A recent Politico.com post by Melinda Henneberger left me with both admiration and concern. Her title alone -- “The Christian Argument Against Obama’s and Palin’s View of Jared Loughner as ‘Evil’” -- filled me with admiration. It’s rare these days to read someone able to think deeply and Christianly about contemporary events. Like Henneberger, I worry when I hear “evil” used as a descriptive term and applied to a specific person, especially a person like Jared Loughner who is so obviously ill.
Yet for people of faith to expunge the word “evil” from our vocabulary would be a great loss. Traditional Christian thought about evil has much to say to us about Tucson and similar tragedies.
As cancer is a deviation from a healthy cell and suffocation is the lack of oxygen, we know evil as privatio boni, the absence of the good. This is what St. Augustine meant when he described evil as non-being. Evil is a tear, a breach, in the fabric of creation.
This traditional view suggests that we should avoid thinking of evil as a personal attribute. To call a specific person “evil” is to suggest that he is qualitatively different from the rest of us. But each of us participates in our own way in non-being and is depleted by our own rebellious participation in the breach.
Henneberger includes a lengthy quote from Obama’s address that concerns her:
“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, ‘when I looked for light, then came darkness.’ Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty … what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.”
For Henneberger, this comes much too close to rendering Loughner as a personification of evil. It “confuse[s] mental illness with wickedness.”
I heard these words differently. They seem to me an accurate depiction of the tear in the fabric of creation that occurred in Tucson. When Obama referred to the “inner recesses” of a “violent mind,” I believe he was suggesting that evil has the power to overtake any of us through minute, imperceptible advances. This is something Christians must be willing to acknowledge.
“60 Minutes” hosted an interview with two friends of Loughner’s. They used to get together four or five times a week to discuss philosophy. And their philosophy of choice was nihilism. One friend said this, ‘It wasn’t that Jared didn’t believe in anything. It’s that he actually believed in nothing.’ Loughner became obsessed with a film called “Waking Life” where a man considers different philosophies of life and finally settles upon nihilism. He demonstrates his commitment by setting himself on fire.
Loughner deeply inhaled the fumes of our cultural nihilism. He celebrated his participation, which we all share, in the breech. To acknowledge that is not necessarily to separate Loughner from the rest of us. It may in fact reveal our own complicity, leading us to W. H. Auden’s acknowledgment that “evil sleeps in our bed and eats at our table.”
One of the things Loughner has to teach us is that of our own complicity in the Tucson tragedy. We do this by passively capitulating to our culture’s celebration of nothingness. Consider something as silly – and seemingly harmless -- as “Reality TV.” Shows like “The Jersey Shore” not only make light of terrible life choices. They glorify the wasted life. They propagate the cultural myth that our lives lack purpose. As Christians fail to counter this myth with prophetic utterance and interceding prayer, we are complicit in the cultivation of troubled young hearts and minds.
Shortly after the Columbine tragedy, art historian David Hickey observed that what most characterizes “the killer children from the suburbs is their absolute lack of imagination . . . They can’t imagine obliterating a million hopes, dreams and memories by squeezing a tiny metal trigger. They can’t imagine the empty space they are making in succeeding generations.” The empty space. That’s a good placeholder for the evil that occurred in both Columbine and Tucson.
Melinda Henneberger is right. We must not personify evil and casually ascribe it to someone else. Yet Barack Obama is more right. We must dare to speak of evil when we encounter it. Otherwise, we have no chance of recognizing it when it comes to “sleep in our bed, to eat at our table.”