Many articles have appeared recently trying to figure out why there have been so many mass murders in recent years. Many good points have been made: (1) the rise of white supremacist terrorism; (2) weakness in our background check system; (2) allowing large capacity magazines to be sold legally; (3) allowing weapons of war to be sold; (4) increased mental illness in our society and the shutdown of state mental hospitals.
These are all good points and worth debating, but what is not discussed is evil as articulated in our religious traditions and mythologies.
It is a cop-out to say that our mass murderers are suffering from mental illness. Obviously, such killers are troubled, but to stigmatize people suffering from a mental illness as potential mass murderers is misguided and simply wrong.
My take on what has been happening to our society for over a hundred years is the weakening of our religious traditions and our neglect of our mythologies which symbolize evil in more powerful ways than secular psychiatry. To be specific, we have domesticated our symbols for evil to the point where there is little fear and trembling when confronting symbols such as Satan, vampires, werewolves, etc.
I do not believe in a supernatural Satan as an opposite force to God, which would lead to dualism, but I do have moments when I wonder about this (more on this later).
However, I do firmly believe in the reality of evil which the symbol of the devil or a werewolf points to. And I do believe that such evil resides in the human soul. This is why religion is so important. Religion is a power which through its symbols and rituals and communities can combat the evil which resides, potentially, in all of us.
The decline of religion is a long process called “secularization,” which has diminished the power of religion to combat evil. Many people have no religious community for personal warmth. Too many people find interaction with their social media devices more time consuming and even enjoyable than the hard work of seeing others whether on a Sunday morning or elsewhere.
So, my premise is that the weakening of religion and the loss of a sense of community have made people more vulnerable to the powerful evil forces which lurk within our souls. Like Pandora’s box, changes in our society have unleashed in some people deeply evil feelings and thoughts, and some people act on these in evil ways.
This old saying states what I am driving at: “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
Our religious traditions in their preaching, community life and education must dust off their ancient teachings about evil, sin, the devil, Satan, etc., and show that these ancient truths are highly relevant to today’s world. And our religious institutions must show that they have powerful symbols, warm communities, teachings and rituals to combat evil.
Decades ago, I asked a theology professor in the ivory tower of Cambridge whether he believed in the devil. The whole class came to attention and waited for this famous professor’s answer. He paused, and then said, “I have seen so many minds shattered by forces that can only be called evil, that, yes, I do believe in the devil.” I go back and forth on this, not wanting to admit to a dualism, but perhaps there is a supernatural force of evil. Certainly our symbols in myth and religion, whether Satan or werewolves, point to forces in our own souls which are real. Who has not experienced them at some point in their lives?
So much of contemporary religion, such as the prosperity gospel of preachers who live in mansions, is so shallow, mindless and lacking the kind of power we need to fight the evil that is attacking us. Our church fathers, writing soon after Jesus’ execution, believed that the wine and bread of the Eucharist were literally safeguards against evil, an evil which they were experiencing at the hands of the Romans.
Mass murderers are obviously “messed up” mentally, but they certainly know the difference between right and wrong, which is the legal definition for an insanity defense in court. So, we must bring to bear in reflecting upon mass murders another category of behavior and another definition of such behavior, and that is evil.
Some people – whether out of loneliness, racism, anger, having been hurt, growing up in horrific circumstances – choose to act on the evil which can possess any person in the right circumstances. To repeat, “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
The key word here is “may.” We all may become wolves who devour and kill. Understanding the human soul is the first step in preventing us from doing something horrific.