By any account, media coverage this week has been saturated in violence. We have been inundated by graphic and raw descriptions of the Boston bombings, a live-birth abortionist, and even the Senate’s rejection of expanded firearm background checking. These are public tragedies: public displays that evoke charged words like evil, hellish, terror, moral failure. They are also riveting, partly because their scale is rare, but also because they have taken such personal forms. Each of these were made more horrific because they involved the slaughter of children and innocents: an eight-year-old torn to pieces while waiting for his father, a baby crying before having its spinal cord snipped, a piece of legislation driven by an elementary school massacre.
The more personal such tragedies become, the more we struggle with the concept of evil. I live on a city block rife with violence. Last year, Parenting Magazine rated it as the Number 1 worst place to raise your children. At one point, I woke up to the sound of gunfire at least once a week. One shooting occurred at an intersection I had driven through moments earlier; I heard the gunshots while trying to park my car and, after seeing people running away through the same lot, promptly ran from cover and into the house. It is a dramatic story and I tell it often, sometimes for sensation’s sake but mainly because that was when “the shizzle got real” for me. At that moment, living in the city lost an element of its romantic idealism and things became more polarized.
By polarized I mean several things. For one, good and evil became more tangible and profound. This is a necessary thing for the chronic doubter, cynic, and modernist inside me, because I like to think of the world in shades of gray, to imagine that its morality is complex and malleable. I like to avoid an uncomfortable commitment to absolutes, lingering politely in the shadows of relativism where there is no need to talk about heaven or hell, condemnation or salvation. I like to pretend there are no demons or angels, no slayers of men or savers of souls, that there are only broken institutions and negative behavior patterns in need of rehabilitation and/or medication.
I think this is why I used to shy away from the Psalms and other portions of the Old Testament that talk about the wicked and bloodthirsty and the evildoers. I used to think it sounded archaic, unforgiving, and graceless. Can people be so malevolent, feckless, and predatory? Surely not, I thought; we are more modern now, more civilized and more progressive.
I see how wrong I was every day, when I drive past people passing cash for unclear but highly suspicious reasons. I have gotten used to that look I get from eyes that are, for lack of a better description, vacant and hungry. It is a sidelong glance that lingers for a few seconds, waiting for a signal of my intent or a hint as to why a young asian male would be driving around this neighborhood. Am I there to buy? Am I there to spy The first day I moved in, while I was trying to change a tire, a young man came up to me and struck up a conversation about my car. I thought he was just being friendly until I saw the wad of cash in his hand . . . and then I continued to emphasize how I had just moved in and was a neighbor now and that was all. He gave me his name, and then the seven year old kids running around the lot laughed and said, “You a liar! That ain’t your name!” and began tattling on a litany of crimes: that he was a rapist, a dealer, etc. He quietly cursed them off and laughed. “Kids, haha,” I laughed weakly. He smiled, he helped me a bit with the tire, and I never saw him again.
My roommate gets jumped walking in the streets. A crack deal goes bad and someone is dead. A three-month old baby is chucked across the room by her father. A child starves to death because the mother is high all the time. I hear something clatter downstairs at night. Just like that, the shizzle gets real and evil is as archaic and abstract a concept as my racing heartbeat.
Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak,
who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He boasts about the cravings of his heart;
he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord.
In his pride the wicked man does not seek him;
in all his thoughts there is no room for God.
His ways are always prosperous;
your laws are rejected by him;
he sneers at all his enemies.
He says to himself, “Nothing will ever shake me.”
He swears, “No one will ever do me harm.”
His mouth is full of lies and threats;
trouble and evil are under his tongue.
He lies in wait near the villages;
from ambush he murders the innocent.
His eyes watch in secret for his victims;
like a lion in cover he lies in wait.
He lies in wait to catch the helpless;
he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net.
His victims are crushed, they collapse;
they fall under his strength.
He says to himself, “God will never notice;
he covers his face and never sees.” — Psalm 10
A drug seeker breaks into a doctor’s office looking for scripts, murders him, and leaves a wife and two young children behind. I remember this story clearly because we knew the family. The doctor and my dad used to go fishing all the time, used to be best friends. Then one evening, the phone rang and my mother began shrieking in tears. My dad doesn’t fish any more. He is glad of what I am doing, is extremely supportive and understanding and prayerful, and visits often but he did ask me once, “Are you sure? Stay with the kids ministry; they’re still innocent. Be careful. Be safe. Stay away from the adults. They already had a chance, right?”
It sounded reasonable, but it bothered me anyway. I couldn’t verbalize why until reading the following parable at church one day:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. — Jesus
Here is the second point of clarity, of polarization: there is good and evil, but I am not good. There are good people and bad people, and I belong with the bad people. It’s chilling and appalling to think so, and there are many reflexes in my soul that revolt violently at the thought of being classified like that, but it must be true, I know it to be true. Because if it is not true, and we are merely the product of our circumstances or upbringing or otherwise pseudorandom allotments of ethical conscience within our animalistic brains, there is no great reason to be here except paternalism and a great amount of pandering to self-esteem.
And so living in the inner city, reading and engaging and praying about the many tragedies that ought to remain in our public conscience helps to restore my soul. It reminds me that we are truly, truly all in the same boat. So I learn from men like my roommate and K and my other neighbors what it means to be transformed by the living God, to be thankful that I am the other person, and that He loves and forgives me anyway.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. — Romans 5