extraTEXTure Special Feature

Murder as Karma?


Mary van Valkenburg

Copyright 1995 All rights reserved

The worst kind of evening news shattered my life when I received word that my brother and his wife had been murdered by an intruder into their Montana home who shot them dead as they slept in their bed. Most of my friends, although horrified, offered tremendous support and compassion to me in my time of crisis. Nobody suggested it was I who was actually responsible for the murders.

Nobody, that is, except my New Age friend, Alana. "Wow, you have some heavy karma," was Alanaís response, likely referring to the fresh memory of my other brotherís suicide two years earlier. With edgy enthusiasm she added, "but you can change your karma ." Oh my karma, was it? That explained everything.

Such an easy answer to the mysteries of life, death and double homicide. Alana, you see, is an East-turner, a "Buddhist," who believes all misfortune is a result of wrongdoings committed in previous incarnations of the soul and pain is our teacher, our karma, our lesson to be learned. We cause our troubles.

As payment and punishment for unremembered sins from a veiled past, other peopleís tragedies make perfect sense and one need never ask the big WHY. The path to happiness is approached by chanting for hours on end. So now, all I have to do to avoid more dead brothers is start chanting Buddhist prayers. Who knows what further horrors my sins will bring about if I fail to change my karma?

Alanaís borrowed Eastern beliefs are embraced by many of todayís New Age Children of the Light. They share an insistence that each individual is responsible--by choice or by karma--for everything that happens to him.

"If a man steps into an elevator and meets a scissor-wielding psychopath who stabs him in the eye, youíre telling me he chose it?" I once asked incredulously. "Yes," said Jack, the holistic healer. Car accidents are outward manifestations of victimsí anger? The unhealthy energy of sexually imbalanced women draws rapists out of dark alleyways? Really?

Even updated with pseudo-sophisticated psychobabble, those opinions sound to me even less enlightened than the Biblical Old Testament view that poverty and suffering were Godís retribution for sin.

My favorite New Age enlightened explanation came a few years back from a guru giving a lesson on the Gulf War. "The war against Saddam Hussein proved the whole world is moving to a higher spiritual plane," he said in a New Age echo of George Bushís public relations campaign as he promoted the spiritual and historical significance of multinational, combined positive energies transcending the forces of darkness.

"What about the masses of people who died?" I interjected. "Those people chose to die because there was something they had to learn from it." In one line he wiped away all reason to feel sad about 100,000 Iraqi deaths and the searing agony of their mourners. Quick and easy. He never felt a thing.

A landscape designer who spends a quarter of his earnings on male-bonding, drumming workshops so he can grow told me that the world is rapidly reaching a new era of enlightenment. Letís hope so. But, I said, I didnít think the people of Bosnia would agree. "They are not on as high a spiritual level as we are," he responded. "Their suffering does not matter. Itís what they learn from it that counts."

Cathy, the formerly spiritually superior New Jersey homemaker, was sure that within her bubble of positive energy and universal cosmic awareness no harm could ever come to her family. She knew every answer until her child nearly died in a boating accident and her faith came crashing to an end. It seems to me that weíre on thin ice when we think we can control our lives through "higher" spiritual practices or tie our faith to the existence of justifiable explanations for human suffering and random tragedy.

Eleven months after the murders, Joseph Shadow Clark, 19, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a quick and quiet plea bargain agreement after confessing to two counts of deliberate homicide in the deaths of my brother and sister-in-law, John and Nancy Bosco, in Shadowís home town of Ferndale, Montana.

The son of right wing fundamentalist Christian parents, Shadow had been a scholarship student at a Quaker college in Oregon at the time of his arrest and had attended a Christian school while being raised in the very house that was to become John and Nancyís funeral chamber. Had my loved ones violated the young Christianís territorial supremacy by purchasing the old homestead on Kelly Drive? Was he symbolically slaying his own parents who had once slept in the same, now-bloodied bedroom?

The killer said he didnít know why he did it. The act was just "senseless." Weíd be happy to know, however, his minister told us, that Shadow Clark had not lost his Christian faith. An eery new layer of emptiness closed in around my family.

My friend Alana was a little unnerved by the news of the killerís plea bargain and disturbed by the reminder of violence in general. "I suppose terrible things do happen in the world," she remarked. "Iím so focused on my own life that I just donít notice it." Alana the Enlightened.

The history of hypocrisy in all religions--Eastern, Western, ancient and new--is always staggering, but lately Iíve grown especially weary of New Age devotees who use "higher spirituality" as an excuse to bear no burden of compassion, to distance themselves from other peopleís pain, to believe--consciously or unconsciously--that their superior faith will protect them from harm and to justify ignoring the inhumanity that causes so much suffering on this earth.

I have lost patience with any system of beliefs that provides definitive answers. Anyone who really knows why bad things happen to good people has nothing illuminating to say to me.

If my magnificent brother, who master-crafted fine furniture and dreamed of making violins, and his beautiful wife, who wrote poetry and canned raspberry jam, were killed for transgressions in previous lifetimes, I donít want to hear it. Maybe they chose their cruel destiny and I agreed to participate in the grand cosmic plan, but frankly, the idea sounds too man-made. It sounds too small to come from God. Perhaps itís a futile human attempt to grasp what we canít.

If I choose to turn this tragedy into a catalyst for my own growth in wisdom and maturity, all the better for me. But donít tell me, you who remain precariously uninitiated, that it is my obligation to do so.

I donít know why my brother and sister-in-law were murdered, except maybe a sick kid got a quick thrill. The challenge for my family is to accept a world without answers and trust that the darkness won't extinguish the light.

Mary van Valkenburg lives in New York City

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