Dear Parish Faithful,
It has been three days now since the latest horrific act of mayhem took away the lives of so many innocent persons gathered for worship in a small Texas community on Sunday. The images of that unthinkable tragedy are deeply troubling especially, perhaps, when you think of the very young children either killed or terribly wounded and scarred for life. Yet another infamous "record" has been set: the most people gun downed while gathered in a church. I am not convinced that this was a "mental health issue." Acts this heinous are hard to explain without looking deeper into the human heart where evil can reside waiting to spew forth based upon some provocation or other. The irrationality of evil always leaves us groping for answers.
I explored this approach to these tragic incidents a few years back when a young man slaughtered over thirty students one day on the campus of Virginia Tech. Perhaps you recall that event. I saw that as an "act of evil" and I see Sunday's killings the same way. If anyone would be interested in (re)reading what I wrote then, I have attached that meditation here for your convenience.
The Virginia Tech MassacreV. Rev. Steven C. Kostoff
As more of the harrowing details emerge about the twisted mind of Cho Seung-Hui, the “experts” are slowly assembling a classic profile of a mass murderer. As Northeastern University criminal justice professor James Alan said: “In virtually every regard, Cho is prototypical of mass killers that I have studied in the past 25 years.” He then went on to say: “That does not mean, however, that one could have predicted his rampage.”
Unpredictability, perhaps, remains a consistent trait of such spontaneous outbursts of evil. Obviously, there are countless others who fit the same profile, but who do not make that fateful decision to wreck such violent vengeance on society. The troubling images of this young man rationalizing the irrational from beyond the grave will remain indelible for some time to come. Certainly it was painful to hear the name of, and even comparison with Jesus Christ, spewing forth in the gunman’s irrational rant against his fellow-students and the world. Seeking such an infamous form of “immortality” is difficult for us to conceive. It sounds like sheer madness. Of course, it may be far better to try and understand the mind of persons such as Cho Seung-Hui than to vilify them; but whatever one’s choice about that, I find it difficult to ignore the presence of evil in this latest rampage of violence.
I admit to lacking the necessary psychological and psychiatric skills needed to analyze a mass murderer. And there will be no shortage of such analysis in the days to come as the very human desire to find a “motive” in this case will be doggedly pursued. The effects of being “bullied”, the contentious issue of gun-control, the polarizing effects of social acceptance or alienation, and other important issues will be the focus of discussion and debate once again.
Yet beyond – or could we even say transcending? – the environmental, genetic, psychological and social factors readily available to our gaze, there remains a “choice” that one makes expressive of the capacity and need for self-determination. At least according to the teachings of Orthodox Christian anthropology. And thus one has the “freedom” to choose to do something that is undeniably evil. In the public forum, though, it seems that the very concept of evil is ignored or treated as a four-letter word. Our secular age is very uneasy with concepts that press toward a more religious/metaphysical/moral dimension. Or perhaps evil is resorted to as an explanation only in the face such horrific events that unfolded on the campus of Virginia Tech.
For Christians the source of evil is the “evil one”; yet in a manner that is never quite susceptible to rational analysis. From our limited perspective it is immensely difficult to unravel that connection in a satisfactory manner. In no way does this allow Christians to somehow lessen the moral responsibility of the perpetrator of evil, as in the limp cliché: “the devil made me/him do it”. We always stand morally responsible for aligning ourselves with evil/the evil one. We come back to the reality of a choice that puts one on a “road to perdition,” and that once embarked upon may prove humanly impossible to turn back from. Perhaps at a certain point one is “too far” along that road, thus leading to a sense of being engulfed by the inevitable or irreversible. Or perhaps to a greater sense of calculation and perverse empowerment when contemplating the effects of a considered course of action.
As Christians we must develop a realistic understanding of the pervasive presence of evil in the world. We take seriously the Apostle Paul’s claim that we live in “this present evil age”. (GAL.1:4) And Christ spoke of “the ruler of this world.” (JN. 12:30) That does not make the Lord and His great apostle - or us for the matter - metaphysical dualists obsessed with the reality of evil as if it were an independent substance, as were the early Gnostics.
Without being either “optimists” or pessimists” we realize that the vast majority of humankind is made up of good, decent people who do not wish evil on anyone. Most people desire to lead morally-healthy lives pursuing positive and constructive goals. If it was otherwise, life would be unendurable. But as Christians we accept an ethical dualism in the world that keeps us vigilant to the fact that on a daily basis people make choices that can only be described as evil – whether on a minor or major scale. And others suffer because of those choices, including these new innocent victims and their families, friends and communities (and elsewhere throughout the world today). This creates anxiety and fear in us. It fills us with mistrust and suspicion. It is why we lock our doors at night. As I wrote earlier, it has us warily awaiting its next deadly outburst. As such, and in a mysterious manner, this supports the “evil one”.
To expand the two biblical texts above, and thus uncover their powerful meaning, we read that the Apostle Paul actually wrote:
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (GAL. 1:4)
And that the Lord declared:
Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. (JN. 12:31)
The source of evil – the evil one – has been overthrown in an ultimate sense. His “power” is not eternal as is the power, glory and authority of God. This supposed power will be bound and cast away in the “Day of the Lord”. Suffering – as powerful, absorbing and crippling as it may be – is only temporary. Its effects will be undone and overcome. This is the promise of God. And the living Face of this promise is Christ, Who vanquished the power of sin, death and the devil on the Cross, revealing that victory in His life-giving Resurrection. The evil of “this world” converged on Christ and He absorbed it through love and conquered it through an act of sacrificial love. This does not free us from being the potential victims of evil in the time allotted to us for our lives in this world. If death is the “last enemy,” that in itself is an “evil” we must all endure. It is only our hope in Christ that makes any “sense" in the face of such evil deeds as these recent shootings.
Whatever helpful insights we hear throughout all of the “talk” that will fill the various media sources in the days to come; whatever we can learn to create a society better protected from such outbursts; however we equip social institutions and families to “read” the signs of mayhem waiting to explode; I believe that we need to realize that the ‘battleground” exists within the human heart, where God and the devil struggle for mastery, awaiting the free choices that we will eventually make.