John Zmirak received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. He has taught at Catholic and secular colleges, including Tulane University. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. He has served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family Magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. His new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, is now available. Check his new blogs and archived columns at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.
I began to write a column for NCR about the murders in Connecticut, drawing out what they teach us about evil, and wondering whether (and how) it is fitting to pray for the murderer. Then as I continued to think things through, the column got way too long for the Register, so I posted it at the excellent think-site The Imaginative Conservative. I invite you to take a look.
This Advent seems as if we’d skipped straight over Christmas to the Feast of the Holy Innocents—though as that bleak story unfurled, I don’t recall that it led to a call for “sword control,” or fierce debates over whether every Israelite ought to be armed to resist such government tyranny.
Too bad, in retrospect, that they weren’t—though when the Zealots finally got their way and found a “Messiah” who’d lead a rebellion, the outcome was not what they’d hoped for: a massive, multi-year siege by Roman armies that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and a 2,000-year Diaspora. One key element in making any war “just” is “reasonable chance of success.” That’s the reason—the only reason—why using private force to stop abortions is unjust, as I argued some years ago when a vigilante shot late-term abortionist George Tiller.
And there’s something deeply right about contemplating ultimate evil—the shooting of children—in the midst of a festive season that marks the birth of a single Child who Himself would be slaughtered while innocent, the most innocent man in history.
Too soon after Christmas trees are taken down, hundreds of thousands of us will be getting ready to freeze in our nation’s capital while we March for Life. The presence of evil, of very different kinds, is harder to miss this year than most—at least since 2001, when my hometown was attacked. Because it was innocent blood, willingly offered, that wiped away the evil each of carries in himself, and offered us the antidote: imitating Christ, making sacrifices freely to further the Good, and push back against evil.
Those sacrifices aren’t always peaceful—which is why the Church has thousands of soldier saints. We are not a religion for pacifists, or those who would stand by dabbing our tears and caressing our consciences while the weak are victimized. Sometimes we have to wade in, sword or gun in hand, and use deadly force to quash the actions of evil men—and we must do so without hating them. That doesn’t mean without anger, or even without (where needed) the will to kill. The plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 was carried out by a Catholic war hero, Claus von Stauffenberg, and met with the approval of Pius XII—who transmitted messages on behalf of the conspirators.
Nor is it hate to want to see a criminal be punished, or to take a grim satisfaction in the execution of his sentence. Only those who do not believe in life after death who could think this way; to them, earthly life is the only and ultimate good, so wanting to spoil that for or take that from someone (for any reason) amounts to hate.
Of course, if you are not Christian, you might not believe that hate is always wrong. We Christians have been given greater promises and higher hopes. We believe that earthly life is good, and eternal life with God is infinitely better. So the only real act of hate we can commit is to hope that someone is damned.
If you are justly enraged at someone, and feel he must be confronted, defeated, even imprisoned lest he commit more injustices that does not mean you hate him. If that question worries you, ask yourself: “Do I wish this person damned? Would I rather see God’s will to save this person thwarted?” If you do, then you have crossed that fiery line inside the human heart, and have begun to side with the Enemy. If it helps, remember this: The same devil who goaded that evil man to sin takes delight in his damnation. The spirit which (Pius XII believed) possessed Adolph Hitler would have been happy to meet him in Hell.
It may be, when the last judgment is concluded, that those of us who are saved will look down and recognize faces among the damned. It is then, and only then, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us, that the saved will take some sober satisfaction in one fact: that where God’s mercy was thwarted, at least His justice prevailed. What we will celebrate then is not the suffering of the soul, but the sovereignty of God.