The same day [April 12, 1945] I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock. I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that `the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’ Some members of the visiting party were unable to through the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt. – General Dwight D. Eisenhower, on first seeing a concentration camp
The smell of death overwhelmed us even before we passed through the stockade. More than 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves. Others lay in the streets where they had fallen. Lice crawled over the yellowed skin of their sharp, bony frames. – General Omar Bradley, on the liberation of Ohrduf Slave Labor Camp
[F]rom the book of Atrocities, the evil fable begins like this: Once upon a time, a group of men educated in Paris and steeped in communist ideology had a dream for their homeland. To create a Cambodian society that surpassed the greatness of Angkor, the kingdom that reached its pinnacle under the god-king Suryavarman II in the twelfth century with the construction of Angkor Wat. From the jungles—where their leaders had fled to escape the repressive measures of Prince Sihanouk in 1963—they fought a guerrilla war, led by a soft-spoken, enigmatic schoolteacher named Saloth Sar. These communists, however, did not believe in gods, kings, or culture, as it turned out, but they were good at biding their time. In the vacuum of power left after the eight-year American bombing of Cambodia, they swept east across the lowlands to the capital, Phnom Penh, finally wresting control from the corrupt U.S.-supported regime in 1975. (The premier, Lon Nol, had already fled to Hawaii.) Their first act was to evacuate the city, hurrying the populace under the pretense that the Americans were coming to bomb again, emptying hospitals, setting millions of people—including the elderly, lame, and pregnant—walking on the roads that led to the countryside, a scene of hunger and corpses straight out of Brueghel.
[A]lmost immediately the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary pretenses gave way to the sickening irrationality of brutes. In that first spasm of violence, everyone wearing glasses was killed. Everyone who spoke a foreign language was killed. Everyone with a university education was killed. Word was sent to expats living abroad to come home and join the new Cambodia; when a thousand or so arrived on special flights from Beijing, they were killed. Monks, so revered in Cambodian society and long the voice of conscience there, were killed. Lawyers, doctors, and diplomats were killed. Bureaucrats, soldiers, and policemen, even factory workers (who in the minds of the Khmer Rouge were equivalent to industrialization itself), were killed.
In that first moment, the lucky ones were directed to keep walking to their home villages—some traveled for months this way—where they were sorted, sent to collectives, and worked from sunup to twilight. A person’s worth was eventually measured by his ability to move cubic yards of earth. “To keep you is no profit,” said the executioners to the unworthy before killing them, “to destroy you is no loss.” – From GQ, quoted by me, “Obscenities”, What’s Left In The Church, August 7, 2009
—–#3:The interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policy makers and others.Beginning with the CIA’s first detainee, Abu Zubaydah, and continuing with numerous others,the CIA applied its enhanced interrogation techniques with significant repetition for days orweeks at a time. Interrogation techniques such as slaps and wallings (slamming detaineesagainst a wall) were used in combination, frequently concurrent with sleep deprivation and nudity. Records do not support CIA representations that the CIA initially used an open, non-threatening approach, or that interrogations began with theleast coercive technique possible and escalated to more coercive techniques only as necessary. The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaydah, for example,became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth. Internal CIA records describe the waterboarding of Khalid Shaykh Mohammad as evolving into a series of near drownings. Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads. At least five detainees experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation and, in at least two of those cases, the CIA nonetheless continued the sleep deprivation. Contrary to CIA representations to the Department of Justice, the CIA instructed personnel that the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah would take precedence over his medical care, resulting in the deterioration of a bullet wound Abu Zubaydah incurred during his capture. In at least two other cases, the CIA used its enhanced interrogation techniques despite warnings from CIA medical personnel that the techniques could exacerbate physical injuries. CIA medical personnel treated at least one detainee for swelling in order to allow the continued use of standing sleep deprivation. At least five CIA detainees were subjected to rectal rehydration or rectal feeding withoutdocumented medical necessity. The CIA placed detainees in ice water baths. The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box. One interrogator told another detainee that he would never go to court, because we can never let the world know what I have done to you. CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to cut [adetainee‘s] mother‘s throat. – Declassified Forward To Report On CIA Torture, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—–
When the first Western Crusaders reached Jerusalem, the Caliphate could hardly believe what was happening. Despite religious differences, the Muslim Empire that controlled the eastern Mediterranean and the over-land routes made sure the way for Christian pilgrims was always safe. While they exacted taxes, those taxes were both fair and necessary to keep the roads and seas safe. Muslims kept safe, clean places for Christians to sleep as they journeyed to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, or other sacred sites. A religion in which pilgrimage was a sacred duty, those adhering to Islam honored the Christians who traveled far from home to see their own holy sites.
