Coming To Terms With Evil

In some ways it is unwise to speak too soon about such tragedies as took place in Virginia yesterday. Way too many questions remain unanswered, and the grieving process must be allowed to do its full work. Silence and prayers may be the best response for some days to come.

Yet many have already rushed in to pass judgment or provide commentary. Two of course are totally predictable. Those who need no excuse to bash America were quick to point fingers and speak about a blood-soaked and violence-ravaged America. And the gun control crowd has been all over the media, telling us this is proof positive that all weapons must be banned, even though the actual evidence on this issue is mixed at best.

But it is not to those controversies that I want to turn, at least not yet. Instead I intend to offer just a few random thoughts about the nature of evil. When terrible massacres like this take place, we are once again forced to confront the reality of evil, even though in less dramatic days most of the West wants to deny that such a thing as evil exists.

In an age of moral relativism, postmodernism, and secularism, notions of good and evil are either conspicuous by their absence, or understood in much different categories than most of mankind is historically used to.

The truth is, no one has a final and complete answer as to why the Virginia Tech tragedy occurred. But it seems that some worldviews might provide a better framework for trying to make sense of it than others. None will be perfect, but those worldviews which do not deny the reality of evil, but take it seriously, will be better placed to provide a platform from which we can begin to think about such things.

As such, after the initial knee-jerk reactions are offered, hopefully more sober and morally reflective comments will be found in the media. However, one item I found, even though penned within hours of the tragedy, does offer a bit of common sense, moral wisdom, and helpful reflection.

I refer to a symposium called by the editors of nationalreviewonline, appearing on April 17, 2007. Four individuals were called upon to offer a quick and brief response to the shooting. Some of the comments made by these four are worth drawing attention to.

For example, Matthew Franck, a political science prof at Radford University, offered some incisive remarks. He begins by referring to Australian film director Peter Weir. “Just the other day I was describing, to a friend who had not seen it, a pivotal scene in Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness. A little Amish boy who witnessed a brutal murder has been caught by his family handling the .38 revolver belonging to the wounded Philadelphia policeman who has brought the boy home to Lancaster County. His old grandfather chastises him, pointing out that the ‘gun of the hand’ has only one real use, to kill people, and killing is always wrong. But what about killing bad men? asks the boy. Can you see into men’s souls and tell the good ones from the bad? his grandfather replies. I see what they do, says the boy.”

He continues, “There is wisdom on both sides of this exchange, both the ancient and the boy grasping part of the truth (though, I confess, I think the boy somewhat wiser). What makes their conversation possible is their shared belief that there is such a thing as evil. Yesterday, at Virginia Tech, evil struck, and the first requirement for us (as I heard Bill Bennett say this morning on the radio) is to call it by its right name.”

Franck is aware of how much of the discussion about the case will proceed: “Professional explainers will soon be setting to work on this case, analyzing what happened (or what they speculate might have happened) to the perpetrator of the horror to prompt him to it. ‘Evil’ is not likely to be in their vocabulary. Pathology of this sort or that will be diagnosed; maybe even a brain-chemistry explanation will be advanced. I mean no disrespect to my friends in psychology when I say that all such accounts, however true they might indeed prove to be, can never be more than partial. Human beings are responsible moral agents with free will, and in the end a willing actor had to pull that trigger. Do we really have a better explanation than our ancestors who believed a man could be possessed by evil – even by Evil Incarnate?”

He then cites an important thinker who had much to say about evil: “C.S. Lewis’s devil Screwtape tells his young apprentice Wormwood: ‘Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. . . . [W]hen they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics’.”

Concludes Franck, “Modern university education seems bent much of the time on making students materialists and skeptics. Did yesterday make that easier, or harder? Think it through. We have seen what evil does.”

Some other helpful reflections were found in the response by Anne Hendershott, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. Her remarks – not long at all – are worth quoting in their entirety:

“While mental health experts are already medicalizing the behavior of what they are calling a ‘sick’ individual, and liberal politicians and pundits are blaming our social inequality, it is difficult to make moral judgments. We are told that this student just ‘snapped’ and could not have controlled his behavior. We are told that he was violent because of factors beyond his control – just like in previous school shootings when drugs, bullies, violent song-lyrics, and inequality made them do it. Biology was destiny – or the out of control capitalism that relegated some to the margins. The parade of psychological practitioners on the television news is already suggesting that there are uncontrollable hormonal factors or biochemical causes behind actions like this. Some sociologists will blame society, or capitalism.

