A very old problem in Newtown, Connecticut
By K. Brewster Hastings
Special to Virtueonline
December 20, 2012
What happened in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday morning is a very old problem. The Church calls it "evil." I do not mean to sound dispassionate. What I mean is to help you understand something about evil and therefore better cope with the collateral damage of these killings: fear and despair, cynicism and hopelessness.
Yes, Adam Lanza, who did the murders was a horribly disturbed 20-year old man. Yes, it is likely his mother Nancy was either a woefully complacent mother or absurdly, tragically negligent in her parenting of Adam and even criminal in her handling of weapons and ammunition. (We do not know all the facts yet.) Yes, another Columbine-like massacre of innocent children and adults in a public school demands a rigorous enforcement of gun control laws and more effective education and legislation. Yes, we ought to support the families of the 20 children and 7 adults killed and reach out to them by prayer, compassion and other practical means. Yes, we ought to reach out to anyone we know who has lost a family or friend by such hideous violence. I know well at least ten families who heroically cope with the agonizing, complicated grief caused by murder. Last summer at Nashotah House Seminary, a man described to me his survival of the 1994 genocidal slaughter in Rwanda and its aftermath. I still cannot talk about it.
What you probably have not heard in the media is the stark and sobering statement, Evil is real. Yes, evil is real. Evil, that malignant force in the world in utter and constant rebellion against God and his ways of love, goodness, beauty and truth, is real. Part of our helplessness in contending with the killings in Newtown is trying to make sense of them from a secular point of view. You can't. It is like trying to do algebra without knowing addition and subtraction. The secular worldview (that glosses over the Judeo-Christian worldview like the plastic smile of a news anchor) permeates our culture. The media, education, commercial, political, social, and even parts of our church seem to have succumbed to this zeitgeist. The secular worldview is inadequate. This is why after the needed personal and communal catharsis, the political indignation, the op-ed's pieces, the blog venting, we are left sounding and feeling hollow. We are trying to solve a spiritual problem with a material solution. This will not work.
The Church and our Holy Scriptures say more about the brute fact of evil and less about its source and cause. We readily recognize the personification of evil. The names "lucifer, satan, the devil, the father of lies" are used regularly. The theological commonality of these names is: 1) evil is the corruption of the good; 2) evil is lawlessness; 3) evil destroys by people choosing to do it; 4) sacrificial love judges and defeats evil.
Evil is the corruption of the good
Evil has no ontological standing on its own. It is parasitic. It is the absence, corruption or distortion of what is good. For instance, fire is used to cook or heat. It can also be used to destroy a person's home. The fire, ordinarily a good, can be misused for evil. Only God knows the original good in Adam Lanza's heart that became so corrupted by his habitually wicked and ultimately murderous choices. In interviews with people who worked in the death camps of the Holocaust, some of hid behind the rationale, "I was just following orders." Other relished their doing of cruelty for an inhuman ideology. Adam Lanza was not following the orders of Aspersers, a developmental disease or mental illness. He was following the temptations, insinuations and leading of the devil. He was not insane in the sense of a man who thinks he is a head of cabbage or a piece of cheese. He was deliberate and premeditated in his evil acts. In his own mind, he habituated himself to do the killing. He is responsible. His last act of evil was to kill himself and thus rob the victims' families, and the community, from holding him accountable for judgment. He surely faced God's judgment. Hell, the eternal separation from God after this life, is a choice we can make as a logical extension and result of our choices made before our death. There is continuity of our will between this world and the next. God's mercy is possible. The true penitent can be absolved of guilt but not of the capacity to choose to be for or against God. Secularism is the worldview that we are unaccountable to God because; 1) God does not exist; 2) we do not know if God exists; 3) whether God does or does not exist, it is irrelevant to our public and political life. Secularism, un-tethered to the Judeo-Christian worldview, reduces many problems in life to a physical, psychology or social pathology. This literally and spiritually "de-moralizes" us. It lets us off the hook for our disordered or malevolent attitudes or actions. We shift the blame from ourselves to a "pathology" or condition beyond our control: our genes, "an issue" from childhood, a tragic event, a perceived social construct of our race, class, gender, a bad boss, a midlife crisis, a disease ... whatever. As many Christian writers have observed, one of the devil's successes in our age is to deceive people into thinking he and his evil do not exist.
