Boston And The Language Of Evil

Boston bombing 2

Somehow on April 15, 2013 those horrific images of carnage at the Boston Marathon threw our world off balance. Our ship began to list again. As we witnessed legs blown from bodies, bloody faces marked with fear, people holding their heads from the concussive blows, a young man ripping off his shirt to stop the bleeding leg of a young woman—well, we faced the horror and mystery of evil in our midst. We pondered in our hearts how we might, if at all, right the ship again.

Evil is not the language our news reporters like to use. Yes, to be sure, we needed to know what happened. Yes, for sure, we needed to know the suspects had been caught, and that the best justice would be served. But the lingering questions about the nature of evil simply could not be addressed on the screens of our TVs or our morning papers. Our public language seems paltry when faced with the horror of it all.

Somehow we needed our pastors and priests and theologians and even philosophers to step into this cultural vacuum. But those are the very voices we have chased from the public stage of genuine reflection. So what is evil? To begin with it is one of the greatest mysteries of all human life. We stand in awful wonderment how anyone could create a bomb to maim and kill and destroy innocent life. It is a mystery. And it is real.

I found myself turning back to the theologian N. T. Wright. In his helpful Evil And The Justice Of God, Wright says  “we are not told—or not in any way that satisfies our puzzled questioning—how and why there is radical evil within God’s wonderful, beautiful and essentially good creation. One day I think we shall find out, but I believe we are incapable of understanding it at the moment . . . .” Even in our Scriptures, we find no easy answers about why evil exists.

But “what we are promised,” says Wright, “is that God will make a world in which all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, a world in which forgiveness is one of the foundation stones and reconciliation is the cement which holds everything together.”

But this also means, as Wright says, “a settled determination to name evil and to shame it; without that there is, after all, nothing to forgive.” This is part of righting the ship. In our world of almost paralyzing tolerance, we shy away from naming the name of evil. This is not good for us. We must be able to say “this is wrong, deadly wrong. What has happened is a violation of the sanctity of life. We must believe in that sanctity of life or we will move steadily toward death as a society.”

Leon Kass addresses this same need to name the name about the outcropping of evil. He talks both about the Gosnell abortion clinic trial and the Boston bombings saying “you cannot give proper verbal account of the horror of evil, yet a culture that couldn’t be absolutely horrified by such things is dead” (see the link above for this amazing interview in the WSJ). Kass has long talked about the notion of “repugnance,” that there are certain things that draw from us a deep repugnance, revulsion, outrage, horror. When we witness the evil in the Gosnell abortion clinic or the carnage on the streets of Boston, we must be able to respond with repugnance. Either that or we might as well declare our culture dead.

But there are signs of hope in all of this. Up against this “degradation,” Kass talks about human dignity. He says “you see it in the way nurses treat people who come in for chemotherapy. You see it in the way a great hostess treats a handicapped guest, helping him without causing him embarrassment. You see it in the way people come close to where there is human suffering and are not put off by the horror but do what is humanly necessary.”

And then he adds: “You saw it in Boston. Some people fled to safety—others rushed to the danger.” To help. To heal. To do whatever to make things better. Even as we name the shame of evil, even as we experience outrage and fear and, yes, repugnance, we also must look to the signs of human dignity. For me, this is the evidence that God’s love and grace are operative, that God’s kingdom will ultimately win out, even as we recoil from the very evil that overwhelms our attention in these days.