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St. Augustine and The Jonesboro Massacre

Social scientists and cultural commentators have cited genes and the environment in explaining the disturbing phenomenon of young killers. The bishop of Hippo, who worked hard to understand good and evil and to control his own wrongful desires, would probably have taken another view.

BY J. Brian Benestad

May 3-9, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/3/98 at 1:00 PM

 

Conversations about good and evil these days naturally turn to the disciplines of biology, psychology, psychiatry, and sociology, but not readily to the Bible, Church teaching, theology, or even philosophy. In the case of notorious murder attempts and actual murders we know that courts will first investigate the sanity of the defendant.

Shortly after Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, killed a teacher and four of their Arkansas classmates, The Boston Globe ran an article discussing theories put forward to explain why boys commit murder 10 times more frequently than girls. Not surprisingly, the scholars interviewed say genes, environment, or a combination of the two. Examples of environmental influences mentioned were rough treatment by parents and exposure to violence on TV and in the movies.

The article concluded with an interesting quote from Jack Levin, who runs the Program for the Study of Violence at Boston's Northeastern University. He said that all the talk of biology covers up the failure of parents to give direction and good habits to their children. “We can blame our genes for violent behavior, we can blame early childhood … we can blame video games and slasher films all we want. But the truth is, when we ask our children to raise themselves, we are not doing a very good job raising them.”

Shortly after the Arkansas massacre, an essay by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek on juvenile crime argued that America should realize prevention is more important than enforcement techniques, such as “trying our juveniles as adults” or “hiring additional police officers” or passing the juvenile—justice bill pending in the Senate that “is overwhelmingly tilted toward more enforcement.”

As examples of prevention Alter mentions “programs” to help children and then opts for a solution that could have been suggested by Pope John Paul II or St. Augustine: “Character education—a greater emphasis on explicitly teaching right from wrong—is also prevention. Today's goal in Washington and state capitols should be to make prevention as much of mom—and—apple—pie issue as, say, hunting.”

Oil and Water

St. Augustine's Confessions, written some 1600 years ago, can still help us formulate the problem of distinguishing good from evil. In one of the most revealing passages in his autobiography he writes, “Oil poured over water is borne on the surface of the water, water poured over oil sinks below the oil: it is by their weight that they are moved and seek their proper place. Things out of place are in motion: they come to their place and are at rest. My love is my weight: wherever I am carried, I am carried by my love.”

That last sentence helps clarify our attitudes and actions. When students become passionate about learning, being of service, or even getting into medical school, the desire to binge drink diminishes accordingly. One love drives out another. St. Augustine's life was torn apart for the longest time by conflicting desires. He longed for the satisfaction of his lust and his immoderate desire to be recognized as a great speaker. As a 16—year—old he was consumed by the desire to do wrong for its own sake and to be accepted by his peers.

That's why he stole pears that he didn't even want: “I went headlong with such blindness that I was ashamed among the other youths that my viciousness was less than theirs; I heard them boasting of their exploits, and the viler the exploits the louder the boasting; and I set about the same exploits not only for the pleasure of the act but for the pleasure of the boasting … I grew in vice through desire of praise; and when I lacked opportunity to equal others in vice, I invented things I had not done, lest I might be held cowardly for being innocent or contemptible for being chaste.”

This remarkable insight into his life conveys the power of shameful loves to carry Augustine into places where there was no rest.

While still a teenager Augustine fortunately developed a love for wisdom after reading Cicero's Hortensius, which was an exhortation to philosophy. “This particular book,” he wrote, “… definitely changed the direction of my mind, altered my prayers to you, O Lord, and gave me new purposes and desires. Suddenly all the vanity I had hoped in I saw as worthless, and with an incredible intensity of desire I longed after immortal wisdom.”

Understanding Evil

With this countervailing desire for the truth, Augustine was eventually able to recognize and put aside his wrongful desires. He didn't fully return to Christianity until he was about 31 years old. He struggled mightily to recognize that he was personally responsible for the sins he committed and to give up his lustful desires. For a long time he accepted the Manichean view that an infinite power or substance, a rival to the good God, was the cause of the evil he did in his life (the ancient version of genes and the environment).

Moved by the love of truth, Augustine eventually came to see that evil was not any kind of substance, but “the perversity of a will (or swerving of the will) which is turned toward inferior things and away from … God, the supreme substance: so that it casts away what is most inward to it and swells greedily for outward things.”

