Selective Helplessness

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSON

In my last column, “We Are the Meteorites,” I wrote that the world we live in, which makes tragedies like the massacre in Las Vegas and other human evil possible, is largely one that we have chosen. Therefore, responding to these events as if they were the equivalent of being struck by a meteorite or even frozen human waste from a passing airplane damaging your property is self-serving foolishness.

But this kind of self-exculpatory cant, as in “hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious, or political nature,” isn’t limited to the realm of culture and politics. It’s also, as the definition suggests, a part of religious discourse as well.

The immediate occasion for this observation was a trilogy I recently read titled The Fall of Man. The story combines science fiction (in particular, speculations about quantum entanglement) with the prologue to the book of Job, the classical Hindu cosmology of the Vedas and the Upanishads, and some post-apocalyptic elements reminiscent of Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

The subject of the trilogy is human evil: specifically, our propensity to prey upon one another. At one point, a disillusioned cleric, who has devoted his life to serving the poor and suffering, says, “We just brush off the obvious by attributing all evil to the serpent in the garden; that we live in a fallen world; that we are all sinners as a product of the original sin; sons of Cain.”

He calls this explanation for human evil “fairy tales primitive man told himself to make sense of the world; to make sense of nature’s cruelties; to make sense of our own sinful ways.”

Now, worldview mavens and would-be mavens would, no doubt, quickly point out the incongruence in rejecting the biblical account of human evil while, at same time, using words like “sinful ways.” And while that’s a valid critique, it risks missing the larger, more important point: the way that many Christians invoke human fallenness and original sin often amounts to little more than exculpatory cant.

A recent piece by Sarah Jones in The New Republic cited several examples of how appeals to what Augustine called the “mysterium iniquitatis” can function in this way. One U.S. representative, after the Las Vegas massacre, called it “an act of pure evil,” and then went on to say, “I don’t think the U.S. Congress—we don’t know how to legislate away evil. Just like I don’t think the U.S. Congress or anyone else knows how to legislate sanity.”

He wasn’t alone. A U.S. senator made much the same argument: “I do not think that the United States Congress can legislate away evil.” And a governor put it this way: “To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs. . . . You can’t regulate evil . . .”

You don’t have to be a writer for the New Republic or a gun-control advocate to spot the absurdity in that last statement. As one Democratic senator replied, “I await your proposal to rescind [your state’s] laws banning assault, murder and arson. One of government’s core functions is to regulate evil.”

The Apostle Paul would agree.

And you can’t dismiss these examples as “nutpicking.” For starters, these were a senator, a representative, and a governor. What’s more, at least two of them are very public about their Christian faith and how it guides their public service. (Google can be your friend.)

Most of all, you don’t need The New Republic or any other publication to find other examples of how appeals to human fallenness and original sin are used to close off all further discussion of an uncomfortable subject. They’re not explanations, much less invitations to dialogue: They are a way of saying “Let’s not have this discussion,” or, more cynically, “This discussion is inconvenient given the commitments I have made to be a part of my political coalition.”

Then there’s our selective helplessness in the face of the mysterium iniquitatis. All human evil and suffering ultimately has its origins in the Fall—as the Apostle Paul told the Romans, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin.” Yet we treat some sins, and their impact, as being less amenable to what Judaism calls “Tikkun olam,” literally, “repairing the world,” and Christians call “restoration,” as in “creation, fall, redemption, and restoration,” than other ones.

Mark Shea, writer, speaker, and human torch (that’s a compliment), captured the essence of this selective helplessness when, in response to the standard argument that “any attempt to limit access to firepower is pointless since bad guys will always find guns,” he replied “Then it is equally true that women will always find ways to have abortions and any attempt to limit access to them is likewise pointless.”

(To paraphrase Ilia in what Alex Wainer calls “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture,” my misgivings about the gun control “debate” in the United States are on the record.)

It’s not just guns and abortion. For the better part of a year, a Christian news podcast I listen to almost every weekday scarcely went a week without reporting on the Benghazi hearings. During that same time, they mentioned the Flint Water Crisis exactly once.

Even if you stipulate that the Benghazi story warranted that kind of coverage, it’s difficult impossible to understand why a story about 100,000 people, including many children, being exposed to potentially toxic levels of lead in their drinking water warranted virtually no coverage. Furthermore, this podcast was far from alone in its silence in the face of criminal malfeasance by government officials.

I won’t speculate about the causes of this selective helplessness. All I’ll say is that it is lousy Christian witness. We may be able to get away with it within our particular bubble but people outside of the bubble, including many Christians, aren’t buying.

For them, “hypocritical and sanctimonious talk” is, perhaps, the most charitable thing they’re willing to call it, which is part of the reason why an increasing number of them regard all of our beliefs, and not just our account of the Fall, as “fairy tales.” And that isn’t difficult to understand.

Image courtesy of Amazon Digital Services.

Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.


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  • Linda Ro

    Thank you.
    I hope you watched yesterday’s (10/15) 60 Minutes on the opiod epidemic. That’s another issue where Congress abetted the crisis by passing a law that lets drug distributers off the hook for not blowing the whistle on pharmacies/doctors ordering unreasonable amounts of opiods.
    I am a registered Republican, but I am ashamed of my party on these issues.

  • Ok I sort of get what’s being said here. But at first I was confused if the author provided a solution. There is, I think but it wasn’t that clear to me. Making it easier to spot would’ve helped but hey what do I know.

  • Paul Coin

    Roberto needs to buy a gun.

  • Zarm

    Well, even paired with the usual title-mockery, it’s nice to see my favorite Trek movie referenced on Breakpoint.