In one of those curious mysteries of providence, two tragic events in the past two weeks killed about the same number of people. Both were mass murders, the first at least strongly suspected of being so: The deliberate downing of the Germanwings Flight 9525 , wherein a depressed and suicidal co-pilot locked himself in, and the captain out of, the cockpit, as he flew the plane right into the Alps with 144 passengers and 6 crew members on board. The pilot pounded on the door and did what he could. An understandable, but futile, endeavour, as the doors have been reinforced and locked securely since 9/11 to keep terrorists out, ironically. Research on the security of these doors was recently found on the deceased co-pilot’s computer, evincing premeditation of the deed. And just today the second black box was discovered, which records that he accelerated the plane in its fatal descent toward the mountain face. The force of the impact sent the ‘debris’ over an area of 500 acres.
The second recent event, on Holy Thursday, occurred at Garissa University College in Kenya, where the Islamic radical group Al Shabab gunned down every Christian student they could find, coldly and mercilessly. Total body count: 147, which I don’t think includes the shooters, who were also killed, and who I don’t think will be meeting their 72 virgins.
God rest all their souls in this holiest time of year.
On this Good Friday evening, or indeed whenever you are reading this, the notion of sin should hit us hard, as we commemorate the brutal sufferings that our very God took upon Himself to atone for our offenses. Every sin warps the world, and ourselves, in some way, and it is these effects of sin that must be expiated, in some way. We are forgetting this, to our own detriment, and Pius XII warned in a 1946 radio address (just after the Second World War no less), that the greatest tragedy of the modern world was the loss of the sense of sin. Sometimes, tragic events like the two described bring that ‘sense of sin’ home in a way that is visceral.
Even the most die-hard materialistic atheist would likely describe both of these acts, objectively, as heinously ‘evil’. Of course, we cannot judge the interior guilt of the perpetrators, known only to God, but the acts themselves remain condemnable, and we all join in the condemnation.
But the materialist, (a belief system which includes a large swath of our media, academia, psychiatric and medical fields), to be true to his principles, would have to refrain from blame, even if his own daughter were among the victims. Humans, in the materialist’s limited intellectual horizon, have no spiritual dimension, and are nothing more than androids made of protein, fat and nerve fibre (to paraphrase Marvin Minsky’s description of the brain as a ‘computer made of meat’). They could therefore do no more moral wrong than a photocopier (although, full disclosure, years ago in my more volatile younger days, I did once punch a photocopier that was ‘acting up’ as I rushed to complete an assignment). Rather, like any machine, biological or not, humans may ‘malfunction’. They may even become ‘radicalized’, or, perhaps, get ‘illnesses’, physical and mental, but never are they, at least not really, at the end of the day, ‘guilty’.
Not true, of course. Human beings are guilty, and we all know it and act upon it. I think a strong case could be made for tracing much of our mental illness back in some way to unresolved guilt. We try to assuage our conscience with all the wrong means: drugs, sex, media, or we try to ‘upload’ the guilt, by placing it on someone else (they, or it, made me do it). But we are aware, especially in our self-examination, that every human being who has use of his reason has some kind of choice, regardless of upbringing or environment. The Catechism declares that “no one is deemed ignorant of the principles of the moral law”, and at some level of our being, conscience, that self-referential judgement on the morality of our actions, is still operating, even in moments of great stress. The Bible puts it in its own pithy, inimitable way, in God’s advice to Cain as he pondered murdering his own brother out of envy: “Sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, and you must master it”. Well, Cain did not ‘master it’, and we all know what followed: Not just the blood of the just man Abel, but in some mysterious way, sin let loose upon the world.
Of course, illness, environment and other factors may mitigate our culpability for any given sin, but remove it altogether? To deny that we have freedom of choice is to deny what makes us human, creatures made in God’s very image. As such ‘spiritual animals’, we are body-soul composites. What is done in the body, affects the soul, and what is done in the soul changes the body. Even here, to avoid the spectre of Platonic-Cartesian dualism, it is more proper to say with Saint Thomas that it is the person, that near-inaccessible ‘I’, who acts through his soul and his body.
The Book of Sirach tells us that “God left us in the hand of our own counsel”. With each and every free decision, we are creating ourselves, for good, with the help of grace, or for evil, if we reject the grace of God. That is why what sin does to the agent himself is far worse than what his sin may do physically to those around him, and why, as I mentioned in a previous column, Pope John Paul declared in the very first paragraphs of Evangelium Vitae that grievous sins against life “do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury”. The Pontiff himself had lived these words in the attempt made on his life in 1981. Fortunately for his would-be assassin, the ill-fated Mehmet Ali Agca, he was captured alive (first tackled by a nun, no less), and could live to repent, at least so we hope. We can also only hope against hope that the perpetrators in these recent ‘crimes against life’ had a brief moment of grace before their own tragic deaths, for it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, not least with so much blood on your hands.
One way or the other, like our ancestor Cain, the choice in life is ours, and our eternal destiny depends upon what choices we make.
Good Friday, 2015