The Caliphate was unified in name only, with several factions vying for control, and battles and small wars spreading distrust as well as scattering forces that would soon be sorely needed. Word had spread of this motley horde that had just appeared at Constantinople, dirty, bedraggled, ignorant, as willing to kill and rape their fellow Christians as not, and certainly not above killing as many Jews – vital civil servants to the many Muslim bureaucracies – as possible. Known as “the Franks” or “Franj”, the Muslims considered them a joke, barbarians biting off more than they could chew. Surely, even in the midst of their disunity, the armies of Islam could repel the invaders and, after some negotiations including a formal apology, things could get back to normal. Except, alas, the Muslim military leaders were not only divided; they were incompetent as well. The Western Crusaders, on the other hand, while hardly disciplined, were tough, having been told over and over the horrors they would encounter not only in Jerusalem, but in other Muslim-controlled cities. Cities were beseiged and sacked, yet the only real horrors were perpetrated by the Westerners, all in the name of their God.
Finally, as Jerusalem fell, the Crusaders pushed in to the Jewish quarter (the Muslims had lifted the old Roman ban on Jews living in Jerusalem; there was a lively, thriving Jewish community in the city at the time the Franks reached it). Enraged at Jews wandering free, fighting the Christians for their homes, soon the Crusaders herded as many live Jews as they could find in to the city’s largest synagogue, barricading all the doors and windows. They set the building on fire, placing archers near any potential exits. Those few who tried scrambling away from the flames were shot down.
Afterward, even as the building and bodies smoldered and the stench floated over the city, attending priests celebrated a mass with the soldiers for having done God’s work that day.
Fast forward over nine hundred years, and the names and nationalities and particularities changed. Yet, similar events occurred as formerly Nazi-controlled Europe fell east and west to the Allies and the Red Army. At Buchenwald, the camp guards tried to destroy as much evidence of their atrocities as possible, including those prisoners who remained alive. Yet again, they were herded in to a building. Yet again, the building was set aflame. Rather than archers, machine guns were positioned around the building. No one made it out of that building alive. Thankfully for history, this attempt to destroy any evidence of mass death had taken so long the first American troops had parachuted in to the camp, seizing control with almost not fight at all. Every attempt was made to make sure none of the SS camp guards committed suicide.
A generation later, as the urban population of one of southeast Asia’s oldest, most sophisticated societies was driven to the countryside, the dead piling up along the roads, camps were set up for the most recalcitrant among those who remained. Here they were beaten, raped – men and women both – had car batteries attached to their genitals, and often died either from starvation or blood loss from the various tortures. None were shot; bullets were too precious to waste on those whose lives were already forfeit. As a fortunate few reached refugee camps across the border in Thailand, reporting both to Thai officials and later the United Nations, few gave credence to the stories of genocide on such a grand scale. Belief was further hampered by the Khmer Rouge’s refusal to allow foreigners, even UN representatives, inside; also, the leaders of the Khmer insisted the stories were lies propagated by the Vietnamese and Americans in a joint effort to discredit their glorious revolution. That American credibility had taken such a hit from the Vietnam War certainly allowed many to pause before going much further. When the Vietnamese Army invaded, unable to help the refugees and tired of Khmer border incursions, even the most hardened veterans of the war with the United States were horrified by what they found.
Whenever these stories are told, we console ourselves these are from the distant past; from depraved, evil regimes; from uncivilized parts of the world where life is cheap, certainly cheaper than bullets. We, it would seem, are above such atrocities.
Then we were attacked by members of al Qaeda on September 11, 2001. Along with grief and disbelief came a kind of blinding rage. That very night, in Arizona, a Sikh who ran a small gas station in Arizona was attacked by a mob. That the Sikhs are, by and large, a peaceful group of people and certainly had nothing to do with the horrific events of that day was neither here nor there; that the Sikhs had suffered from religious persecution in India, including having their holiest temple burned by Hindu fundamentalists while worshipers were inside (a common theme, it would seem), was probably unknown to the mob, and wouldn’t have mattered anyway. We as a people were now in the grip of rage, a blinding hatred that blotted out reason, caution, and any moral sense we might once have had.
The revelations of our actions at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Camp Delta at the Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba exposed not just a breakdown in military discipline and civilian control and oversight of the Central Intelligence Agency. It told a story as old as human conflict: the use of torture on captured enemies, not as a serious interrogation technique since we have long known torture just doesn’t work. No, we tortured those prisoners – sometimes sending them to countries that had little moral qualms with various techniques, then deciding we could do as well ourselves – because we could. Our country had been attacked. Thousands had died. The Pentagon was a ruin. The World Trade Center a hole in the ground, a mass grave. We justified our actions on the horror of that day, and the mass death incurred here on American soil by forces far away. In the years since, how many times have you seen the meme below?
