On Saturday a young man opened fire outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people, a 9-year old girl among them, and wounding 14 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. This is a tragedy. Twenty persons made in the image of God with a right to life and liberty have been killed or wounded by the attack. May God grant healing to those whose lives can still be saved and comfort to all those mourning their dead.

Most of you know all this already. And most of you know all about the political jabs going back and forth whether this attack was made more likely because of a “climate of hate” (to use Paul Krugman’s phrase describing the rhetoric of the right) or whether those who posit such theories (like Krugman on the left) are themselves the indecent ones. Personally I think Ross Douthat’s op-ed piece in the New York Times gets it just about right: “Chances are that [Jared] Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination.” And later, “There is no faction in American politics that actually wants its opponents dead.” Thankfully this is true.

But I noticed in Douthat’s article what I notice in every other write-up on the shooting: a reflexive reluctance to speak of the killer’s inner workings–his motivations, his make-up, his soul if you will–with moral categories. Douthat does better than most in speaking of Loughner’s “darkness,” but even here there is the subtle use of passive imagery. “Politicians and media loudmouths,” Douthat writes, “shouldn’t be held responsible for the darkness that always waits to swallow up the unstable and the lost.” True enough, but who should be held responsible? My vote is for Loughner who, by all accounts, appears to be not only the accused killer but also the real killer. Certainly darkness is appropriate imagery, but I’d argue it’s more appropriate to say he committed a dark deed rather than to imply darkness swallowed up an unstable young man.

A Predictable Pattern

I remember the same thing happening with the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Dr. Richard Roberts of Oral Roberts University said the act was Satanic in origin, though he was unsure if it was demonic oppression or possession. Rabbi Peter Rubenstein suggested that Seung-Cho Hui lost contact with the good inclination within him. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo explained that “normal” individuals can be trapped in emotional prisons that create aberrant and evil behavior. Robert Schuller concluded, “it’s pure psychotic crack-up.” Thankfully Richard Lints from Gordon-Conwell provided the last quote in the same article. “The lesson,” he said, “is that when we don’t take our own evil seriously, we are much more liable to perpetrate acts of evil.” At least someone said the “e” word.

I have no doubt Loughner is messed up, crazy, off his rocker, and out to lunch. It seems that he’s needed help for a long time. But why jump to conclude that this is a “Tragedy of Mental Illness”? To be sure, mental illness is real but it does not honor those who endure it to rush a diagnosis and start naming disorders every time an anti-social, nihilistic, solipsistic young man with guns and grudges sins in the worst possible ways. Where have all the active verbs gone?

Words Have Meaning

Unfortunately, pundits shy away from explicitly personal and moral categories in precisely the moments we need them most (9-11 may be the one exception). Whenever a public tragedy like this occurs everyone on the right and the left struggles to find some cause, and that cause is almost always outside the self—video games, strange novels, mistreatment by friends, a culture of hate, the second amendment, heated political rhetoric. And when an internal cause is suggested it almost always points away from personal responsibility to some element of us that doesn’t really belonging to us—like a mental disorder or our own personal demons.

We instinctively resort to passive speech, unable to bear the thought (let alone utter the words) that a wicked person has perpetrated a wicked crime. The human heart is desperately sinful and capable of despicable sins. Of course, no one commends the crime, but few are willing to condemn the criminal either. In such a world we are no longer moral beings with the propensity for great acts of righteousness and great acts of evil. We are instead, at least when we are bad, the mere product of our circumstances, our society, our upbringing, our biochemistry, or our hurts. The triumph of the therapeutic is nearly complete.

Losing Our Religion, And Evil Too

We are so awash in the language of disorders and dysfunction that we don’t know how to talk about good and evil.  There was a book published in 1995 called The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco. The opening paragraphs are worth reading carefully.

A gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it.  Never before have images of horror been so widely disseminated and so appalling–from organized death camps to children starving in famines that might have been averted.  Rarely does a week go by without newspaper and television accounts of teenagers performing contract killings for a few dollars, women murdered on the street for their purses or their furs, young men shot in the head for the keys to their jeep–and these are only the domestic bulletins…

The repertoire of evil has never been richer.  Yet never have our responses been so weak.  We have no language for connecting our inner lives with the horrors that pass before our eyes in the outer world…

In our disenchanted world, one respected historian has recently remarked (and here he is perfectly representative) that mass murderers like Hitler and Stalin require us “judiciously [to] distinguish mental disorders that incapacitate from streaks of disorder that should not diminish responsibility.”  This distinction would be meaningless to the scores of millions who died at their hands.  What does it mean to say that the inventor of the concentration camps, or of the Gulag, was subject to a “disorder?”  What does it mean to call these monsters mentally disordered, and to engage in scholastic debate over whether their brand of madness vitiates their responsibility?  Why can we no longer call them evil? (3-4).

Delbanco finishes the book by saying “My driving motive in writing [this book] has been the conviction that if evil, with all the insidious complexity which Augustine attributed to it, escapes the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all” (234). Chilling and true.

The world, and to a large extent the church, has lost the ability to speak in moral categories. We have preferences instead of character. We have values instead of virtue. We have no God of holiness, and we have no Satan.  We have break-downs, crack-ups, psychoses, maladjustments, and inner turmoil.  But we do not have repugnant evil as the Bible has it. And this loss makes the world a more dangerous place. For the words may disappear, but the reality does not.

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Comments:


45 thoughts on “The Tucson Tragedy and God’s Gift of Moral Language”

  1. David Zook says:

    Well written. Clear thoughts. Right questions. Adds value. Stimulates conversation. Will be routinely panned in the mainstream.

  2. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    More succinct: Call a spade a spade.

    If the social climate inhibits someone from calling a spade a spade, then that’s an indictment on the social climate.

    If the little boy is inhibited from saying “The emperor has no clothes” because of the social climate of Political Correctness of not giving offense, then that says something about the liberal proponents of Political Correctness.

  3. Rose says:

    Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

    Ephesians 6:12,13, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

    I thought about “The Emperor’s Clothes” also as I read this post.

  4. Paula says:

    Kevin said, “Twenty persons made in the image of God with a right to life and liberty have been killed or wounded by the attack.

    I’m glad you put it this way. In another example of imprecise language, many are referring to the slain as “innocent victims.” I understand that to those without a proper theological understanding this word has a different meaning, but I’ve heard Christians use it as well.

    Attorney General Eric Holder gives us some insight into the spirit of the age regarding evil in the world. He spoke at a MLK memorial and said, “[M]ore than 40 years since Dr. King’s own tragic and untimely death, our world has yet to run its course of cruelty.”

    He, and many others, seem surprised that mankind has yet to reform, evolve, or progress beyond it’s present state of cruelty.

  5. PJ says:

    “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” ~ Ronald Reagan

  6. Nancy Shope says:

    Thank you for responding in your usual thoughtful and enlightening way, Kevin. Those of us in Tucson who live and work very close to where this tragedy took place appreciate you sharing your perspective. I have been waiting for one of the “gospel coalition” guys to comment!

  7. Christiane says:

    Thank you for opening this up for discussion.

    I agree that ‘evil’ is at the heart of last Saturday’s massacre/assasination.

    Hate-speech ? Rhetoric?
    Could a young man who is possibly emotionally or mentally compromised react differently, than a person who ‘knows’ that ‘they didn’t really mean what they said, it was just rhetoric’?

    That is what needs to be explored.
    But ‘defensiveness’ right now is not appropriate. Open discussion by American people who are not ‘ideologues’ is needed.

    Those American people are still out there, and they can and will discuss this together, as Americans, in honor of the slain victims of ‘evil’.

    Just a thought: certain rhetoric (we all know what this means), when let loose in our country, as a political device, cannot be ‘controlled’, or ‘called back’, if someone takes it and runs with it.

