Jacob Tyler Roberts, William Ernest Henley, and the Culture of “Me”
Portland, OR — On yesterday at approximately 3:30pm, Jacob Tyler Roberts entered Clackamas Town Center in Portland, OR. The 22-year old wore a Jason mask, infamously known from the Halloween movie series, and a load-bearing vest. Roberts was armed with a stolen AR-15 semi-automatic weapon and several fully loaded magazines.
Reporting on the case, Sheriff Craig Roberts stated that the shooter methodically roamed the mall, indiscriminately firing rounds for motives not yet known to authorities. Investigators estimated that Roberts fired no fewer than 20 rounds during the melee. In the aftermath, two innocent people lay mortally wounded — Cindy Ann Yuille (54) and Steven Forsyth (45). A third victim, Kristina Shevchenko (15), was rushed to an area hospital for emergency surgery for a shot that entered her back, bruising her lung. Roberts took his own life by a self-inflicted gunshot.
The coming days will reveal more details. What is certain, three families are grieving losses. The Forsyth and Yuille families, as a result of the senseless actions of a troubled individual. And the Roberts family, not only for its loss, but also for the shame.
We might expect renewed calls to look at the proliferation of guns in our country and where stiffer controls are necessary. Gun control advocates will refute claims that “people kill, not guns”. Roberts entered the mall with weapon of choice. Surely, he did not choose bricks, pea-shooters, a bow-and-arrow, or slingshot. But a high-powered firearm. Further, Roberts’ weapon jammed at some point during the attack. Alternatives would have been of little use for mass murder. The “guns kill” sentiment thus has merit.
While these concerns are understandable, what will likely go unnoticed is a subtle detail already unearthed and casually mentioned in the tragedy. Robert’s Facebook page gave an eerie glimpse into his psyche. Speaking of himself, Roberts professed, “… I am the conductor of my choo choo train.“ The implications are chilling.
Roberts’ profession sent me back to my undergraduate school days at The Ohio State University [OSU]. While pledging a fraternity, our pledge line was required to learn and chant the poem, Invictus. This was a once common ritual for Black Greek Letter Organizations [BGLOs]. Written by England’s William Ernest Henley, the rhythmic poem closes with these lines, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.“
“Steven Mathew Forsyth was a loving husband, father of two children, son, brother, uncle, youth sports coach and friend to the many people who had the privilege to meet him. “Steve was one of the most passionate people with a true entrepreneurial spirit that drove him to start his business, Coastoms. He had a great sense of humor and a zest for life. He had vision and a belief in others that brought great joy and value to many lives. “He will be sorely missed by all who knew him. — The Forsyth Family
“Cindy was everybody’s friend. She was a wonderful person who was very caring and put others first. The Yuille family said they will make another statement at an unspecified date through the sheriff’s office. – The Yuille Family
The words sounded profound at the time. Indeed, a source of encouragement and inspiration during pledging. However, several years ago, I reflected on Invictus. And what I discovered is, this poem violated fundamental teachings of my childhood and values instilled by parents and relatives, pastors, neighbors, teachers, and other influences in my life. Indeed, Invictus is a humanistic manifesto that denies tenets of faith.
Invictus asserts, “Out of the night that covers me“. But I had given my life to Christ at age ten. His Blood, not some ominous night, covers me! [Mark 10:45, Ephesians 1:7, 1 Peter 1:18-19] Invictus speaks of thanking, “whatever gods may be.” Whatever gods? Thanking gods? To the contrary, from Genesis to Revelation, the Lord makes Himself known to me — His nature, His words, and His works. God likewise does not play Three Card Monte, but makes clear what his purpose and governing standard are for my life. And as for the Invictus “master of fate” and “captain of my soul” belief, I knew long before reciting Invictus, the God in whom I live, move, and have my being [Acts 17:28]. Ironically, in the Acts 17:28 passage, Saint Luke went on to note that Greek poets acknowledged their life in God, seeing themselves as God’s “offspring”. Surely, they were wiser poets for it.
My reflections on Invictus caused me to research the poet who would craft these words. What I soon discovered – Henley was a devout atheist. Invictus emerged while Henley laid on his death bed. An affirmation of his godless views that were unshaken by pending death. And unfortunately, Henley’s manifesto traveled through time, even to the campus of OSU in 1979 — the year of my pledging. And in light of the recent Portland shooting tragedy, we can observe that Roberts’ philosophy was a re-statement of Henley’s. Both placed “self”, “me”, and the “I am” ethos at the center of one’s existence.
Where we deny God in our lives, Scriptures call this “foolishness”. [Psalms 14:1] The thrust is not simply to suggest God does not exist, but likewise to say, “I choose to do a thing, irrespective of God.” In this sense, Proverbs 30:32 reveals that when we exalt ourselves above God, we are “playing the fool“.The Spinners were not the originators of the phrase, but exhibited wisdom in noting that “Everybody plays the fools sometimes“. And that is the ultimate goal of satan, to convince us that we sit on our own throne. We are the masters and captains. That we are the conductors. Thinking that leads us to decisions, beliefs, actions, and lifestyles that ultimately play us like fools. The Roberts shooting underscores this truth.
Here then is the redeeming value of an otherwise horrible event. We can sit outside of the Roberts attack or we can place ourselves inside of it. We can take on Roberts. Become Roberts on the days, weeks, and months before the shooting. Ask ourselves, “Am I the conductor of my choo-choo train?” While only a very small percentage of people would take a disgusting action as did Roberts, we can be certain that in God’s economy, any lifestyle, action, or thinking that inherently reflects a “yes” answer to the conductor question is directionally problematic. Indeed, the culture of me permeates modern society. A culture that compartmentalizes God so as to keep God out of our business. To what extent do we are as individuals embody Roberts’ sentiments?
We might ask, “How much Roberts is in me?”
Our “I am” personal constitution might not lead us to the kind of shame now attached to Roberts in this world. However, it will surely not go unnoticed through the doors of mortality as we stand before in the very presence of God.
Thank you, Karla Chenault Kennard, for editing this article.
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