Here’s the thing. On this Lenten Journey of mine, I’ve reached a field alive with blooming poppies. The sheer beauty is breath-taking. The land rolls a bit, and as I go off the road to cross this vast field, it occurs to me the dips in the field seem steeper than they should. It is then I realize I am crossing the trench lines of the First World War. These poppies, the bees and butterflies flitting among them – all fed by mass death. So much of our life is like that. We admire something beautiful, some magnificent sunset, say, or perhaps a painting by Breughel or a Mass by Bach. What we don’t notice, as we celebrate these objets d’art is they too often cover up something horrific. They are our ways of congratulating ourselves for our ability to perceive those fleeting natural moments of sublime eternity; they are demonstrations of our human mastery over color, light and shadow, perspective, and the ability to capture the human form in all its beauty; or it might be the magnificent sound dedicated to praising God. We congratulate ourselves on these, the accomplishments of we in the West in particular, these monuments to our civilization, its beauty, and our superiority over those who have yet to reach these pinnacles.
The dead, however much we might wish it, are never quiet. Whether from a thousand years ago, or just a few hours, they scream at us, crying out for justice. They demand their stories be told; not our version of their stories, but their stories. Whether it is the stories of countless Jewish populations across Europe, Africans kidnapped and carried to a far-off land where they were enslaved, little better than cattle, their humanity denied even in a land that celebrated its dedication to human freedom. It might be the silent testimony of the gigantic ossuaries of modern Cambodia, asking only that their former selves not be forgotten. Finally, in the push and pull of contemporary American politics, we should listen to the blood screaming from our hands before we applaud our greatness as a nation, our morality as a people, and our uniqueness as a recipient of Divine favor.
No monster is as horrible as the one who believes that his murderous rampage is both necessary and just. When we look at images of the victims; when we hear the stories of the survivors; when we recall the stories from long ago of how in olden times, we raped and pillaged and destroyed in the name of God; rather than pretend to empathize with the victims – something any moral midget can do – allow yourself the fleeting thought that the perpetrators of these (and so many more) horrors might well wear your face. The voice of the priest giving thanks to God for the burning of Jerusalem’s Jews might well have been mine. I very well could have given orders in German to make sure none of those prisoners huddled in to the building in Buchenwald escaped with their lives. And, most assuredly, I could have been one of those CIA “interrogators”. They are, after all, Americans. Their training, salaries, transportation – all of that was paid for in part by my tax dollars, It would be nice to declare my innocence, even here, but especially here I dare not precisely because money from my pocket may well have helped feed and house and train the Americans who thought it a good idea to treat innocent Muslim prisoners like animals.
I refuse to make any claim to moral superiority. Our recent American experiences are as old as humanity, and have nothing to do with anything other than human evil, an evil so entrenched inside all of us, we continue to see it played out – ISIS beheading Christians and Muslims alike; women gang-raped in India; people put to death in the United States, whether on the streets or in prisons. All of this exists within me no less than those who have acted so. I must face this, admit it, otherwise I will be lost in this field of blooming poppies, the naked fingers of the dead reaching for me, demanding not only I confess, but that I join them. That I most surely do not wish to do; thus, confession is my only hope of reaching the road. I only hope it’s sincere.
Tender blossoms thinking generously alongside a boulder,
hard and resistant to someone’s love.
Just like in life, people can be the same way as they
tear into your heart and leave it ripped open and raw.
Putting salt into the wound to top it off and cause more
intense pain to their satisfaction. – RoseAnn V. Shawiak, “Other’s Causing Pain”
So here I go. The forest around me, on both sides of the narrow road I’m walking looks much like the photo above: all dreary, Gothic, fog-swept, the trees contorted by the foul air. And on not just one, but many, swing bodies. Some are right up close to the road. Others are further back. I want to keep my eyes ahead, “Keep your eyes on the road,” I hear my father’s voice in the back of my head. I’m not driving, however, and in the silence of this place, I can hear the creak of the ropes upon the branches. Far too many ropes, far too many branches. I know what I will see when I turn and look, which is why I’m afraid. The whole point of doing this, however, is to do just that.
I turn and look. The face, bloated, eyes and tongue bulging, the flesh picked at by crows, is familiar. All too familiar. I look a bit further back, and there is another, her body bare, her face turned skyward, as if pleading for release. Her glassy eyes turn to me, and in my head I hear her voice, all too familiar from distant memories: “You did this to me.”
But I haven’t killed a human being. Ever. Not once. I insist upon my innocence as more eyes turn to me. I’m spinning in the near dark, the stench of rot filling my nose. I want to run, but I know it would be like running in a dream, my tread heavy, my movements like slow-motion. It is at that moment I feel a hand on my arm. I look down, jumping at the touch. The face smiling up at me is an old friend. Around his neck he bears the scars of a rope, the rope I tied. He is no walking corpse, however. His eyes are light and full of life, his skin ruddy. I smile in recognition, wanting to embrace him.
