Cho's World was rooted in a Christian Tradition


Cho's World was rooted in a Christian Tradition


In the Aug. 26 Roanoke Times, reporter Duncan Adams had a news story that succinctly wrapped up what we knew about Seung-Hui Cho at that point, before the Virginia Tech Independent Review Panel released its final report. The article, "There was something evil aiding him," answered some old questions and highlighted some that have yet to be answered.

What really struck me, as a medievalist and researcher in the history of religion, was the section titled "Demon spirits" and specifically the comments of Pastor Dong Cheol Lee from One Mind Church in Cho's hometown of Woodbridge. Cho and his family didn't attend that church, but the pastor felt compelled to reach out to Cho on the recommendation of a neighbor.

Lee believes Cho was basically a good person but that he was possessed by the devil or some sort of "demonic spirit" when he murdered all those people. This raises a significant point, one thus far generally overlooked in the reporting about the events of April 16 -- the role of religion in motivating Cho to do what he did.

I suggested this in a June 6 commentary, "Cho's violent crusade ripped from the Middle Ages." Look again through this and the rest of the coverage of Cho's manifesto. Look how often he evoked God/Jesus. And look again at these new snippets: the Bible as Literature class that he felt so "content" in, his contact with a particular type of Christianity during his upbringing, how he told the literature professor, Nikki Giovanni, she was going to hell.

Reporter Adams may have been more right than he knew when he ended his story with: "During one session, Giovanni described having once eaten turtle soup. Students shared experiences of consuming other unusual animal fare. Cho's poem the next week lashed Giovanni and the class. 'He told us we were going to hell,' said [fellow student Tara] Marciniak-McGuire. During Cho's short, tortured life, he knew that territory well."

Cho's mental illness made him live in a world of his own creation, but that world was one with recognizable roots in the Christian tradition -- a world populated by God and the devil, in which they are both still active forces in the world; a world where Cho could choose sides in this struggle and think that he was doing God's work; a world where violence in the name of religion is justified because the stakes, one's immortal soul, are so high.

Cho likely thought himself to be a "soldier of Christ," like the crusaders; like the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda; like Eric Rudolph and Paul Jennings Hill, who killed to stop abortion. Mainstream Christianity does not -- and the vast majority of Christians may not -- condone such actions, but perhaps it's time to stop burying our head in the sand, pretending that such ideas aren't ultimately understandable, if still unfortunately familiar.


Originally published in <em>The Roanoke Times</em>, 9/11/07

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Matthew Gabriele




Matthew Gabriele




Matthew Gabriele, “Cho&#39;s World was rooted in a Christian Tradition,” The April 16 Archive, accessed December 11, 2023,