    The ultimate manipulation game of evil:
    ‘let’s you and her go fight’. And when the ‘you’ is an unbalanced individual, the game-player has entered into evil, as he has led someone into sin.

  8. Eric Funston says:

    I agree with what you’ve written. My take in my sermon on Sunday was slightly different. I suggested that what has happened is that we of the religious community have allowed ourselves, our values, and our God to become irrelevant. We spend a good deal of time bemoaning the fact that current society sees nothing of value in the church, but that is primarily because we have acted as if there is nothing of significant value here. We have not merely allowed this to happen, we have caused it. My sermon is on my blog at http://theologydiner.blogspot.com/2011/01/sermon-january-9-2011-baptism-of-our.html

  9. truthmaters says:

    Let’s hope the Judge doesn’t pull Gifford’s feeding tube, like they did to Terry Shiavo, if she doesn’t make a full recovery.

  10. andrew says:

    While I respect DeYoung’s opinion and to some degree I agree with what he says, I do however have to disagree on his point about we’re NOT a product of our environment!
    Yes humans beings do have the propensity do commit great evil due to our sin nature BUT to discount the environment (external) factors is foolhardy and in denial.
    Has it ever occur to anyone that evilness is not only within the domain of individuals but can be environmental as well? I mean brainwashing has been scientifically proven and observed to be a fact.
    If I teach my child from infancy that it’s ok to kill, maim and rape others is he saying that when my child commits murder as an adult it’s just because of a heart issue and not environmental/nurture?

  11. Robert says:

    We forget very quickly just how evil the heart of man can be. In our generation we’ve seen deplorable acts of mass murder and it was always the will of men that carried these out. Casting Hitler and Stalin as mentally ill doesn’t jibe in terms of their ability to build and hold seats of power. That takes some cunning that frankly raving maniacs couldn’t pull off. Their unspeakable evil however, is plain to see for all whose eyes are open. Excellent blog.

  12. Paul says:

    Kevin is correct, as far as he goes, but here’s the problem. It’s true that people in the US don’t typically call other people evil (unless they are Muslims, of course), but there’s a reason for that. If you start calling your political opponents (let’s say, people who have the opposite view on abortion to you) “evil” then the reality is that you will encourage violence against them. “There is no faction in American politics that actually wants its opponents dead” may be true now but it is not going to continue to be true if people start to call their political opponents “evil”.

    My bigger issue with this is to ask why Kevin decides to write about evil when something happens in the USA. What was wrong with writing about evil when Coptic Christians were killed in their church or when 58 Iraqi Catholics are killed in their church? Maybe Kevin is just reacting to new articles but it is striking to me that Americans start talking about evil when it happens to them but don’t talk about it when it happens to other people.

    Andrew, I don’t think Kevin is saying people aren’t a product of their environment. I think he’s saying that people today in the US are far too ready to blame someone’s environment for their evil actions rather than blame the evil-doer themselves (or possibly blame demons). Personally, I think Kevin is entirely correct in what he says. It’s what he doesn’t say that I have a problem with.

  13. Yes evil is real.

    However sad to read this piece. I wonder what experience Kevin has of mental illness and the reality of pychosis as a profound, life-shattering and generally lifetime experience. ‘To be sure mental illness is real’ is a rather trite and inadequate expression.

    I do feel sometimes that just too many words poor forth too quickly. As I get older (I’m a 57 year family doctor from the UK) I believe James’ wisdom is so needed, ‘slow to speak, slow to become angry’.

  14. Marv says:

    Based on this man’s history at least as I have heard it explained in the various media, he displays signs and symptoms very consistent with paranoid schizophrenia, or another psychotic disorder. To point this out is far from excusing his behavior, since a medical diagnosis of serious mental illness is not equal to a legal designation of “insane.” In fact it does help point the blame at this man personally, and not as a part of some group or movement. The motivation then is an individual one, individual pathology, not a social pathology.

