Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Tragic and the Evil

Yesterday, my boys came home, as they always do, slouching down the street from the bus stop.

It is always good to see them, but it was particularly good to see them yesterday.  Here are my children that I love.  They are alive.  In the scurry of life, that miracle can be obscured by a fog of undone homework and shuttle-child activities.  It takes a strong wind to blow that fog away.

Neither had heard of the shooting, so I told them.  Both had more or less the same reaction.  "Again?"

I offered up the opportunity for more conversation, because I needed to hear them talking and be with them.  We talked for a little.   And in that talking, my fourteen year old responded to one word, when, echoing the governor of the state of Connecticut, I described the events as evil.

"I don't know if it's evil, Dad.  The guy had to be insane.  And if he was insane, was it really evil?"

It was a good question.

I have my own "bad things" continuum, a theological framework that has always made sense to me.  There are tragic things, and there are evil things.  The tragic are those inevitable moments of human breaking and suffering that arise from our smallness.  We are fragile and complex and easily broken, a marvelous miniscule speck of organic bits and bones and mush that comes apart when the universe brushes against us even just a little bit.  We are mortal.  We always have been.  Accepting that is a necessary part of our existence.  

And then there is evil.  Evil, as I have understood it, comes when a self-aware being...a free being...uses that freedom to oppress, dominate, and destroy another self-aware being.  Evil exists within the realm of sentience, as the polar opposite of the One Law that is the best purpose of all sentient life.  For there to be evil, there must be freedom.  And for there to be freedom, the potential for evil must exist.  It is the terrible gift of our Maker, and the one warning of Eden.  We are free to sink our teeth into that fruit, and to know evil and shame and selfishness.  

But what was this?  A young man murders his mother, and then murders twenty six others, including enough little ones to fill a big-church-pastor's time with children.  He had to be insane, we tell ourselves.  Had to be, because sanity does not do that.  It can't.  Was this just a human storm, a human earthquake, an act of nature playing out through the soulless body of a broken being?

And yet.  And yet he left the assault rifle in the car, knowing that it would let him get deeper into the building, preventing the potential for a lockdown.   And yet he left the assault rifle in the car in the full knowledge that you can do all manner of harm with pistols in an enclosed space.  You can butcher teachers and small children quite effectively with pistols.  There was hate, and there was intentionality.

I do not doubt that there was mental illness involved.  Some form of autism, they are saying now, although it is early and things are unclear and that is an amorphous diagnosis that can mean any one of ten thousand things.

But I have worked with the mentally ill, and they are human.  They are persons, as surely as I am a person.  I have known them, and cared for them, and they have been my friends.  While recognizing the clinical reality of mental illness, something deep in me recoils at the idea of declaring that some human beings are simply objects, as devoid of awareness as a rock or a cloud.  That way of thinking about humankind has sparked and flickered in our minds in this scientific age, and where it has taken hold, it has turned us into monsters.

And so I am left unsatisfied, in a place of shadow and fog.  As my mind seeks answers across the framework that seems to make sense of suffering, I cannot alight on that one definitive answer that reason seeks.  My seeking mind is as restless and weary as Noah's raven, riding the skies over a world-sea of churning chaos.

So many things are simply beyond us.  Lord, have mercy.