Why is he here, and why is he alive in this forest of the dead? Why does he smile even as he carriers the marks I left upon him? Because a year or two ago, I got in touch with him. I knew what had to be done. I told him how horrible I felt for the way I had treated him at times. I told him that, in fact, his friendship was something that I cherished because it came at precisely the right time in my life. I did more than apologize. I begged forgiveness, not necessarily expecting it, certainly not feeling worthy of it, yet knowing that, if I did not do so, I had neither right nor reason to call myself a Christian. I let him know that I understood how my words and actions had hurt him, because knowing I had said and done them hurt me more than I could ever say. In a moment of grace I will never forget, he accepted my apology and offered forgiveness I had neither merited nor truly performed any penance to acquire. I had explained, asked, and it had been granted.
That, however, did not erase the scar from around his neck.
You see, when we say and do hurtful things to others, it is a kind of death. We tend to be so careless in our words and deeds, especially when aimed at those closest to us. In my case, I offered the lamest excuses imaginable. “I’m only joking.” “Come on, lighten up, you know I love you.” There’s nothing joking about causing another pain. Love is not expressed in belittling and dehumanizing others. On the contrary, even the mildest insult cuts to the bone. What I did to this young man, whose presence in my life was cherished, who was, as the song says, a friend to me when I needed one, who offered himself freely to me as a friend and upon whom I heaped scorn and derision for reasons that aren’t reasons – for this I stood before him, naked of pretense, knowing full well what I had done had more than injure him.
He carries with him a memory of being a part of my life. It isn’t warm at all. It is the thick, cold, scar tissue that results from hanging far too long among the others in this forest that is my first stop along the way. All the same, he smiles at me, his hand still on my arm. “You know what you need to do,” he says.
Indeed I do. You see, all those bodies in all those trees, some near, others far – I put them there. It’s my job to cut them down, to bring them back to life, if possible, not through any heroic act of my own. No, once they are cut down, their corpses lying on the forest floor, I must admit what I did to put them there. Then I must do the one thing that I know is unthinkable: I must ask forgiveness. Whether it comes or not is not up to me. I know I need it.
Others gather round me, those whose forgiveness I have sought and been granted. They all smile at me, yet are insistent. Not only the corpses, but the whole thing – the forest, the trees twisted by the fetid air, that whole Gothic scenario of ground fog swirling around our feet – is my creation, either through adolescent ineptitude, or what is worse, deliberate action, reveling in the joy that comes from hurting others. This is no hellish spawn. Around me is a scene I have created, and it is up to me not only to cut down all those corpses, but to remove all those hanging trees, to make sure no one ever again finds themselves wounded by my careless or careful words and actions.
This might take a while. So many bodies. So many trees. And that sense of all I have done sits like a weight not just upon my shoulders, but even more upon my tongue as I try to beg forgiveness, knowing full well I neither deserve it nor should expect it. Trying to get those words out feels like speaking a foreign language here in this darkness, the smell of death I’ve brought deep in my lungs. Yet, before I can move forward much more, I have to do this. The bodies, the trees root and branch, from this should spring flowers. Light should shine upon those who find a new life in that moment when they see me and say, “I forgive you.” They should return to their lives lighter, more able to laugh and sing and dance. I know there are miles ahead of me, and this road will lead me to places even darker and more frightening, all created by me.
A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.
I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.
That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.
The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.
People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.
Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.
But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.
If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.
One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.
But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong. – Slacktivist, quoted by me (due to link rot to the original), “Moral Indignation”, What’s Left In The Church, May 8, 2010
Before I take a deep breath and forge ahead, I think it’s important to make clear what I’m talking about when I use words such as “horrific”, “terrifying”, and, of course, “evil”. A few years ago, in a discussion of what was then a popular idea – “agnotology” – I came across the above post from Slacktivist, a post that has somehow disappeared from the one place that is supposed to be eternal. Luckily, I copied and pasted it in full on to a post of my own. My point at the time is the same as my point now. Sitting around and calling out evil is, by and large (as with so much else on the Internet) a game. It takes no moral courage at all to denounce kitten-burning, or mass beheadings, or the aerial bombardment of innocent civilians. These are, to be sure, “evil”. They are not, however difficult to discern. All too often, however, folks on the Internet get sucked in to what I call “the Kitten-Burning Trap”: Others insist that unless a particular individual denounce obvious evil, they are therefore morally complicit in that very evil. This game is, sad to say, far too easy for far too many. Standing atop the charred carcasses of kittens and declaring one’s moral superiority is laughable, to say the least. Demanding others do the same or be considered complicit in such evil is absurd. Yet, that is so much of the moral discourse on the Internet – absurd claims piled upon even more absurd demands, with far too few considering that real evil, the truly horrible, is out there, nearly unrecognizable in its cunning, masked all too often in the faces of the everyday.