  15. Luke Johnson says:

    Part of the fall is broken minds. We forget that sin goes beyond just what we can “control” into all of the world (animals, the planet, etc.) including, literally, our brains and bodies. This is why bi-polar disorder or same sex attraction is so insidious. Most of the time, people don’t WANT to have same sex attraction or be bi-polar, they just do. I had a friend in my church who was bi-polar. He fought it for years, but one day, in a moment of weakness, he shot himself. That’s the result of a broken mind: proclivities towards certain types of sin that the rest of us can’t fathom. I cannot possibly understand the strength of despair that my brothers and sisters in Christ who are bi-polar struggle with every. single. day. because of the effects of the fall on their brain chemistry.

  16. James says:

    In fairness, Kevin is simply making the assessment that urbane American culture, with its resistance to the old superstitions, is spiritually vacant as it grapples with grisly events like this one, days after its occurrence. I’m not sure what would draw criticism for what he did not say regarding injustice around the world; heaven knows there is a lot to be detested in a world filled with depravity, but maybe we could allow for one at time?

  17. Barry says:

    Kevin, I love what you have to say about mental illness. The quickness with which people began to blame the murders on his mental condition is appalling. As if, because of his mental condition, he was bound to commit murder. But why did you add this: “I have no doubt Loughner is messed up, crazy, off his rocker, out to lunch.” Why did you feel it necessary to add these “active verbs?”

    What bothers me, however, is you think this is a “triumph of the therapeutic.” How? I’m a grad student in a counseling psych program in Seattle and I don’t anyone would label anything you have said as a “triumph.” It could just as easily be a triumph of the theological, since you quote many religious leaders avoiding the topic of personal responsibility and evil. I think it is better said to call it a triumph of our culture. And a sad triumph at that.

  18. rob Haskell says:

    People are gunned down in public and we have to come out an make sure everyone labels it correctly? Please…

  19. JD says:

    Aptly Spoken! When will we realize we don’t make the rules of society. We can only interpret the actions of a fallen world from the vantage point of a Holy God. We can only know this Holy God through the lens of the Holy Scriptures(the Bible). As believers may we never fall prey to the psychosocial ills of dysfunction to expalin the cause of horrendous acts of evil. Call it what it is and allow God the room to work in the event and through the event to gain His glory! He did not cause the evil but it did not catch Him by surprise either. Satan will have his day let us hold on to the God who never changes or flinches during time of crisis. PTL

  20. Mike says:

    I love the way many evangelicals fit tragic events into their worldview…an acrobatic act that any professional gymnast would be proud of. What this does is that it commits the sin of oversimplification…which is a lot more insidious than one might think.

    In the same way that the world may rush to alleviate guilt and responsibility due to mental illness, Christians are quick to point the finger at “evil” as some sort of demon waiting to inhabit a willing soul to work its wiles. Degrees of culpability are challenging to discern when working with the mentally ill. Anyone who claims that they clearly know this should have their head examined.

  21. JC says:

    To be honest I do not really understand the point of this article. The focus seems to be on making sure that the word “evil” is used. Other than placing a religious connotation on this I don’t see how this helps us understand why this incident happened. Are you saying that it is the influence of evil that made this man do this? As in a lack of Christianity? Because if so I can point to a number of non-christians, myself included that have no desire to commit murder. So does this mean I am less evil? Or does it mean I do not have a mental illness like this individual seems to have had.
    It seems to me that you had to make up a concept in order to apply a religious connotation on what happened.

  22. Gary Sweeten says:

    The article was confusing and pointless to me. there are too many points and no point. Are Christians simply reacting to the article positively because it seems to focus on “moral language” not “therapeutic language”? But it does not clearly say how one is to respond to such actions.

    He agrees that the young man was mentally ill and thus, I suppose, will agree he needed “healing” or “therapy” or “salvation” to prevent his murdering ways. (The term “therapy” comes from the same Greek word as “salvation”.) Does the author mean to say that the mentally ill ought not get treatment/ therapy? If Satan was or is involved does he need exorcism? Does the author regularly do exorcisms of the mentally ill?

    It is a very confusing article. No wonder secularists distrust us.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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