In a frenzy of disgust over his dissolute father, Ivan Karamazov cries out, "Why is such a man alive?" Poor Ivan wrestled and sweated over the problem of evil in the world. It's hard not to get a little Ivan-ish when we read the headlines lately. Sometimes it's not even human evil that makes us writhe in mental anguish. Sometimes it's human stupidity.
Take, for instance, this story from Illinois: School officials are no fan of gun ban signs. It explains that schools and other buildings statewide will begin displaying signs that designate an area where no guns are allowed. The sign shows a silhouette of a gun inside the standard "prohibition sign" -- a red circle, with a diagonal slash through the gun. But the principle of one school is alarmed -- not at the prohibition of guns, but at the image itself.
“One of my biggest concerns as a principal is safety and security,” Tinley Park High School Principal Theresa Nolan said. “It is bothersome to have to post a sticker of a gun that says, ‘Hey, folks, leave your guns at home.’ ”
“I think the general public will be alarmed by it and wonder if people have been allowed to bring guns to school in the past,” she said.
“I would have appreciated something more subtle, yet still recognizable — a logo, perhaps, not a gun,” she said.
I'm not Ivan, so I'm not going to ask why such a woman is alive. I do wonder why such a woman is running a high school, though.
Let's look at what's happened here. A woman has so much faith in the power of signage that she's come full circle, and is no longer afraid of the gun itself, but only of the sign. This is goofy enough. But what really gets me is this layering of fantastical fears, this idea that the very indication that we dislike violence is, it itself, a kind of violence, more to be feared than the original threat.
Know what this reminds me of? The decision by the Church of England to eliminate the mention of sin and the devil from its baptismal rite:
In the current version, in use since 1998, vicars ask parents and godparents if they “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and if they “repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour”.
However, the new text asks them instead to “reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises”, with no explicit mention of the devil or sin.
Why would you do that? According to The Telegraph,
The draft, drawn up by the Church’s Liturgy Commission, is intended as a response to fears that the existing wording could be off-putting to people who are not regular churchgoers.
In other words, it's just possible that, if we ask people to reject the devil and sin, it might occur to them that we believe they actually have some reason to fear the devil and sin. Designating baptism a "devil-free zone" may alarm people. "What kind of place is this?" they may wonder. " Do they have some kind of special . . . devil problem?" If not, why bother putting a red slash through him?
The Liturgy Commission was trying to make their church a safer, more soothing place to be. And in the process, they're putting themselves out of business. Why baptize at all, if sin is not really a danger to be rejected?
Now, here's the difference between these two stories: when we designate something a gun-free zone, it's largely an exercise in wishful thinking. Any halfwit will understand that someone who intends to shoot up a school is not going to dissuaded by a law saying, "Uh-uh, not here, li'l buddy. You'll have to step off campus before you go on any murderous rampages." Such a law, and such a sign, will only matter to people who already care about laws and signs -- which means that, if there's a citizen who might be able to incapacitate someone who does go on a rampage, that citizen will be disarmed and helpless.
But when we designate baptism a "devil-fee zone," when we reject sin, when we wash it away, that's something real happening. The sign of baptism really does get rid of original sin. It's an indelible mark that changes the character of a person's soul.
It does that, that is, if the person doing the baptism wishes to actually perform a baptism -- if he has the will to do what the Church does when she baptizes (and yes, this includes the Church of England). But what does a person want when he offers a baptism, but can't even bring himself to ask the parents and godparents to reject the devil and sin? What kind of protection is possible if we can't even admit that we need protection?
Luckily, the Church is generous. The baseline for what qualifies as a valid baptism is pretty basic and low, so these baptisms done in Rite Lite are most likely still valid. But what comes next? Is there any possibility that a child raised in such a church will have even a fighting chance of triumphing over a devil whose name he's not even allowed to hear?
When we're too sensitive and squeamish even to show a picture of the gun we're prohibiting, we make ourselves less safe, not more. And when we're too sensitive and squeamish about even the mention of the devil and sin . . . well, you can see where that's gotten us.