That there is Ted Bundy. A sexual psychopath, Bundy murdered without remorse in a multi-state killing spree that took the lives of hundreds of young women. He would lure the victims, often wearing a cast on his arm, to help him put something in his van (the MO was borrowed for The Silence Of The Lambs). He would beat them in to unconsciousness with his cast. Once in the van, he would rape them, then strangle them. Often, he would rape their corpses. He was also a biter, which was his undoing. A cast of his bite marks on one of his victims in Florida clinched his conviction and execution.
The thing is, just looking at Bundy, would any of you think he was the embodiment of a certain kind of evil? Filled with rage at women, behind that handsome bonhomie lay a remorseless killer who eluded the police for years. His ability to blend in to any crowd of the beautiful up-and-comers (and Bundy was sought after in his native Washington State to run as a Republican for public office) was not just part of his honey-trap for his victims. It was also the best disguise a person with so much blood and death on his hands could have. After all, don’t we tend to call such persons “monsters” and “inhuman”? There’s nothing monstrous about Bundy at all, at least at a glance. He is, in many ways, the epitome of a kind of successful, good-looking human being. Which is precisely why recognizing evil is so much more than denouncing kitten-burning, or terrorist bombings, or even genocide. We must be able to see and understand that underneath even the most beautiful face might lie a mind so filled with rage that destruction of other life, destruction that can only be ended in incarceration and death, is a hunger that can never be satisfied.
This photo is what far too many picture when the word “demon” is used. Indeed, it’s from a television program, Millennium, from the 1990’s, which explored matters of good and evil in their extremities. The producers, in one episode, used a split-second siting of this image as a cheap jump-scare that, let me just admit it right here, is still hard for me to watch and still stands, for me, as one of the most horrific moments I’ve ever seen on network television. Yet, if evil ran around this world looking like this all the time, what would be the point of struggling with it? If it were so easy to spot the demonic even in ourselves because this would be the image staring back at us from mirrors and our mind’s eye, spiritual disciplines would far more resemble exorcisms than struggles within ourselves among all the facets of our all-too-complicated, never stagnant selves. While I was, and continued to be, frightened by the use of this image, I do not accept this as “evil”. Far from it, particularly in an age when evil has become so intertwined not only in the lives of individuals but in our social lives as well.
When Hannah Arendt wrote of “the banality of evil” at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, she was not – at least as I think far too many people understand her meaning – downplaying evil in the modern world. On the contrary, I believe she was expressing a peculiar and particular kind of horror. The West, in its Weberian bureaucratic facelessness had, in the Third Reich, created a mask for evil so common, ordinary, and everyday that it might well be nigh on impossible for ordinary people to see the horrors beneath the normal goings-on of the bureaucratic state. Arendt wasn’t diminishing evil; she was, rather, casting a warning to moral theorists everywhere to be on the lookout for the common, the regular, for behind that very banality could lie horrors that are, to this day, unimaginable. Over a half-century later, we rest ourselves far too comfortably in our ability to recognize and call evil by its name.
I’m a fan of horror films. There’s a certain satisfaction in being frightened, jumping when a combination of sound and light and dark combine, and the unknown is finally unmasked for what it is. Yet, each time that unmasking occurs, I find myself disappointed. “This is it?” I think. An evil child, perhaps, or the revenant of some old witch seeking to be reborn in our time through the ritual sacrifice, usually of young people doing what they shouldn’t (which, let’s face it, is what young people do; more than one commentator on the Friday the 13th franchise has noted the essentially high moral tone of at least the early films: don’t sneak off and have sex or the bogeyman will kill you). Even if it’s a move involving demonic possession – The Ritual, say, or The Devil Inside – I can’t help but wonder how the demons involved got such a crappy job. Possess the body of a person to do . . . what, exactly? Kill other people? We are quite capable of doing that on our own, thank you very much. Twist our bodies in to strange shapes? Toward what purpose? I don’t get the whole demonic possession thing. You want to scare me, demons, possess the CEOs of a few of our larger corporations. I’m sure you’d like to possess some members of Congress, but are expelled by the sheer stupidity of those willing to go along with it.
In a world in which evil is so complex and difficult to see, let alone name for what it really is, it is just too easy to fall in to the Kitten-Burning Trap. In a world losing faith in the churches of our fathers and grandfathers, yet still surrounded by evil, we want evil to be clear, and the goodness and efficacy of the God of our ancestors to be clear as well. Lacking any real faith, however, religious figures in such films are too often portrayed as doubters or frauds, their power non-existence in the face of the demonic forces against which they are pitted. A stock line in so many of these movies, as meaningless as it is cliched, is: “They never teach you what to do when confronted with real evil.” Except, of course, they do, and we – all of us, all the time, both within our psyches and in the larger world – experience and see all sorts of real evil every single day. We aren’t lacking the ability to struggle with it and win.
