A massacre sends clerics in different directions
SINCE the horrific massacre in Las Vegas, the word “evil” has been heard
with unusual frequency, on the lips of political leaders as well as clerics.
This evil-talk is not just a reflex response or a banal statement of the
obvious. It has philosophical implications, and often places the speaker in a
particular corner of the debate about guns.
In the first minute of his response to the killing spree, Donald Trump termed
it “an act of pure evil”. Striking an unusually scriptural tone, he went on to
quote a verse from the Psalms, proclaiming that “The Lord is close to the
broken-hearted, He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” Even in that
comforting passage, talk of evil is in the background. It comes a couple of
lines after the declaration that “The Lord turns his face against those who
do evil, He will erase their memory from the earth.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, in an emotional
statement about the killings that included further scriptural reference, began
by reminding people that this was an episode “which the president has
rightly called an act of pure evil.”
What is meant by emphasising that point? Albert Mohler, a seminary
president and influential figure in the religious conservative camp, offered a
characteristic explanation. As he argued in a response to the killings, evil is
a Biblical category. It can only be fully understood from a spiritual
perspective which accepts both a loving God and the existence of forces
ranged in opposition that will ultimately be defeated.
It follows that secular folk, who are infecting the nation with a terrible spirit of
moral relativism, will not fully understand the concept of evil, except in
glimmerings when something terrible happens.
As Mr Mohler put it:
It is both telling and reassuring that secular people, faced with moral horror
as we see now in Las Vegas, can…speak of evil as a moral fact—even if
they continue to deny moral facts in the classrooms and courtrooms.
Another clear implication of the stress on “evil” is that there is no point
trying to stop its effects through regulation. If evil is an inexorable feature of
a fallen plane of existence, one that has been tainted from the very start of
things by human sin, then no policy measures will ever remove it. The only
response to evil is to identify it clearly, to avoid secular soft-headedness,
and perhaps to mitigate its effects as and when they arise, without
presuming to abolish it. In other words, gun control will not work.
That is almost the opposite of the thinking that has prevailed among
America’s Catholic bishops for several decades. According to a roundup by
Crux, a Catholic news service, as early as 1975 the nation’s bishops were
calling for a national firearms policy that would make it harder to buy and
use guns on impulse. Last year Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas praised the
gun-control initiatives of President Barack Obama as a welcome change
from congressional deference to the “gun lobby”.
In its most radical pronouncements, the Vatican under Pope Francis has
shown sympathy for the view that the “structural violence” implicit in unjust
and unequal societies is as much to blame for gun deaths as any individual
moral calculus. The Pope has particularly condemned the sale of weapons
for profit, whether within countries or internationally, as a huge moral
Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest who is editor-at-large of America
magazine, responded to the Las Vegas killings with a kind of prayer-poem
that included the lines:
I am tired, God.
I’m tired of the unwillingness to see this as an important issue.
I’m tired of those in power who work to prevent any real change.
I’m tired of those who say that gun violence can’t be reduced.
Either end of this religious-ideological spectrum can go to funny extremes.
An approach that puts overwhelming emphasis on the structural or
regulatory context of violence can leave itself open to mockery by seeming
to deny that individuals have moral choices. But whatever you may think
about the causes of badness in the world, it seems manifestly absurd to
suggest that the legislator should not try, at least, to reduce the scope for
evil to prevail.
Horror in Las Vegas polarises the
world of religion