Dear Parish Faithful,
The Latest Round of Evil Close to Home
I recently read a short note in a journal called The Week about a well-known scholar and author who recently died. Her name is Gitta Sereny (1921-2012) and her life-work has been the study of the various horrific forms of evil that seem to be so overwhelming. The article summarizes her life’s work thus: “In her decades-long effort to understand why some people commit horrific crimes, she spent hundreds of hours interviewing some of the 20th century’s most reviled figures, including death camp commanders and child murderers.” In 1968, she covered a notorious case about an eleven year-old English girl who killed two younger boys. (The girl had been “sexually tortured” as a child). A well-known book, Into That Darkness, was based upon seventy hours of interviews with Franz Stengel, a commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp where nearly a million persons were brutally killed during World War II. Her most famous and controversial book – Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth - was written in 1995, and it was an in-depth biography of Hitler’s great architect, Albert Speer. The book was controversial, because it was apparent that she grew to be sympathetic with her subject, and we know that Speer managed to escape the gallows in the immediate post-war years by his capacity to package his self-defensive prevarications in a cloak of charm and civility. Somewhat defensively she wrote that: “I do have to identify with my subjects … That does not mean that I condone their actions.”
I do not bring this up to further darken your day with the stories of horrific crimes, as we are now in the midst of one more evil rampage that has taken many innocent lives and traumatized others for years to come. (I had planned to write this reflection a couple of days ago). What struck me, and what now has even more resonance following last night’s shooting rampage in Denver, is that Gitta Sereny came to the following conclusion after many years and many noteworthy publications, in the summarizing words of the article: “What she heard during those probing hours led her to believe that monsters are made, not born, and that there is no such thing as absolute evil” (emphasis added). In many ways, that is a deeply “encouraging” and valuable insight from a woman who has encountered the perpetrators of evil face-to-face.
Evil does not have absolute value because it was not created by God. It does not somehow just exist “out there.” Only goodness comes directly from God. This is precisely an Orthodox Christian insight into the “reality” of evil. No one is born evil, because every human person comes into the world created “in the image and likeness of God.” Every person is intrinsically or inherently good “according to nature,” yet we are all born into a “fallen” world that is deeply marred by sin. Thus, many people end up doing very evil things. Such “monsters” were not born that way, but were so “made” by circumstances or inclination. As Orthodox Christians we strongly believe that such persons are morally responsible for the choices they make. We are not merely the passive recipients of outside influences that come from the environment or genetic inheritance. At the same time we acknowledge the presence of many forces in the world that may tempt one toward evil – and some of those “forces” we would further acknowledge as “demonic.” Yet, again, the evil act is ultimately deliberate and freely-chosen. This is the baffling paradox that we must accept as we grow and mature as human beings in the process of experiencing the world around us. How do we explain this mystery, or what we can term the “mystery of evil?” Here is a passage from Diadochos of Photiki, a brilliant spiritual writer of the mid-fifth c. With penetrating precision he explains how evil only exists in its execution:
“Evil does not exist by nature, nor is any man naturally evil, for God made nothing that was not naturally good. When in the desire of his heart someone conceives and gives form to what in reality has no existence, then what he desires begins to exist. We should therefore turn our attention away from the inclination to evil and concentrate it on the remembrance of God; for good, which exists by nature is more powerful than our inclination to evil. The one has existence while the other has not, except when we give it existence through our actions.”
Last night’s shooter has been apprehended. (Usually these killers end up taking their own lives after their deadly rampages). As Gitta Sereny did with her “monsters,” this man will be subject to endless hours of interrogation, questioning, probing, psychological analysis and more. I am ignorant of Colorado’s official position on the death penalty. So, this man will either be executed or spend the rest of his natural life in prison. The authorities will want to know how this horrific and murderous shooting spree was conceived and executed. But we will primarily want to know why? What possible motive could have been behind this terrible crime? If any answers are forthcoming, I believe that we will learn that this recent “monster” was not born but made.
As a footnote to the above, I have to ask: Is there no longer any place that we can go to and feel safe? Or send our children to with that feeling of safety? The local movie theatre is a place of retreat from the grind of daily life. There is and always has been something escapist about going to the movies. Who is going to go see a film, at least in the immediate future, without a feeling of unease or a certain “it could happen here” apprehension? This is the world we live in …