What we lack is the ability to be clear about evil. Wrapped as it is, not only around and among the other parts of our own lives, but in the world around us, ridding even the smallest bit of it takes not so much faith and strength as discernment, skill, and patience. The courage, well, that can come from God. We also need wisdom. We need eyes to see. Most of all, we need to beware the all-too-easy traps set for us, to name the most clear instances of evil among and in us and consider ourselves moral persons. That is, perhaps, the most evil device there is.
In the halls of the tormented,
screams abound never ended
Children of the damned
Forever Tortured, Unyielded and Unrepentant,
Tormented eyes burned away in those that forever wish to go home and enter into the halls of the living
Children of the damned
heretics, lunatics, warped minds and false believers who played with madness
All who perish away in vanity
burning away into endless nights of eternity – Deadworld, “Halls Of The Tormented”
This Lent, I’ve been journeying inside myself, turning over the rocks and seeing what slithers away from the light. I have to admit that I don’t think I’ve done the whole thing justice. After all, I know – even more than I could ever write or convey – what darkness lies within me. It seems, instead, I’ve raised a glass in toast rather than deal with the reality that is my own brokenness, the sin that eats away at every attempt I’ve made to be rid of what one hymn writer called “that one dark blot”. Oh, I know that sanctification is both a process and something that comes from cooperation with the Holy Spirit, a giving over of the self to the power of God, practiced in disciplined, loving community in which others support me, and we all support one another as we journey forward, the hope of perfection in love the goal, the stripping of the ego the means.
When I started this, I wrote the way would be bordered by horrors. The truth is, I look around me and what I see are the sad whining of a middle-aged, middle-class white dude. The truth is simple: I haven’t dug enough because I’m afraid. While I know this Lenten Discipline I’m practicing isn’t the end of my Christian journey toward perfection in love, it feels like I’ve finally arrived at the place within me where the worst parts dwell: Prejudice and bigotry; hatred, a kind of murderous rage with no object; the fear that, without the presence of God in my life, I would feel no empathy for others, feel no desire for justice, feel no love toward anyone, including my family. Deep in places I would prefer not allow others to see, there lurks this creature that wears my face, speaks in my voice, yet would relish the power to destroy, to kill, to become that which all of us fear most.
I haven’t gone there yet because to do so would be to show others that I am no true Christian soul. On the contrary, as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 51, my sin is ever before me. When I say “sin” I don’t mean the petty actions to which all humanity is prone. I’m talking about the capacity I know is there for me to toss it all aside, to rend my life apart, laughing madly in the joy of rage, madness, and death. It’s like in those movies where someone breaks through a layer of rock or dirt only to discover not the beautiful light of shining diamonds, or some lost utopia. Instead, a sickly light, nauseating even at a glance, emerges along with screams of terror mixed with the demented voices of the demons and the damned. Covering it up, of course, is nonsense. Once that portal is opened, it can never be closed except by some force greater than any human being, or group of human beings, can muster. The evil within escapes, and either possesses those stupid enough to open the door, or kills them. Sometimes both. This is the point at which I find myself.
I stand on the threshold of places I would prefer not acknowledge exist within myself. Up ahead on this path, I see dead and decaying trees, smell the rot of putrescence and ordure, hear the sound of my own madness, my own malice, my own declaration of my power, my desire to stand where none but God can stand. I do not want to move forward. I also know that through this wasteland lies the only way I can arrive at the cross, where the journey will offer me choices: I can run and hide; I can stand and laugh and mock, throwing stones, denying Jesus even the dignity of a death free from the evil he came to end; or I can collapse before the cross, with all the baggage I have carried along this journey and, through my weeping, hope beyond any reasonable hope there is, as the hymn says, room at the cross for me.
In the meantime, what I hear sounds far more like the song below than any song of God’s victory. And I sing along because, right now, that is where I stand. This is, indeed, the story so far.
It is I, you women—I make my way,
I am stern, acrid, large, undissuadable—but I love you,
I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you,
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for These States—I press with slow
I brace myself effectually—I listen to no entreaties,
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me.