Evil is lawlessness
In II Thessalonians, chapter two, Saint Paul refers to evil in terms of "lawlessness." This is part of the nature of evil. It is a spirit that attempts to be unaccountable to God and his laws. Sadly, tragically, we see such lawlessness all around us. Try this one evening. Read the Ten Commandments and recall the Lord Jesus teaching us to love God and neighbor. Then, watch TV for a couple hours...some news, a sit-com, a movie, etc. Count how many times a commandment is casually broken without consequences. Or, faith or God is belittled, mocked or just plain absent. This is not a fun exercise. T. S. Eliot reminds us, "Humankind cannot stand too much reality." It is also one reason why many Christians are increasingly consuming no or little mainstream media, TV, radio, and entertainment. And; why they vigilantly mange the video games, music, web sites, their children consume. The reason is simple. We refuse to be exposed to the onslaught on "lawlessness." Secularism (this worldview of unaccountability to God) saturates our culture in habitual and casual immorality, pornography and violence. Evil seduces us by such lawlessness. It is as if the devil lures people to "the scene of the crime" time and time, again. He deceives us into believing we can enjoy it, flirt with it, or even explore it as if to figure it out or even manage it. It is a form of mass voyeurism without shame, a societal addiction with seemingly no consequences. It numbs the conscience, diminishes faith in God, turns charity cold and ruins the soul. It is also immensely profitable for our economy and therefore engenders greed.
Evil destroys by people choosing it. Adam Lanza chose to kill his mother, the 20 children and 6 adults. Whatever his state of mind, his beliefs, whatever he may have written on Facebook is secondary. He murdered innocent people. He caused incalculable pain and suffering that will plague numerous families for a generation. December 14th has become "a 9/11" for the community of Newtown, Connecticut. The calls by various leaders (i.e. the mayor of New York) for political action is predictable. I was astonished to receive an email from a local pastor asking me to sign a petition she drafted to send to the White House. I suppose one can sympathize with these reactions. Yet, it is like a person at the scene of a car wreck haranguing the police officer to put up a new road sign with a lower speed limit while the ambulance has not even arrived to take the injured drivers to the ER. Immediate public posturing about more legislation in the wake of such blatant evil is profane, irreverent and certainly sounds terribly hollow. God save us. Could we wait until at least after the funerals? This is not the time for the gushing or fuming of perceived personal or governmental guilt. It is a time for lamentation and mourning. It is the time for a searching, sober reflection on the biblical truth that people choose wickedness and cooperate with evil as surely as Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent; Cain killed Abel; people attempted to rival God by building the Tower of Babel. Some of psychological aspects of the misuse of our freedom to do wickedness and evil are thoughtfully explored in the book by M. Scott Peck, The People of the Lie.
Sacrificial love judges and defeats evil
The mercy of God is our Creator sparing us the consequences of our sinful actions. Mercy is only intelligible and logical if there is divine judgment. God shows us mercy when he judges our sins and withholds from us, or tempers, the punishment we deserve. Similarly, judgment of good and evil only is intelligible and logical if we have free will, that is, if we are free to choose to do what is right or not. God cannot judge a robot, an animal or a plant. They do not have free will in the sense people do. Considering the fallen state of the world, the unfathomable amount of evil committed in the name of totalitarian ideology (Communist and Fascist) in the 20th century, it is only by his mercy (sparing us what we deserve) God continues to sustain creation and humanity, and abides with his church. Any human parent would have given up on his children millennia ago.
The death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection from the dead is the decisive act of God's mercy. In Jesus, God presents and embodies his gift of life and love in perfect purity and innocence, beauty and goodness to the world. Humanity rejects him. On Good Friday, we murdered Jesus. God's response was to raise Jesus from the dead. God's response was to judge our wickedness, our evil, our destruction of his life and love as thoroughly condemnable. And, then offer himself to us again in the Risen Lord Jesus and in the fellowship of the church. It our choice to surrender, repent and believe; to accept his mercy and embrace his new life, now and at the hour of our death.
The children and adults shot and killed last week by the murderer at Sandy Hook School died like Jesus. It is as if they were sentenced and executed as Jesus was, completely innocent of crime, blame or guilt associated with their life or death. As God vindicated Jesus, so also God vindicates these children and teachers. From the human point of view, their death is meaningless. From God's point of view, their death is meaningless. With one difference. And, it is the difference we or the world are incapable of making. It is the difference only God can make. God is the Creator of life and Judge. He gives life and rewards us with eternal life. As these innocence ones of Sandy Hook left this world, their senseless deaths died with them. The spirit of murder came and went. And the souls of these children and adults lived. Their souls passed on from a morning of evil, an hour of terror, through the mercy of God, to the Endless Day of new life, to eternity with our Maker. Nothing but infinite life and holiness is permitted into the fullness of his presence, into the vision of his love, into everlasting life. May they rest in peace. May their loved ones who survived one day come to know this consolation. May we all know and trust in God's mercy and live accordingly. May we have the common sense, and courage, to judge and restrain any family or friends, neighbor or strangers, who make choices against God knowing he is our Creator and Judge, now and at the hour of our death.
Fr. K. Brewster Hastings is the rector of Saint Anne's Episcopal Church in Abington, PA
1. See Augustine and Aquinas
2. See Hannah Arendt's 1963 study, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
3. See Edward S. Herman's 2010 book, The Politics of Genocide, and his emphasis of the "normalizing the unthinkable." People "doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on 'normalization.' This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as 'the way things are done.'"
4. See C S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
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