Sunday, December 16, 2012

Responding to evil

Some Christians have responded to the Newtown massacre by invoking collective guilt or spiritual self-examination:

Although there’s something to be said for that, it doesn’t really fit the situation. Christians didn’t murder his mother. Christians didn’t murder the school children. We didn’t murder our own mothers. We didn’t murder anyone. So the comparison is simply false.

Moreover, given who you and I are, most of us are simply incapable of doing what Adam Lanza did. Let’s be honest. Let’s be realistic. It’s inconceivable that most of you would murder your own mother, shoot her in the face, then walk into an elementary school, look trusting young boys and girls in the face, then shoot them dead.

Turning the crime back on ourselves fosters a deceptive moral equivalence that dilutes righteous condemnation. A cheap pietism.

The “we are sinners, miserable sinners all” refrain is too easy and too inaccurate. It doesn't come to grips with the real situation. There’s a better way of making the point that some Christians are trying to make.

I suspect that most of us have the same potential for evil, although that’s contingent on how early in the process God might act. The degree to which that potential is developed depends on special grace and common grace.

Given the social conditioning that God gave me, I’m not capable of doing what Lanza did. But, counterfactually speaking, if I’d been brought up as an Aztec, Spartan, Assyrian, Samurai, or something along those lines, then I might well be capable of doing what he did. I might do that without blinking an eye. I might relish it.

My social conditioning wouldn’t make me evil; rather, it would cultivate my innate propensity for evil. By the same token, social conditioning can restrain evil. My moral formation may be such that, given my formative experience, I am now no longer capable of committing certain aggravated evils. There was an earlier stage in the process where I could have gone one way or another, but at this point my character has set, like dry cement.

God uses our circumstances to make us what we are. Indeed, God creates our circumstances.

So instead of beating our breast when we see a horrific story like the Newtown massacre, we should thank God that he spared us from developing our propensity for evil to that degree, or anything close to that. We should thank God for whatever goodness we have.


  1. I agree. Our sermon today actually dealt with Bathsheba being in the Messiah's linage, and so we heard again from the Word how David was quite despicable in his sin against his Lord, and another man's wife, and actually have the man murdered.

    I said to a friend the other day: "Could you, or would you kill your Mom?" He shook his head no way. I said, "Me neither." But, we could be wicked enough to kill our own Mom, if God allow Satan and the spiritual wickedness in this world have their way with us.
    He disagreed.
    I'm still thinking about this.
    Thanks for the post.

  2. Good words, Steve. Thanks a lot. I basically said your conclusion on my Facebook, but you loaded it with all sorts of useful observations on this issue.

  3. Do I detect an ironic reversal of Jesus' parable regarding the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18) in your last line?