”The continued attempts to psychologize and ‘understand’ such deviance – even in the face of evil such as that which occurred on this campus – show the distance some will go to avoid applying moral categories of judgment. Sociologists in the past cautioned us that the medicalization of deviance would eventually shroud conditions, events, and people and prevent them from being confronted as evil. The suggestion that the student who did this act was deranged but not evil demonstrates the lengths some will go to avoid moral judgments. We need to look at the virulent class envy that this student appeared to hold as a serious character flaw – one that may have led to his impaired thinking and his evil act. And, most importantly, we need to acknowledge that human beings are flawed creatures capable of monstrosity.”

The remarks by Michael Pakaluk, a professor of philosophy at Clark University, are the shortest of all, but are also worth including:

”St. Augustine remarked that, just as a robber is a little tyrant, so a tyrant is a robber on a big scale. What holds of robbery holds also of murder. Before we begin to agree with critics who might point to crimes such as the Virginia Tech massacre, or Columbine, as a sign of some unusual sickness in American society, we should consider that the scene of a madman with power, killing others remorselessly out of malice and envy, as he descends to his own self-destruction, was played out on a very large scale in Germany, Cambodia, Russia, and other nations in the last century. That sort of evil, which seems to afflict human nature generally, has so far been manifested only in private action in our country – thanks to our laws and political institutions, and the character of our citizenry. And for that we should be grateful.”

These few thoughts of course do not begin to cover the complexity and depth of this situation. And they only focus on several aspects – mainly moral, philosophical and theological – while many other facets could be considered. But they are a helpful start to what will be a voluminous discussion of this sorry episode.

Much of what will be written will be rubbish. Hopefully some will be of help. But at the moment, for the grieving families of the 32 victims – as well as the family of the gunman – the best we can offer them at this point is our prayers and our sympathy. When the nerves are less raw, and the emotions less overheated, perhaps this site will offer more analysis as well.

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10 Replies to “Coming To Terms With Evil”

  1. Bill, I think you hit the nail on the head and have presented a far more balanced viewpoint than most I’ve seen concerning the tragedy at VTech. I was completely disgusted to see poster on another website trying to make political hay out of this even before the bodies were cold! And before anyone goes off on the gun control topic, the worst mass murder of school children on American soil was commited by a mentally unstable man with a grudge and access to large amounts of dynamite.

    But as you’ve pointed out, this isn’t about the availability of guns in America, it’s about EVIL. How many children are going to die before people come to grips with the idea that evil exists and it lies in wait of a perpetrator and a victim? The young man who commited this terrible crime was showing signs of mental instability at least 5-6 years before this happened! But it’s not about mental instability because very few people whom struggle with mental illness ever commit a violent crime and are in fact far more likely to be victims of crime than normal people. Now I see people talking about Cho having been bullied and picked on, but how many victims of bullies go on to become violent offenders of this magnitude?

    That leaves only evil as the explanation for the tragedy at VTech, for Columbine, and the other tragedies involving school children. It isn’t about guns because evil will always find a weapon, be it an automobile, a box of rat poison, or a baseball bat. There is only one way to stop evil as a 76 year old engineering professor and Nazi Holocaust survivor proved on Monday…….by looking it straight in the eye and refusing to let it have its way.

    M.E. Huffmaster

  2. Thank you for the link, O. Tan. The column is worth reading, with or without the inclusion of the “evil” word……smile.

    But why are we so hesitant to call something or a behavior “evil” when the evidence is staring us right in the face? Has moral relativism made the word, even the concept of evil obsolete? Are the people who come up with such ideas as moral relativism so isolated from the real world that they’ve never considered what it would be like to look someone in the face knowing you could be dead the next second for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Does it take a face-to-face encounter with evil to realize what it is?

    If someone thinks I may be overreacting a little bit, well, I can easily put myself in the shoes of a V Tech college student who has lost a friend or a beloved teacher in this tragedy because I lost a friend/counselor in a similiar way 31 years ago during my sophomore year at university. Thank God it was not anywhere near the horror of Cho randomly going into classrooms and shooting everyone he could, but my friend/counselor was shot and killed as he moved to protect his colleage from an insane young woman who came into the university counseling center with the intent to commit murder. And 31 years later, I find I am still not over that trauma as I sit here typing with tears rolling down my face….nor do I ever expect to be. There are some things one never completely gets over….you simply go through and go on….as the students, teachers, and admins at V Tech will struggle to do in the coming weeks, months, and years ahead.

    M.E. Huffmaster

  3. M.E. 21.4.07 / 1am wrote: “But why are we so hesitant to call something or a behavior ‘evil’ when the evidence is staring us right in the face? Has moral relativism made the word, even the concept of evil obsolete? Are the people who come up with such ideas as moral relativism so isolated from the real world [?]”

    Sadly, your painful experience is indeed made all the harder by so-called post-modern philosophy. This is no different to previous forms of nihilism and denial but it gets a run because it seems “novel.” All are based upon the futile attempt to avoid moral responsibility for our actions.

    We will hear platitudes like “there but for the grace of God go us” and so on but they will be mouthed insincerely by people who do not truly believe in any God except a sophisticated form of pantheism which leads directly to the deadly concept that nothing matters – so whether we live or die doesn’t mean a hoot in the Universe at all.

    It’s so frustrating when you try to explain to people that the real God has said
    “I set before you Life and Death, blessing and cursing… therefore choose Life!” but they don’t want to listen until something like this happens and then your answers are rejected as being too harsh and unloving to the perpetrator.

    John Angelico

  4. John and Bill, as a father of one son at Virginia Tech and another who has had Schizophrenia diagnosed since third grade and who is also in college, I feel I am in a position to have a pertinent insight.
    While I certainly would not think of Seung-hui Cho as innocent, I have to take into account the point that it appears this has been an ongoing and apparently undiagnosed problem for a long time. Cho didn’t just ‘snap’ and commit this heinous crime.
    Friends of my son at Tech who knew Cho and attended classes with him in High School said he was a loner and very unusual even back then. Apparently, relatives of Seung-hui said to news people that the unusual behavior went back even further than that. It was also said by his roommates, I believe, that Cho hadn’t gone home in over a year, and nobody from his family had visited him. All these points added up to a problem that screams to a parent of a young person with mental illness.
    My younger son was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in third grade. Those of you who are familiar with the disease know that is a very early diagnosis. For most people, the signs of the disease emerge in college when young people are typically very stressed. It manifests itself in many ways, including altered perceptions of reality, paranoia, hallucinations, etc.
    When my younger son was diagnosed, I cried. I couldn’t understand why God would allow this to happen to my son. We were and are a Christian family with an active faith. At the time, we were serving in leadership positions in the church. Why would God do this to us? But we’ve learned that my younger son has a specific mission and purpose in God’s kingdom.
    Through support from the school system and a supportive, alert and loving family, my son is doing great. He was in special education all the way through public school, entered college, is on the honor roll and is a member of the National Honor Society for two year colleges. I wish I could say that the church had also taken a large part in his support, but stigmas against the mentally ill and distorted ideas of the demonic being what they are, the church’s support of my son has been mostly marginal at best. None the less, our faith is strong, and our service to our local church as faithful and loving as we can make it.
    Coming back to Seung-hui Cho, there is no doubt that what he did was evil, heinous and devastating to the survivors and the families who lost sons, daughters and spouses in this horrible tragedy. But to simply say, well, Cho made his choice and he was evil fails to take into account how distorted, fearful, hateful and desperately lonely the altered perceptions of a mentally ill person can be. And recent research points strongly to chemical imbalances in the brain as a major trigger, with environment playing a strong role in adding to the delusions.
    Someone has already said to me in a grocery store that it’s a shame those mentally ill people are even allowed to go to school with normal people. And they know my son. I guess he’s doing so well they forgot he too has a mental illness diagnosis. I am enormously proud of him.
    My point is this: The real dividing line between good and evil goes right down the middle of each one of us, if we are honest. My ‘teacher’ N. T. Wright said that. As a community, and especially as a community of Christians, we need to pay attention to those among us who are withdrawn and showing distorted behavior.
    Cho’s teachers saw all of that, but with privacy laws and such, there was little they could to at that point. But we can. If we are alert and consistent at watching out for the ones like Cho, if we make sure they know they are included, are cared for, are important, we can help them get help, and many tragedies like the desperate sadness at Tech can be avoided.
    Charlie Swift, USA

  5. Thanks Charlie

    I am not denying that there are genuine cases of mental illness. My concern was simply to demonstrate that we live in an age of moral relativism, victimisation and political correctness. Far too many people are evading personal responsibility altogether. Too often we want to put bad actions down to mental problems, when often they are due to the bad choices of bad people. Not always of course, but mostly.