This famous definition of evil focusing on perverse or disordered choices of the will means that we are guilty of sin if we are unwilling to have the kind of existence given to us by God. In other words, as Augustine says in his book on the Free Choice of the Will, “the root of all evils is not to be in accordance with nature.” This means that we can't do various kinds of things or fail to act in a certain way without causing harm to ourselves. We all know that an improper diet and insufficient exercise will eventually cause harm to the health of the body.

There is a structure to the body that we simply acknowledge and respect if we love our life. Likewise, the proper care of the soul requires such things as the observance of the Ten Commandments; the avoidance of the so—called capital sins, i.e., pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust; and the constant effort to seek the truth and to love God and neighbor. Of course, these things are not so obviously right or self—evident. Who has not loved themselves badly or made mistakes in loving others? Who can immediately see without guidance that true love of self and neighbor necessarily includes not breaking the Ten Commandments or not yielding to any one of the capital sins?

Loving the Truth

Augustine's Confessions also helps explain why we don't readily understand how to love well, or recognize the truth. “Truth,” he explains, “is loved in such a way that those who love some other thing want it to be the truth, and, precisely because they do not wish to be deceived are unwilling to be convinced that they are deceived. Thus they hate the truth for the sake of that other thing which they love because they take it for truth. They love truth when it enlightens them, they hate truth when it accuses them.”

We are carried by our loves, and these loves may not respect the structure of the body or the soul or take into account the way things are. Augustine himself loved what caused him a great deal of pain but remained attached to these things, nevertheless. Otherwise stated, strong loves or desires can lead us away from truths that would benefit our lives.

Catholicism's explanation for the power of disordered desires in our life is of course, Original Sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that Adam and Eve “transmitted to their descendants a human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called Original Sin. As a result of Original Sin human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called ‘concupiscence’).” Augustine's analysis of the human condition, of course, rests on the doctrine of Original Sin. The inclination to sin present in every individual explains why human beings are prone to disordered desires and to a hatred for truth.

St. Augustine provides another insight into the problem of evil when he discusses the difficulty of acting upon truths finally recognized after intense interior struggles. After recognizing the evil of lust he first prayed, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

One Body, Two Wills

The reason for this prayer was the power of habit in Augustine's life, so that he actually had two wills in his soul, the old will to remain in his habits and a new will to obey God and enjoy him. “Because my will was perverse it changed to lust, and lust yielded to become habit, and habit not resisted became necessity…. My two wills, one old, one new, one carnal, one spiritual, were in conflict and in their conflict wasted my soul.”

Augustine realizes that by yielding to his bad habit he has voluntarily been carried to a point where he no longer wishes to be. Why can't he will himself out of the difficulty? He doesn't have the power to will with a single will. “Partly to will, partly not to will … [is] a sickness of the soul because it is so weighted down by habit that it cannot wholly rise even with the support of truth. Thus there are two wills in us, because neither of them is entire: and what is lacking to the one is present to the other.” This is as good a description as I have seen of the common complaint people make of not being able to follow the judgment of their conscience.

The whole of Catholicism offers help to individuals struggling to recognize and overcome sin in their lives. As the Catechism says, “There is not a single aspect of the mystery of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.” Just think of the teachings that man and woman are created in the image of God and delivered from the power of sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To be in the image of God means that we have a rule to follow, or, more precisely stated, a person to imitate. Being redeemed we have the power to avoid sin through God's grace.

To appropriate the Christian message, instruction in the faith and exhortation take on great importance, along with prayer and a sacramental life. The more we see the truth and desire to live it, the more we can be carried by love to the truly good things. Augustine's life can be a model for us. He sought a serious liberal education and eventually sound catechetical instruction. What he came to see moved him to change his loves and renounce his disordered desires with the help of God's grace. Knowing that the love of truth carried him away from error and sin to the love of God, Augustine wrote his Confessions to stimulate the love of truth in his readers. His approach receives confirmation in 2 Thessalonians 2:9—10 where St. Paul says that the love of truth offers protection from every kind of wicked deception in the activity of Satan. It is also worthy of mention that Augustine's mode of encouragement mirrors the exhortation (paraclesis) found in the New Testament, which must accompany the instruction in the faith wherever it is given.

Does the Catholic Church recognize that people are driven to wrong by their genes or environment? The Catechism briefly addresses this question in the following short statement: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.”

A disordered family life could surely make it hard or even impossible for children to distinguish good from evil in all instances. Genes surely incline people in various directions. One could go on to give multiple examples. However, Catholicism rejects the view that genes or environment explain all behavior. If this were true, instruction as well as praise and blame would be useless and there would be no responsibility for sin, and no necessity for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

J. Brian Benestad, a professor of theology at the University of Scranton, is 1997—1999 D‘Alzon visiting professor of theology at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.