Reading the stories about Dr. Amy Bishop, the Harvard-trained neuroscientist, accused of shooting six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and killing three, is a disturbing experience.
Part of what is disturbing is Bishop's history of previous incidents of violence and rage that were, it appears, either covered up or inadequately investigated. