Porfirio Diaz, late 19th century right-wing dictator of Mexico, once mused in his melancholy way that Mexico’s tragedy was that it was so far from God and so close to the United States. His belief was that had the nation of Mexico shown some republican virtue (although it is unclear he would have recognized and appreciated it had it been present in Mexican society), it might have been able to resist the depredations of the United States in taking its land and exploiting its people and resources. His quotation, interestingly enough, became the source of a most excellent book about the Mexican-American War. Sadly, in this day and age we in the United States complain that we are so far from God and so close to Mexico. Everyone has their complaints, I suppose.
One of the few constants about life is that eventually we will all die. How and why we die, though, is significant. Much of death occurs in slow dribbles and drabbles. A heart attack here, a cancer there, death by accidents, deaths by our addictions to food or alcohol or drugs. Sometimes deaths are significant not only in the small scale but in the large scale–deaths by massive diseases, deaths by starvation, deaths by deliberate political activity on the part of corrupt and barbaric rulers. Deaths that appear to be planned by other human beings tend to draw far more attention than those deaths that are merely accidental. And being someone of a rather melancholy temperament who tends to brood deeply on the meaning of life and death, it ought to come as no surprise that today’s 26 deaths in a shooting rampage in Connecticut should draw my commentary and attention, even if it comes on the heels of a similar atrocity across the street from where I live.
There are a couple of cheap and obvious political points that people will try to make out of atrocities like this. Some people will bemoan a lack of gun control laws that would, in theory, prevent deadly weapons from ending up in the hands of people who are often obviously troubled. The failure with this theory is that people who are planning murder have no problems stealing deadly weapons that they do not own (as did the Clackamas Town Center murderer earlier this week), and they are obviously not going to care about gun laws. In fact, it appears as those people most interested in committing such atrocities deliberately look for large groups of people who are unarmed and defenseless. This appears to be significant, and is worthy of comment. On the other side, there are those who will claim that such atrocities are due to malls taking Christ out of Christmas or taking God out of public schools. Here too there are problems with this view–like the fact that Christ was never in Christmas to begin with, and that what is needed is more than a mere sham presence of superficial religion within our culture. The benefits of Christianity do not come from an outward appearance of faith, the wearing of a cross, the fingering of a rosary, the public proclamation of sham prayers and a phony religiosity, but rather they come to those who have deeply and thoroughly been converted to a practice of godly ways that should be visible in our conversation and conduct.
At the core of Christianity as it is defined in scripture are two very old laws that spring from the heart of the Torah: you shall love the Eternal with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. When you really love God as you ought to you will be led to love others as you ought to. Genuine respect for the Eternal as the Creator of mankind, and of Jesus Christ as the savior of mankind will lead naturally to respect for other human beings as being worthwhile and potentially saved creations in the image and likeness of God. To attack human life is to attack the creator of that life in whose image we are made, however flawed and fallen as we may be as a result of life in a corrupt world. It is obvious that love for God and love for fellow man have suffered greatly in these times–we have a lack of concern for truth, our conversation is often filled with contempt and disrespect for others on petty or partisan grounds, we lack faithfulness to our covenants and promises, we envy and lust and covet. Let us ask ourselves specifically what sort of lack of Christianity in our own lives and conduct makes tragedies more common and makes us less robust in dealing with them as a society and civilization.
We must first admit at the outset that no laws can ever eradicate evil. Laws define what is good and evil, as best as a legislator is in tune with the ultimate standards of right and wrong. There are times when the existence of a law will inflame our desire to break it, and where discussion of an issue, even if it is labeled as an evil, may lead to curiosity on our parts to try it out for ourselves, simply by virtue of giving us knowledge of the evil. Both good and evil require free moral agency, and the fact that we possess the freedom to choose means that we are all capable of choosing good and evil, and the repercussions of those choices extend far beyond ourselves. We all, as a result of being free to decide (a freedom we seem to universally champion) are also responsible for acts that can harm many other individuals through our selfishness and wickedness if we are not virtuous and concerned for other people. Those who commit acts of evil, whether those acts harm themselves or others, are responsible for their acts, and they must not be left off the hook by excuses and fallacious justifications.
