I was almost psychologically prepared for the shooting in Aurora. A day or two before, I had read Scott Anderson's piece on Greg Ousley, who killed his parents when he was just 14 years old.
He's been in prison for 19 years, a model inmate, and now he wants to go free. By the end of the story, I wanted to believe that Ousley was a different person, someone redeemed, someone you could send safely into the crowd. But the obvious question still nagged at me: what was happening in his mind the night he aimed a shotgun at his mother and father and pulled the trigger?
Friday afternoon, with the televisions showing over and over again the face of a young man with almost the exact same smile as the last young man who pulled a gun on a crowd, I couldn't feel compassion and I couldn't feel safe. All I felt was rage at him and at everyone who lets guns circulate like so many toys through our streets. And more than anything, I wanted a name for this disease that picks out young men and, not content with one victim, uses them to take a dozen others.
Then I remembered that it was no disease. If you know the songs of Sufjan Stevens, you know one called "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." Gacy, of course, was convicted of killing at least 33 boys and young men in the 1970's. He buried many of them underneath his house. I know no words for that crime, except this strangely gentle song with its terrifying final quatrain.
"And in my best behavior
I am really just like him.
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid."
For me this is not simply a bit of angsty folk music or a commonplace of Calvinist doctrine. It's true. I was a young man once, and I remember a night when I felt like the only choice I had was murder or suicide. I remember looking into the bathroom mirror, filled with hatred and hopelessness, and saying to myself, "This is not a healthy way to feel." The words are almost funny now, thirty years later, without a dead body or even a black eye to show for all that rage. But at the time it was no joke.
I don't need to provide the details. Chances are, if you are old enough to read this column, you are old enough to have experienced the kind of rage that could kill another human being. We don't often admit it, of course, and perhaps there are individuals who can honestly say that they have reached the middle years of adulthood and never imagined murdering someone else. For my part, I suspect that they are adding falsehood to the sin of anger.
"Sin" is the word, not "disease." When we think of disease, we instinctively step back. We don't want to get sick ourselves. We look for doctors, for professionals in white coats to treat this thing with rubber gloves, to handle flesh as if it were not also soul. Of course, I am not being fair to medical professionals. They saved my life on at least one occasion. But in so far as we turn things into sickness and disease, we put them far away from us.
Sin is not so easily dismissed. It breaks our heart. We rage against it. But it refuses to be locked up or given so many drugs that it can barely move. It won't even be banished by that old saying about "loving the sinner, but hating the sin." As if we could wield a surgeon's knife and cut it out. As if we were not talking about ourselves.
Sin is not a popular idea these days. That's a pity, because sin is a doctrine of love. When Jesus tells the crowd bent on killing the woman caught in adultery, "Let the one without sin cast the first stone," he is not simply shaming them about their own sins. He is reminding them that she is their sister in sin. It's not enough to let her live. They must love her.
Someone will object that all this talk about sin ignores the obvious fact that someone like James Holmes is plagued by delusions. No doubt, but so are we all. The stone throwing has already begun. Foolishly we focus only on the weapons and not on the thing that drives us to kill each other. As if Fox, and MSNBC, and the postings of our Facebook friends were not telling us that we have become a society driven by fear and rage.
We say our anger is just. But as the Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus noted centuries ago, "When the demons see a temper bound by gentleness, they seek out just pretexts for anger. Once they have set the temper free, they can turn it to savage purposes." No doubt we do need gun control. But even more, we need to control our hearts. And when we hear someone ask, "How could a human being do such a thing," we shouldn't be misled.
Chances are we know damn well.