“This is the Luciferian paradox: if a society (ours, for instance) unleashes gratuitous violence and wickedness, it’s because it has no real experience of evil, of evil’s rule. For the crueler history is, the lovelier the world of refuge appears; the more ordinary a situation, the more it feels like a buoy for ‘escapees’ to cling to.”
Milan Kundera, “Encounter” (32)
On our way home from my 7-year-old son’s first Reconciliation retreat, he began to speak of the devil – with a young boy’s earnestness – about wanting to actually see that he exists, horns, fork and all. I told him there’s no need, because we can see his influence all around us. I thought of the 6-year-old boy in Virginia who shot his teacher in early January, or of the 14-year-old from Chippewa Falls who murdered and raped his 10-year-old cousin last year. I think of the kidnapping of Jayme Closs (her grandfather and my father are first cousins, although I’ve never met that side of the family) and pray she is healing.
There are too many similarly horrifying cases to count. Our shock at hearing of crimes committed against – or especially by – children is, I think, perhaps a unifying factor. We, the society, cannot believe that we have nurtured a viper in our bosom, to put it idiomatically. Murders, rapes and school shootings are easier to discount when they happen on the other side of the country; when the evil seeps into our region, our county, our town, it’s far more jarring. When it involves someone we know, the evil becomes personal. We see it in action; we feel the suffering, disorder and chaos wrought by its slashing, thrashing tentacles.
Why, then, I wonder, are shows like “Dahmer” produced? Why in our society do we immerse ourselves in violent video games and movies – in a culture of darkness? In the news business, the mantra is “if it bleeds, it leads.” Why repeat and regurgitate – potentially encouraging someone to replicate – the most heinous acts? The social scientist Philip Zimbardo posits that it is the bad barrel, not the bad apple, that spoils the whole lot – basically, the “container” that is society and culture is what influences us to turn from good to evil. Why, then, are we spoiling our communal container, to the extent that it is poisoning even children?
Perhaps the simplest explanation is, to paraphrase the Czech writer Milan Kundera, our society as a whole has never known pervasive evil. I just finished “The Noise of Time,” a novel by Julian Barnes on the Soviet-era composer Shastakovich – it sticks in my mind for representing in fiction the horror of living in a country where government officials can have anyone, at any time and for any reason, executed, along with their family, their friends, even their casual acquaintances. Getting rid of an irritating neighbor or colleague was as simple as denouncing them to the right person; for a composer, creating art for the “wrong” reason, as perceived by a government-assigned critic, was enough to endanger lives. Thus, chronic fear, anxiety and distrust ruled even more despotically than Communist officials with their flawed ideologies – and we can hear echoes of those ideologies in the death and destruction that continues to flow like blood from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We feel, perhaps, a hint of this fear and anxiety when we send our children off to school after reading about a mass shooting. As the Judeo-Christian norms of the past are lost, forgotten and pushed forcibly out of circulation, their protective coating wears thin. Recently, a friend and I were discussing our nonpracticing-Christian husbands’ accusation that we are “forcing” religion upon our children. My response: “Your parents gave you the benefit of a Christian upbringing. Would you have me send them out into the world with no moral compass at all? That will make it all the easier for evil to get them.” It is strange indeed that we love what is best and most beautiful in one another and detest what is ugly, but we forgot that moral competence – like the academic variety – requires education and formation.
I cannot say I’m the brand of Catholic who cheerfully goes around blaming every inconvenience and mishap on the devil. But evil is one of those things – you know it when you see it. Interestingly, in a recent survey of priests reported on by Our Sunday Visitor, 70 percent of the youngest cohort of priests believed that demons were one cause of clerical sex abuse, while only 19 or 20 percent of the oldest cohort of priests agreed. As the interviewee observed, there’s lots of room for speculation on why that is – personally, I’d guess it has something to do with growing up at a time when evil’s influence on society seems to be demonstrably increasing. Maybe we are letting it happen. Think of the bystanders who took videos of a woman being raped on a Philadelphia train in 2021 and, despite the glut of superhero movies being released, never intervened.
The fruits of the Holy Spirit – charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, longanimity, gentleness, faith, modesty, continence and chastity – light a candle in this darkness, and I’m certain we all love people who espouse them. No, practicing a religion does not immediately ensure that a tidal wave of joy, peace and love will wash over someone – I have known some bitter Christians who could scare you away from church like the devil himself – but on some rudimentary level, possessing any spark of the divine within us is elevating. “God and Jesus are in my heart,” my son assured me as we concluded our discussion of the devil. I’ll admit I was relieved to hear it.