The most recent surprise attack of civilian violence has prompted the same group of questions that the last one did (and the one before that, and the one before that, and so on). What is wrong with people? How could someone do this? What kind of a person would do such a thing? What is going through people’s minds? We asked these questions when a grade school was riddled with bullets not too long ago, and then we re-asked them when improvised bombs blew body parts off of marathoners on Patriot’s Day.
It may be that these questions are not fully answerable, at least not to a level that would satisfy us completely. People certainly offer possible answers, ranging from mental conditions to upbringing to past abuse to psychological disorders to violent video games. But those always leave the issue wanting. One or more may account partially for this or that specific element in a person’s frame of mind, but the deeper existential weight of the questions is still felt upon the collective psyche of the rest of us.
I see a missing link in the already suspect chains of reasoning that generally attend these kinds of discussions today. It’s like a puzzle in which one enormous piece is absent, without which there isn’t enough of a remaining visual clue as to how the picture is supposed to be filled out. What is missing in this case is the element of belief. When considering an act of head-scratching and heart-rending depravity, we can’t neglect the question, “What were/are the beliefs of this person?” regardless of how uncomfortable people today may be with moving the conversation in that direction.
The attempt to psychologize everything tends to result in an emphasis on the causes of a person’s action. But people act not just as a result of causes (mental illness, depression, drugs, etc.); they act for reasons. And those reasons do not fail to reveal important things about the person’s view of the world, including his or her beliefs, no matter how splintered or convoluted, about God, about human beings, about life’s mission, about the nature of happiness, about his or her own place in the universe.
The contemporary world is marred by the terrible habit of neglecting the importance of beliefs. Because we exist on the rushed and distracted surface of life’s waters, we have neglected and forgotten about the depths below. We are more pragmatic and short-term in our approach to life’s problems than those who came before us. And it hasn’t served us well in times of crisis.
Beliefs matter immensely. Nearly every morally controversial act on the part of a given individual or group is rooted in the peculiar beliefs of that person or group. When we read or hear about terrorist slaughters in one part of the world, human trafficking in another, and genocide in yet another, our inner moral gage registers the immediate disdain for such evil proceedings. But how much slower are we to also recognize the woefully faulty beliefs of those at the forefront of the events? No doubt the two are causally linked.
Consider your response to Hitler’s “final solution,” to Stalin’s forced starvation of millions, to the burning of witches in various towns of medieval Europe, to the practice of cannibalism in some parts of the world today. Each of these, as distinct as they are, share the common trait of evoking a decidedly negative moral reaction in contemporary Americans. No doubt they might well illicit the familiar questions, “How could people have done that? What was wrong with them? How could they be so evil?”
But in voicing our moral disgust, we cannot forget or overlook the prior area of major disagreement – the beliefs of those who carried out these things. The fact is that I completely disagree with the perpetrator(s) in each case about some vital things they thought were true, and which served in large part as their reasons for doing what they did. C. S. Lewis wrote about how a man once said to him, “Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death.” This, the man thought, demonstrated the great moral progress in England since. But Lewis’ response was that “surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things.” That is, we now perceive that those who condemned people as witches were responding to a flawed interpretation of reality spurred on by a combination of suspicion, mob-think, frenzied worry, bad teachings, and a shoddy system of justice.
If we supposed that such people as witches were really at work in our midst – people “who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him” in order “to kill their neighbors or drive them mad” or wreak havoc on crops or livestock so as to bring ruin upon citizens, then we may well decide that such diabolical villains deserve capital punishment. “There is no difference of moral principle here,” Lewis concluded; “the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there” (Mere Christianity, Bk I, No. 2).
In the same way, the first Nazi target of our condemnation must be their fundamental teachings and not just the terrible consequences of those teachings. Corrupt doctrines should be castigated and shown to be responsible for their evil results. Nazi propaganda argued passionately that Jews were inherently inferior, were corrupting and decaying German society, and were thus a cancerous ‘problem’ that needed a ‘solution.’ Similarly Stalinist atheism combined with the preeminent conviction that the eradication of the bourgeoisie was justifiable at nearly any cost resulted in the systematic state violence against entire classes of people. If we begin to recognize the natural consequences of ideas, we will find less cause to throw our hands up in disbelief and ask how and why such a thing as this or that happened. We will see that the false ideas were the root of the problem, and worthy of open repudation.
This applies to a lot of issues in the news today. We cannot begin to understand the actions of a 17 year old suicide bomber in the Middle East without first understanding the theological framework within which he has been fervently indoctrinated. He is not acting due to causes but for reasons. It’s his reasons that form the heart of the problem. In the larger cultural discussion about the role of Christian belief in modern society, I argue, contrary to secularist dogma, that it is not less Christian thinking and motivation that will better our world. It is more. Once again, a life built upon consistent New Testament Christian beliefs will take a certain form. It will look a certain way because of the worldview informing the person, the values, the decisions of the person holding those beliefs.
Not every ugly headline involving people murdering other people will reveal a perfect symmetry between clearly delineated false beliefs and the horrible deed(s) to which they logically lead. People often act directly against what they profess to believe. Drugs may be involved. Emotions can cause people to do desperate things. Mental illness can be part of it. It’s not always reasons; sometimes causes are at work. Some acts are every bit as “senseless” as we so often say that they are after they’ve shocked our consciences.
BUT, then again, some appalling crimes will be the result of the convictions of someone who does not see things as they are, whose version of the truth is simply wrong. No sense ignoring it. When Christians speak of a fallen world and the fallen nature of human beings, this is not only in reference to our being morally crippled in so many ways. It runs deeper. It has to do with our willingness to believe wrong things for suspect reasons and illicit motivations. Intellectual virtue can be as important as other kinds of virtue. People must strive to know and hold to what is true. People need to be discerning and guard against errant philosophies that lead to destructive ends. Beliefs can be false, and not always in a benign way. Ideas lead to actions. Wrong ideas lead to wrong actions. The question is not just “what is wrong with people?” Sometimes the question is “what is wrong with people’s beliefs.”