Confession may or may not be good journalism, but it is good for the soul.
I recently read a short essay by Kathryn Jean Lopez, the founding director of Catholic Voices U.S.A. The essay was about the evil that’s afoot in the world today and our responses to it. It was one of those vivid pieces of writing that Holy Writ describes as “dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
We often we respond to evil by regurgitating something we’ve read or heard and turn it into a clever catch phrase that allows us to feel better about doing little or nothing about the evil. “Never again!” “ISIS has no place in the 21st century.” We say it with conviction, as if the words themselves will make the evil go away. Generations come and go, the mantras persist, but evil keeps springing up all around the world, like tares among the wheat. Kim Il Sung purged a couple of million in North Korea. Pol Pot became the grand architect of evil with the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Hutus murdered Tutsis by the hundreds of thousands in Rwanda. Now we’re trying to convince ourselves that ISIS will stop beheading¸ shooting, and crucifying Shiites, Christians, Yazidis, apostate Sunnis, infidels, or anyone else who stands in their way if we tell them “there’s no place for that kind of behavior in the 21st century.”
When it comes to the failure to act against evil, we’ve become quite sophisticated. In July, for example, an Alabama teenager took a “selfie” in front of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. She posted her smiling photo on Twitter with the caption,” I’m famous, y’all.”
Politics can sometimes provide a handy escape hatch. Why worry about evil on the other side of the world when we Kansans have Sam Brownback and Paul Davis to kick around?
Another avenue we’ve found to numb ourselves to evil is rage. This is where I need to make my confession.
After the death of James Foley, I found the state of the world very depressing. I’d been trying to add things up for days, without success. I could see the logistics of evil being played out on the world stage, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand the why of it all. “Why?’… “Why?”… “Why?’ My oldest son used to ask “Why?” all the time when he was a little boy. “Why do birds lay eggs and people have babies?” “Why do we need grabbidy?” I remember hearing Stephen Hawking once say he could calculate the exact time of the Big Bang within nanoseconds, but also confessed he was still puzzled by the “Why?” of the universe.
As I pondered the whys, I felt a powerful sense of rage well up within me. “Kill all the evil people,” I thought. Like Isaiah the prophet I pleaded to God, “Dash them to pieces.” Like King David of old, I felt hate and revulsion. “Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”
When morning broke the next day, ISIS was still taking territory faster than the Sooners did in the days of the Oklahoma Land Rush. Christians, Yazidis, apostates, and infidels were still being crucified, decapitated, or shot to death. Nothing much had changed and I still couldn’t figure out why ISIS was doing such evil things.
Then, a few days after the rage subsided, I came across the words of Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who spent the last years of World War II as a prisoner in Auschwitz. In his memoir he wrote of an incident when he saw a large icicle outside the window of his cell. When he tried to break the icicle off to quench his thirst, Levi said one of the guards knocked it out of his hand. “Why?” Levi asked. The guard responded, “Here there is no why.”
I now realize that trying to dull the visible effects of evil in the world with rage won’t make it magically disappear. It’s a futile exercise, much like snapping a “selfie” at Auschwitz or getting caught up in Kansas politics. Like Levi, I’m forced to confess that sometimes there is no why.
But, there are questions that come on the heels of the “Why?” of ISIS. How do we stop the madness? What should we do? What can we do? Citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Second Vatican Council, Kathryn Jean Lopez said the answers to those kinds of questions lie deep within our consciences. If we search diligently, she wrote, we will “discover a law which man has not laid upon himself but which he must obey.”
She’s right. Once we complete that search, I believe we will be prepared to act justly...and rightly.