Through you I drain the pent-up rivers of myself,
In you I wrap a thousand onward years,
On you I graft the grafts of the best-beloved of me and America,
The drops I distil upon you shall grow fierce and athletic girls, new artists, musicians,
The babes I beget upon you are to beget babes in their turn,
I shall demand perfect men and women out of my love-spendings,
I shall expect them to interpenetrate with others, as I and you interpenetrate now,
I shall count on the fruits of the gushing showers of them, as I count on the fruits of
the gushing showers I give now,
I shall look for loving crops from the birth, life, death, immortality, I plant so
lovingly now. – Walk Whitman, from “A Woman Waits For Me”
It is with a bit of irony that I first heard the most profound definition of what are known as The Cardinal or Deadly Sins from a Catholic priest well-known for writing steamy popular bodice-rippers. Andrew Greeley once wrote of the Cardinal Sins that they are not in and of themselves sins. They are, in fact, distortions or perversions of what are, in fact, healthy human propensities. Acted upon with moderation (in good Aristotelean fashion), pride is little more than healthy self-regard; gluttony satisfying the physical need to eat in order to survive; lust is the healthy, human desire for physical love that is both pleasurable and helps builds bonds of love and long-term relationships in an animal genetically predisposed toward either serial monogamy or even polygamy. A healthy, monogamous sex life is a good thing. Lust, however, is the shadow side of good thing. It is the selfish desire to possess another human being’s body for one’s own pleasure. It ignores the emotional complexities that follow from healthy sexuality, desiring only repeated couplings not only for their own sake, but to satisfy one’s own physical desires. A healthy physical passion builds up relationships, and by doing so helps keep those so bonded healthier together and in and of themselves. Lust is a demon that can never be satiated; it desires not only to push the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior, but destroys the souls and perhaps the bodies of those under its sway.
I was 23 and on my own, working as a youth leader, trying to figure out this whole “ministry” thing. There was a divorced mother of two I’ll call “Patti” who, under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have given much thought to. She was ten years older than I am (and thus continues several years of being attracted to women much older than I), and I was in the midst of trying to be such a good person. Yet, I was alone in a strange place. There came a point, a single moment in time, when I realized she wanted me. I say this with no sense of satisfaction or pride. It is just what it is: as Stephen King wrote in The Stand, I could feel the wanting coming off her in waves. So, on a Saturday morning, I awoke and within just a few minutes came up with a way I could not only invite myself to her house for the evening, but wind up in her bed. At the time, I was gobsmacked by the fact that everything happened exactly as I had imagined, and more.
This was in late October. By the time Christmas came around, I was terrified. I wanted it to stop. I couldn’t make it stop. No matter how much “Patti” and I tried, we wound up in bed together. Each time, we pushed boundaries within ourselves and with each other. It was like a drug, I was addicted, and even knowing all that I couldn’t stop. By the time February rolled around, I knew the only way I could save myself was to remove myself from the situation. That was why, by early Lent, 1990, I was practically hiding in my parents’ house, not telling them why I had left, ashamed, afraid, guilt-ridden, filled with memories I would prefer not to have. By the time I moved, first, to Gaithersburg, MD to spend the summer with my brother then Washington, DC and my first semester of Seminary, I was only starting to feel somewhat like those days and weeks and nights were behind me. It actually took me a very long time to trust myself enough to allow myself to express how I felt toward another woman.
And, of course, I could never speak of this to anyone. On top of the guilt and fear was this shame that is difficult to describe. To have acted as I did, felt as I did, to be the person I had been during those weeks and months with “Patti” was a burden I knew I’d carry with me the rest of my life. Even now, over a quarter-century later, I blush as I sit here typing this confession of one of the worst periods in my life, of some of the most awful things I have ever done, knowing all the while it was wrong, yet unable to stop in part precisely because it was wrong. Oh, I’ve told my wife about it. There are people, however, who’ve known me in the years since who do not and would never know the horrible burden I have carried because of the depths of my own depravity I discovered, my capacity to hurt another person (not physically; I’ll be clear about that) and not care. I know I am not that 23-year-old, alone, responding to a signal from another lonely person for some physical affection that I and I alone allowed to become something terrible, something monstrous. It took me a very long time to look myself in the mirror without accusation and remonstrance. It took me even longer to trust myself, even a little bit, around women. I was always questioning my motives, not wanting ever to hurt another person the way I had done. I had no desire ever to be the person I had been, someone horrible, someone reveling in physical desire to the exclusion of any human feeling whatsoever.
I have no idea if “Patti” has ever forgiven me. A part of me would like to think enough time has passed that something like forgiveness has occurred. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’ve ever really forgiven myself. I know I should. All the same, of all the things in my life for which I carry more than a little guilt, this above all carries the extra weight of shame, a weight that I continue to believe is due penance for what I’ve done.
Of all the posts in this Lenten Reflection series I’ve written, none has been more difficult than this. Nothing in my life has brought me more understanding of what the word “demonic” means, than thinking back on this time in my life. Demons aren’t horrid creatures from some place outside that lodge themselves in our bodies or minds, driving us to do that which we wouldn’t do under other circumstances. No, demons are our worst selves, freed from any restraint, acting out our darkest dreams with a grin of glee and a laughter of joy in the flouting of all that should be.
The other lesson I learned from this experience is what grace is. First in Seminary, always feeling that the sin I bore hung around my neck like a gigantic sign, I became friends with some of the most wonderful human beings it has been my privilege to know. Then, falling in love not once but twice, I learned what healthy love and physical passion can be. I truly believe I couldn’t recognize the difference if it weren’t for those experiences both of the horrors of lust unburdened and the gentle, mutual physical desire I’ve experienced since. I may be a better person than had I not had the experience. Still, there’s a large part of me that would prefer to have been a better person without having to have gone through the experience in the first place.