    I have in mind here, for example, the book by psychiatrist Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? As a believer you are of course aware of the biblical doctrines of the fall and sin, doctrines which most people today do not want to acknowledge.

    Yes it was Solzhenitsyn who said that “The line between good and evil is drawn not between nations or parties, but through every human heart”. Without God’s grace we are all capable of doing great evil. Again, I am not saying there is no mental illness, simply that too much of today’s culture is in denial about both sin and evil. I trust you agree.

    And of course we all need to be more aware of the needs of others and be alert to possible cases such as this. But I do not think that what I or others have said here is unbiblical or hard-hearted.

    As to Cho, are we really in a position at this early stage to say with certainty – as you seem to be doing – that he was genuinely suffering from mental illness?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. There is mental illness and then there is demonic possession. I’ve always wondered why there seems to be so many accounts of demonic possession in the Bible and so little of it recognised in our ‘modern’ western society? Did the devil get saved?

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  7. Bill, I couldn’t agree with you more strongly on all points. I have posted on your blog before where I mentioned how strongly Wright’s books and articles have influenced my understanding of Christianity. It woudn’t surprise me at all if he was paraphrasing Solzhenitsyn in his comment on evil in each of us.

    I agree too about the perspectives expressed so far not being unbiblical or hard-hearted. The main thing I wanted to stress, though, is our unawareness of the prevalence of mental illness in our society. Current statistics place the incidence of mental illness at roughly one in one hundred. That’s a lot of people.

    Not to say that one in one hundred is a Seung-hui Cho. I work with Autistic students. There’s an important reason why they call it Autism Spectrum Disorder. There is a wide spectrum of intensity to the disorder from non-functioning to those affected who are often extremely intelligent but totally lacking in social skills because the neurological disorder prevents them from picking up on social clues, and they need specific teaching in how to cope in various social conditions.

    Seung-hui Cho was an extreme incident who slipped through the cracks in a foundation we desperately need to repair. Am I certain he was mentally ill? No, but I am confident that the signs described so far are classically parallel to the very sort of symptoms which parents of mentally ill children watch. One of the worst aspects of Schizophrenia is that when a Schizophrenic person does well for a long time, without ongoing guidance and watchfulness, they are very capable of deciding on their own that they no longer need their medication, and stop taking it. Then the problems start, and it’s a bad cycle.

    I can give a couple of examples of what I personally consider true evil in this world beyond the killings at Columbine. I learned last week that every canister of dip tobacco sold in the United States contains fine ground glass. Why? Because they can, legally, and because the ground glass makes extremely fine cuts in the delicate skin of the gums to enhance the delivery of the addicting nicotine. Look and see if ground glass is listed as one of the ingredients on a can.

    Another example of evil to me is found among the executives and legal department of Ford Corporation. They decided it would maintain the profit margin of Ford Festivas better if they simply paid the lawsuits of the families whose family members die in the fiery explosions inevitable with the known defective gasoline tank than to retrofit all the defective Festivas with new gas tanks.

    My ‘teacher’ N. T. Wright says that when Paul wrote ‘Jesus is Lord’ he was simultaneously implying, ‘And Caesar is not’. The biggest evils we are dealing with (or not dealing with) in this world wield a great deal more power and money and exercise a great deal more malevolent action than the individuals who attract so much more of our attention. Bill, I apologize for being so long winded, but if we as Christians are to come to terms with evil, I think first we have to see where the seats of its power are located.

    With regards and appreciation,

    Charlie Swift, USA

  8. Many thanks Charlie

    You offer very helpful perspective and insight into a complex and difficult subject. Thanks for sharing with us.
    And yes, I am a big NT Wright fan.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. I agree with many points made on this topic. I think our society is forced to look evil in the face when massacres such as the horrific one in Virginia took place not too long ago.

    So it is not so much a question of, does evil exist? Because I am quite certain that most people would agree that it does. The question that the world is asking and trying to answer is, what does this evil stem from?

    It is true that in a dash to cover up what horrific acts are potentially in us to carry out, every area of influence that is not self-induced but is independent of our will is brought out. The truth is however, that evil runs in our bloodline, right from the disobedient actions of the first generation Adam and Eve.

    Sure life circumstances and what we fill our life with are a major influence in how we conduct ourself. But at the end of the day, we are all given a choice. We are all built with a conscience that either drives us to lift the bar higher in our life or we ignore it to pursue other avenues that will lead to action regretted.

    Gabrielle Brophy

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