Fear remains a theory until it actually grabs you for real. No matter how hard you try to get into the experience of, say, an earthquake happening under your house, or being caught up in a war zone and having to flee the next bombing raid with only the clothes you stand up in, or knowing a family whose child has been killed by a crazed gunman running riot in their school, it remains the business of strangers.
I’m not implying that we’re really impervious to suffering, or that we always deal with frightening things by passing quickly on to something less emotionally taxing which, in my case, would be a quick fix with a few Instagram reels about horses. The Instagram reel distances the event. It helps to numb the fear, although I still feel it, but more as a kind of permanent under-current that affects, without my perhaps realising it at the time, how I sleep, how I behave with other people, and even how I pray.
I pray earnestly, though somewhat dutifully, about the state of the world. I try to empathise with specific contexts and situations but there is only so much reality I can cope with, to borrow from T.S Eliot – even perhaps when the reality threatens to hit closer to home.
In the wake of the latest school shootings in the US, I fear, I really fear, for my American grandchildren. Part of the fear is informed by not being able to begin to understand why a country could allow legislation that permits people to go about their daily business with loaded guns. I also fear for the way this strange freedom must inform the thinking of everyone, not just about violence itself, but about the potential for indiscriminate violence which perhaps lurks in all of us.
I have to admit that some of my favourite ‘go to’ TV dramas feature quite a bit of violence, and even glorify it. The one who is quickest off the mark when it comes to shooting to kill usually wins the day. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether, even given their specific legal remit, they are justified in doing so, but the viewer is seldom invited to consider this question. It seems that a successful TV drama is one that draws millions of viewers by posing the least number of meaningful questions, questions that may invite us all to consider our complicity in making it so easy for citizens to murder each other, at least in countries where this appears to be the case.
I do not know what causes a person to overstep the line from reality to lived out fantasy. All I know is that this can happen, seemingly anywhere at any time. There is something about unpredictable violent madness which, because it cannot be explained in the moment, points to a kind of dark anarchy at work just beneath the surface of society itself. If I were to describe it in biblical terms, I would appeal to the writer of the letter to the Ephesians who was concerned not only with physical evil; violence on the streets and guns in general, but with the ‘cosmic powers of this present darkness’ (Eph. 6:12). I think this idea of cosmic powers, and of the present darkness in which they operate, helps to anchor the kind of evil we are seeing when we hear of yet another shooting spree taking place in an American school.
In her courageous book We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver invites us to consider evil and whether a person can be born evil. Ultimately, she leaves us asking whether such evil is surmountable. Read the book and decide for yourself. What concerns me though, are the forces required to turn the tide in a country that so far has failed to tame the anarchic force that seems to be at work at the heart of its life, that informs its very self-understanding and identity. It is also what returns me to the imagery employed in the letter to the Ephesians. The will to ‘stand’ against the powers of evil is a litmus test of faith itself. It’s not a matter of weighing up the pros and cons and then deciding the best course of action, or what opinion to hold about any one issue.
Neither is faith is about simple belief, although that may have its place in certain contexts. It is about a kind of defining knowledge in regard to what is fundamentally evil, a knowledge which comes from having had ones mind made up by the knowledge, or experience, of a deeper and greater good. This knowledge is a light that we carry within us and which we can choose to allow to sputter out, or nurture until it becomes at one with the true Light that lightens the world, as it is described in St. John’s gospel (John 1:9).
As I write this, Christians are approaching the beginning of Holy Week. We shall be reflecting on and re-visiting the events that led up to God’s ultimate confrontation with the anarchic powers that the writer of the letter to the Ephesians is referring to. The Cross of Christ obliges us to confront those powers in ourselves and to see how they connect with the same powers at work in our world and society. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the writer of the letter to the Ephesians exhorts his readers to ‘Stand firm in that evil day’.
The letter was originally written in Greek. The Greek word for ‘stand’ is rooted in the word ‘stauros’ which means cross. For me, this points to the mystery at the heart of the Cross of Christ, that in all things that we fear most deeply, and can barely admit even to ourselves, we are invited to hold to the Cross, to ‘stand’ in the heart of the darkness around us, not as the helpless victims of our own inadmissible fears, but as ones who bear witness to the light which has not been overcome by that darkness.