at the same time the father of a just-murdered son. Through the four or five days after the shooting, Dale Lang was in fact so much the pastor one wonders if he had time to mourn himself. We all mourn in different ways and it may be quite private. The important thing is that the church and community permit the Langs to grieve. Christianity, after all, does not negate our humanity. It transforms it so that we mourn with hope and faith in the Resurrection. The other danger in this situation is that our need to create icons could put Mr. Lang on a pedestal as a hero. That would be just as unhealthy as not letting him mourn. Mr. Lang has been called and trained as an Anglican priest. That he was able to minister to others when he too was in need is indeed remarkable. But he needs time to be a father to his family. When anyone is given grace to rise to the occasion, it needs to be seen as a special gift from God, not as the standard by which all will be judged or a sign that the person must be better or have deeper faith than others. Dale Lang called for God to displace evil with grace, believing that, “where sin abounds, grace abounds the more.” As awful as it was, the Taber shooting was an opportunity for all of us to see God is still working in our church.


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