I have used my imagination to create the unusual meeting between Judas and the resurrected Christ as both an exercise in theological reflection and as a literary device to involve the reader. The exercise is not meant to be frivolous, however, but an attempt to explore in a new and relevant way the depth of the grace and mervy of God in Jesus Christ revealed for all persons. My attempt is to question and to “think in Jesus Christ,” as my own theological mentor, Thomas F. Torrance, likes to say.(emphasis added)- Ray S. Anderson, The Gospel According to Judas, p. viii.
A force that draws a body away from center? Wow. We have a lot of those. All those boards and agencies, all those programs, teams, and sub-sub-committees, each vying for attention, energy, and resources. – Drew McIntyre, “Centrifugal Forces In The Church,” United Methodist Insight, February 26, 2015
Centrifugal Force, in physics, the tendency of an object following a curved path to fly away from the center of curvature. Centrifugal force is not a true force; it is a form of inertia (the tendency of objects that are moving in a straight line to continue moving in a straight line). Centrifugal force is referred to as a force for convenience—because it balances centripetal force, which is a true force. – science.howstuffworks
I asked the question back in October: Are we United Methodists adults? It popped in to my head again reading Drew McIntyre’s latest. Not only because he seems convinced that it is impossible for the United Methodist Church to do all sorts of things because all these things pull us from our center, which is Jesus Christ. He uses the analogy of centrifugal force as part of his picture. He even uses the Wikipedia definition of centrifugal force in his article.
If he knew anything about physics, however, or looked beyond Wikipedia, he might have had at least a second thought before doing so. See, even a high school physics student knows that centrifugal force isn’t real. Oh, I know, we all “feel it”; as Drew notes, fairground rides are rooted in it, am I right? Doesn’t make it any more real than Santa Claus. As an actual science website notes, it is just a manifestation of inertia in objects moving along a curve. See, the actual force for such objects, called centripetal force, is to move toward the center. If Drew knew his Newton, he would understand that inertia is the tendency of objects in motion, to remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by another force (or the tendency of an object at rest to remain at rest unless acted upon by a force sufficient to move it). Centrifugal force is just the inertia objects moving along a curved path experience when centripetal force pulls them toward the center.
So he’s using something that doesn’t actually exist as an analogy for what ails the United Methodist Church. And, really, that in and of itself is the best, most perfect analogy I could come up with. I mean, really, I wish I’d thought of it, but I do have to give credit where credit is due: Rev. Drew McIntyre, you managed to write an article that demonstrates everything that is wrong with all those who refuse to acknowledge the need for drastic changes in our denomination, and not just regarding our policy toward sexual minorities. The fact of the matter is, all the things of which you speak, from the need for a renewed focus on doctrine to a renewed focus on Jesus to a renewed focus on how to read the Bible – none of these things are any more real than centrifugal force. They are, rather, inertia disguised as movement and pressure to move in a particular direction, movement and pressure that in fact is not there at all.
I used the quote from the preface to Ray Anderson’s The Gospel According To Judas because I believe it is important to recall that all we do in the church, from committees to missions to all those other things Drew claims pull us away from the center, are actually thought and lived in the resurrected Jesus Christ. Unless, of course, Drew believes the Holy Spirit, the subjective presence of the Risen Christ in the lives of believers and the movement of the Church, is somehow excluded from meetings and programs and even forces outside the Church moving it toward a more just, Biblical, Christ-centered faith.
I would submit that Drew’s entire piece, flawed by ignorance of what centrifugal force is (or rather, is not, i.e., that it’s not real), demonstrates the emptiness of so much of what passes for argument among a certain segment of our United Methodist brothers and sisters. Somehow, they insist, the God who created the Universe cannot keep our distracted and still sinful lot centered on Christ, even as we wish to wander away. Somehow, despite St. Paul’s admonition that all things work together for good for those with faith in the God of the Risen Jesus Christ, these folks – here represented by Rev. Drew McIntyre – just don’t have faith enough to believe we in the Church can do all sorts of things, because a non-existent force might pull us away from our center. If he only understood that in fact the real force always pulls toward the center, he might perhaps understand we can do all sorts of things from carry on missions to have meetings and set up study committees to reform our denomination’s approach to gender and sexual justice, all the while remaining centered in Jesus Christ, as T. F. Torrance instructed one of his proteges.
So I’m not all that worried by all the busyness of the United Methodist Church. For one thing, we are adults who can actually do several things, and well, all the while remaining in the faith that calls us, saves us, and perfects us in and through Jesus Christ. And since the “forces” the might pull us apart don’t actually exist, I’m even less worried, particularly since Drew seems to be so concerned about something that just doesn’t do anything because it isn’t real.