After mass the other week, I spent a few moments chatting with a friend who works as a psychiatric nurse in a downtown hospital. Her demanding schedule often leaves her with little time to change 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 last conversation, I can certainly understand why: on a recent shift, my friend saw a particularly violent patient bite off the finger of a fellow nurse.
“It was pure evil,” my friend said. “And somewhere deep inside, the patient knew that.”
This diagnosis may not appear in professional textbooks, but it is more accurate than we think. And yet, despite all the violence in our world, the word “evil” has literally fallen into disuse. Somehow we have become too rational, too sophisticated for such a crude term that points to the lower regions of our souls.
Instead, we would rather turn to almost every other possible cause of the litany of offenses against divine and human dignity. The murders, rapes and abuse are attributed to the fact that the perpetrators had a difficult childhood; theft – from petty to looting – is seen as coercion, or a perverse form of economic justice or, conversely, a kind of “aggressive capitalism”. Sexual offenses in an ever-expanding array are reduced to mere “self-fulfillment” and “self-actualization,” while lying, manipulation, and slander are presented as tactics to advance supposedly just political causes.
Our habit of concealing the reality of evil is well practiced, even among otherwise diligent and reputable historians. Days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin lamented that too many people were blind to the darkness of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soul, analysts and the laity speculating instead that the former KGB agent was instead mentally ill.
And the model had precedent: Salkin noted that some of our best scholars have concluded that Adolf Hitler – whose systematic slaughter of at least six million Jews during World War II led to the very coining of the word “genocide ” – was simply deceived, marginalized, disturbed by syphilis or the product of a dysfunctional family life.
“What all of these explanations have in common,” Salkin wrote, “is that Hitler was somehow not responsible. The destruction of European Jewry was the result of a huge psychological fluke. Hitler was ill.
Only a few years after the scourge of the Third Reich, man pledged, as never before, to rise above his shadow.
“Somewhere when it came time for us to name the evil, we got dumb,” Salkin said. “When, in the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush pledged to rid the world of ‘evildoers,’ we sneered.”
Or we just looked away, even as the bloodshed continued. “Mass crimes against civilian populations were all too common in the years following World War II and throughout the Cold War,” the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes on its website. “The question of whether these situations constituted genocide was hardly considered by the countries that had committed themselves to preventing and punishing this crime by acceding to the Genocide Convention (1948).”
Even after the Cold War, the carnage was relentless: as a partial list, between 500,000 and a million were killed in the Rwandan genocide; some 8,000 boys and men were killed in July 1995 in the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia; more than 200,000 people died in the Darfur genocide of 2003-2005; in 2016, the United States officially declared that the Islamic State had perpetrated genocide against the Yazidi, Christian and Shia Muslim peoples in Syria and Iraq.
Now – with thousands of documented Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including relentless attacks on civilians, summary executions, systematic rapes, torture, deportations, militarization of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and widespread violations of international law – we can’t close our eyes, and we can (to quote Salkin again) “sneer no more”.
As Catholics, we are called to face evil head-on and to admit “the reality of sin…especially sin committed at the origins of humanity” in “the light of divine Revelation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church387).
Indeed, “without the knowledge (which) Revelation gives of God, we cannot clearly recognize sin and are tempted to explain it as a simple defect of development, a psychological weakness, an error or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. ” (Catechism387).
To the extent that 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 understand that sin is abuse. of the freedom that God gives to created people they are able to love him and to love themselves” (Catechism, 387).
And it’s only when we recognize our enemy that we can surrender to our Saviour: “I will praise you with all my heart, glorify your name forever, Lord my God. Your mercy towards me is great; you brought me out of the depths of Sheol” (Ps 86, 12-13).
During the long invasion of Ukraine – which began in 2014 and began in February, and which was preceded by centuries of Russian repression and genocide – the face of evil was clearly revealed.
Our faith demands that we see — and, in Christ, respond.
Gina Christian is Senior Content Producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside the CatholicPhilly.com Podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors”. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.