Most of the time, whenever there is a great tragedy, it is commonly said by some people that they always knew that person was trouble. Part of this appears to be post hoc rationalization, people looking to horrible and evil deeds as a way of justifying the hatred and contempt and dislike they already had for someone for whatever prior reason. But there is probably some truth in that people who are troubled generally will tend to show and express their trouble for a long while before they commit acts such as murder. But there are quite a great deal of murders in our society–most of them within the roughest and least legitimate aspects of life. There is no honor among thieves or drug dealers or prostitutes or gang bangers, for example, and such activities are generally at very high risk for violence because of a lack of respect for people or their property. But the attention given to people who commit acts of mass murder seems to suggest that in our minds, as poorly as we are able to express it, such people are set apart. A single act of massive violence due to passion is far less striking than the deliberate perversion of rationality that allows someone to kill many people, especially strangers, whether all at once or in serial. Perhaps staring vicariously at the evil of others is a way of telling ourselves that we are not that bad ourselves, a way of setting off the worst of the worst to make our own vices and failings appear less serious in relief. This would be unwise.
After all, most of us are very capable of very purposeful evil. We certainly may not kill with guns or knives, or blow up airplanes, or commit the sorts of atrocities that will give us our own wikipedia page or inspire songs and movies to explore the depths of our psychic troubles, but we commit evil often enough and purposefully enough all the same. Any time we deliberately hit people in a sensitive spot that we know others to take personally, with cutting words and insults and shaming, we are engaged in a lesser form of the same violence involved in atrocities. Some of us are better at cutting ourselves, and some of us lash out at others. Some of us do both. But when we fail to show love and concern and respect for ourselves and others as the children of the Most High, worthy of love and respect even if they are our enemies, simply by virtue of being God’s children, we do violence to them through our active contempt and violence or through the passive lack of concern that leads us to ignore others and refuse to lend a finger to help those who are obviously and openly struggling and suffering. We have a duty to help others as we are able, even if our ability to help is simply in a smile, a show of welcome, or a sympathetic ear to someone who might feel trapped in their own mind. On the larger scale, we do a terrible job at providing respect to people, at providing opportunity for people to utilize their God-given talents in productive ways, and at providing people with opportunities for belongingness and love. Some of us feel the absence of these things very deeply and personally, and it is all too easy to mistake the selfish unconcern of an overburdened and atomistic society with a world that is actively out to get us. Too many people are unable to draw the line between a just critique of an uncaring world and a paranoid and unjust condemnation of a world that appears hostile to us on a personal level when it is often merely indifferent to our fate.
And once we see ourselves as sinners as well as people sinned against, we are better able to use tragedy and atrocity to remind ourselves that but for the grace of God we could become either the killer or the killed. Time and chance happen to us all–we never know exactly how or when we will take our trip to Sheol, unless we choose a deliberate course of self-destruction, and become deliberate killers of ourselves in the same way that others become deliberate killers of others. Self-destruction and the violent destruction of other souls springs from the same evil, whether it is directed at ourselves or others. And when we fail to appreciate our own capacity for evil, we ironically enough are more likely to cause evil by virtue of considering ourselves to be avenging angels on a corrupt and ungodly society, of which we are corrupt and ungodly members worthy of judgment unless we repent. Until we recognize that we are far from God and seek His mercy and grace, we will think ourselves to be closer to God than we are, and better able to judge and look down on others as agents of His way, when we are merely fellow sinners in the same boat as everyone else. And when we are able to recognize our own sins against others and against ourselves, we are less prone to self-righteousness, and more prone to soul-searching personal examination that looks at our obligations to God and to others, which in little ways helps avoid violence and spread a positive example of how to live in a world that does not know how to love others at all.