Public and Personal Encounters with Evil

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

[This is an adaptation of an earlier blog post.]

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David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decid­edly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.

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    jbw4u commented on April 19, 2013 Reply

    I’m not sure the U.S. Senate rejecting more background checks than the plethora of laws already not enforced concerning this issue is in the same arena as the other public tragedies mentioned in the previous sentence in your lead paragraph. I’m not a big fan of the U.S. Senate nor of political demagoguery related to tragedies that aren’t directly related to causes or cures. Frankly I’m relieved we don’t have new laws about knives in Texas, or about backpacks or wearing white baseball caps backward like we have such for soda pop consumption in another urban center. I’m glad for most of the first paragraph but describing a bi-partisan Senate decision of dubious connection to Sandy Hook, as evil and hellish in the same paragraph struck me as part of the demagoguery sympathies of our typically one Party university cultures.

    That you had the chutzpah to mention the first two contexts in the last sentence of the first paragraph is both surprising in this context and commendable. One of those hasn’t made front page much at all and a reader would have to know what you were referencing and if not, be willing to search to track it down. But I knew about Dr. Kermit Gosnell and his staff and am still grateful you mention the substance of the matter. I’m also grateful for your service of humanity in medicine and your chosen location in the city. My heart connects with yours on the references to the tax collector and the Pharisee, Psalm 10, and Romans 5. Blessings in Christ.

      theurbanresident commented on April 22, 2013 Reply

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. To clarify, the mention of the Senate vote was not so much in reference to the vote itself, but to the Sandy Hook massacre that (for all political and practical intents and purposes) spurred the legislation. That massacre does fit in with the others in scale and scope in the national consciousness. While I am politically in favor of gun control and do plan to actively lobby in that way, the reference in my article wasn’t meant to be read in that way. Sorry for not clarifying it in the original text.

        Joe Whitchurch commented on April 23, 2013 Reply

        Thanks. Our political lobbying is not in sync but your clarification of intent is helpful. I’m pro legislation that is helpful at actually preventing the problems/evil/issues being used to advance the legislation.

    Mika Luoma-aho commented on April 22, 2013 Reply

    Thanks this was a good piece. GB.

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