After Mass the other week, I spent a few moments chatting with a friend who works as a psychiatric nurse in an inner-city hospital. Her demanding schedule often leaves her little time to change out of her scrubs before coming to church, and the tension of her day lingers on her face well into the first half of the liturgy.
And after our latest conversation, I can certainly see why: during a recent shift, my friend witnessed a particularly violent female patient bite off a fellow nurse’s finger.
“It was pure evil,” said my friend. “And somewhere deep down, the patient knew it.”
That diagnosis might not appear in the professional manuals, but it’s more accurate than we realize. And yet, for all the violence in our world, the word “evil” has, in a real sense, fallen into disuse. Somehow we’ve become too rational, too sophisticated for such a raw term that points to the nether regions of our souls.
Instead, we’d rather look to almost any other possible cause for the litany of offenses against both divine and human dignity. Murder, rape and abuse are chalked up to perpetrators’ having a difficult childhood; theft – from petty to plundering – is written off as a compulsion, or a perverse form of economic justice or, conversely, a kind of “aggressive capitalism.” Sexual delicts in an ever-expanding array are down to mere “personal fulfillment” and “self-actualization,” while lying, manipulation and slander are packaged as tactics for advancing allegedly just political causes.
Our habit of recloaking the reality of evil is a well-practiced one, even among otherwise diligent and reputable historians. Days after Russia launched its Feb. 24 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin lamented that too many were blind to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s darkness of soul, with analysts and laity alike instead speculating the former KGB agent was instead mentally ill.
And the pattern had precedent: Salkin noted some of our best scholars concluded Adolf Hitler – whose systematic slaughter of at least six million Jews during World War II led to the very creation of the word “genocide” – was merely deluded, marginalized, deranged by syphilis or the product of a dysfunctional home life.
“What all these explanations have in common,” wrote Salkin, “is that Hitler was somehow not responsible. The destruction of European Jewry was the result of a massive psychological fluke. Hitler was sick.”
Just a few short years after the scourge of the Third Reich, man committed, like never before, to outrunning his own shadow.
“Somewhere, when it became time for us to name evil, we became tongue-tied,” said Salkin. “When, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush pledged to rid the world of ‘evildoers,’ we snickered.”
Or we simply averted our gaze, even as the bloodshed continued. “Massive crimes against civilian populations were all too common in the years after World War II and throughout the Cold War,” notes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on its website. “Whether these situations constituted genocide was scarcely considered by the countries that had undertaken to prevent and punish that crime by joining the (1948) Genocide Convention.”
Even after the Cold War, the slaughter was unrelenting: by way of a partial list, between 500,000 and one million were killed in the Rwandan genocide; some 8,000 boys and men were slain in July 1995 during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia; more than 200,000 died in the 2003-2005 Darfur genocide; in 2016, the U.S. formally declared Islamic State had perpetrated genocide against Yazidi, Christian and Shia Muslim peoples across Syria and Iraq.
Now – with thousands of documented Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including relentless attacks on civilians, summary executions, systematic rape, torture, deportations, the weaponization of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and across-the-board violations of international law – we cannot shut our eyes, and we can (to further quote Salkin) “snicker no more.”
As Catholics, we are called to face evil head on and to admit to “the reality of sin … particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins” in “the light of divine Revelation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 387).
Indeed, “without the knowledge (that) Revelation gives of God, we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc.” (Catechism, 387).
To the extent we authentically discern evil, we can glorify the Triune God for his gift of free will: “Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another” (Catechism, 387).
And only when we recognize our enemy can we surrender to our Savior: “I will praise you with all my heart, glorify your name forever, Lord my God. Your mercy to me is great; you have rescued me from the depths of Sheol” (Ps 86:12-13).
In the long-running invasion of Ukraine – which began in 2014 and commenced in full back in February, and which was preceded by centuries of Russian repression and genocide – the face of evil has been clearly revealed.
Our faith demands that we see — and, in Christ, respond.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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