On Campus: Technological Sophistication and Moral Chaos
You are probably familiar with the disturbing story of the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi. If you are not aware of what happened in the past two weeks just 40 miles up U.S. 1, you need to be. The story is unfolding and is couched in terms of "alleged" and "apparent," but some things are clear. Tyler Clementi was a Rutgers freshman, bright and a gifted musician. His assigned and not known until a month ago roommate was Dharun Ravi, also an 18-year old freshman, also intelligent with a promising future. Ravi is from Princeton and Clementi from Ridgewood, NJ.
Two weeks ago, Clementi asked Ravi to leave their dorm room for several hours so he could be alone with another person. Ravi discovered that the other person was a man, apparently not another student, and left his computer’s web cam on when he left the room. He was able to view images from the camera using a friend’s computer. "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay," he reported on Twitter.
When Clementi asked for the room again two nights later, Ravi once more accessed the video feed from the friend’s computer, streamed live images to the Internet and alerted his Twitter followers and others to check it out. A day later Clementi committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bridge. You may click here for a full report.
The story is complicated and quintessentially early 21st Century. What are we to make of it? Is it a story of a college prank gone tragically wrong? Is it the story of a hate crime? Is technology to blame? Intolerance? Is sexual orientation central or incidental to all that happened?
Our college students are technologically sophisticated. In fact, what Dharun Ravi did from his laptop is probably only a few key strokes and mouse clicks away from the computer you are using to read this E-Pistle. There are no innocent pranks on the Internet. Technological sophistication without moral restraint is evil. What Dharun Ravi did two weeks ago, whatever his intent or motivation, was wrong and its consequences horrendous. He must face those consequences.
The Rutgers University campus, like most college campuses, is a place of moral chaos. Casual sex is normative. Little is not normative. The few regulations – with legal but no moral base – designed to govern the life of 18-year olds are enforced by 20-year old RAs. Sensitivity as the sole remaining virtue and tolerance and our lone value are too weak to restrain evil.
What happened at Rutgers was not a freak perfect storm of devastating proportion. It was waiting to happen and it is waiting to happen on nearly every college campus.
And we in the suburbs, Princeton and Ridgewood, New Jersey, Langhorne and Newtown, Pennsylvania, blithely send our 18-year olds to college thinking they are ready to confront the chaos. They are not. We have taught our children to be busy very well. They are busy with sports and music and social networking. But we have not taught them to be moral agents, to know virtues deeper than sensitivity and values stronger than tolerance.
We in the church have not taught our children to be Christian. Oh, we make sure they ask Jesus into their hearts, but we do not teach them to live as Christians. They are too busy.
The children of the church need to learn to defend the very personhood of their gay friends and classmates not because tolerance is good, but because God is good and is willing and able to redeem the personhood of every person, gay or straight. They need to learn to insist on moral order and discipline in their own lives and the lives of their Christian friends and classmates, especially and even when it seems insensitive, because God is holy and calls those he loves and redeems to live holy lives.
And where might our technologically sophisticated and morally stunted children learn such things? Not on the practice field or in the rehearsal room. Not on the Internet. Such learning takes place at church and home. In the Sunday school class and the youth group; in corporate worship and cross-generational mission. It takes place powerfully at the dining room table and on long walks and car trips where cell phones are muted and iPods stashed.
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)