By Kathy Berken
We love to be scared by fictional villains. The opening ceremonies of the Olympics featured a host of literary bad guys. A 100-foot-tall inflatable Voldemort swooped over the stadium. The Child Catcher swept among sleepy children. Captain Hook scared anyone within reach. Then a few dozen Mary Poppinses chased them away and the children crawled under the covers to feel safe again.
But a real nightmare is a real villain gunning down 12 people in a movie theater that drives a shard of fear into our psyche that no number of Mary Poppinses can remove. This story made me feel incredibly helpless.
After all, the second amendment, right? But gun control is only a piece of the discussion. The bigger piece is what Slate Magazine writer Stephen Metcalf describes as our addiction to evil in his July 27 essay “Not Here” (slate.com). He presents a disarmingly simple, but exceedingly effective solution. I’ll get to that in a minute.
I am not naïve. Our entire existence is comprised of opposites. Look at Scripture. God vs. the serpent in the Garden. David vs. Goliath. Elijah’s Yahweh vs. the Canaanite’s Baal. Light vs. dark in John’s Gospel. I’m not saying we can nor should eliminate the notion of evil. But when faced with enormous social problems, I appreciate the observation of Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum who writes in her diaries, “. . . my heart was a sparrow, caught in a vise” (An Interrupted Life, 195). I can’t move, I can’t fly, I’m stuck.
Then I read Metcalf’s essay about the Malay notion of pengamok, a person who “commits an intensely violent and indiscriminate homicidal assault, often with a machete or a dagger, often in a crowded public space.” (Compare the phrase “running amok.”) The Colorado gunman, says Metcalf, staged “a mass gun killing as a grand and redemptive act of vengeance on the world,” that made him instantly powerful and famous. The problem is not just easy access to weaponry, but the inordinate weight we give to evil.
Yes, evil is a powerful force, but when it is made to look more enticing than the good needed to overcome it, those who crave redemption and a means to “massively compensate for a perceived loss of status,” we feed the pengamok. Explaining the Malay back-story showing how it worked, Metcalf says the only way to eliminate this horror is to “divest evil of its grandiosity or mythic resonance by completely banalizing it.”
We change our perception and the fascination is gone. Jesus trivialized the demons by sending them into a herd of pigs that drowned in the sea (Mt 8:32). He told the devil to leave and stop tempting him (Mt. 4:10). He rebuked Peter telling Satan to get behind him (Mk 8:33). No guns, no violence, just words. The Wizard of Oz was nothing more than a bumbling little man pushing buttons behind a curtain. The sickly Darth Vader wore a mask, breathing machine and black robes to bolster his image. Dracula runs from holy water and the sight of a crucifix.
Metcalf continues. When The New Yorker magazine writer Hannah Arendt had the chance to inspect Nazi villain Adolf Eichmann, she called him “small-minded, small-statured, small-souled.” Her description took the wind out of the sails of the reader’s perception of a monster.
Yes, we absolutely need to recognize and confront evil. I believe Paul’s message (Rom. 12:21) that good can overcome evil. I believe we can weaken the power of the pengamok by describing the Satans, Darth Vaders and Voldemorts of the world as small-minded, small-statured and small-souled. The light of Christ does indeed banish the darkness.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)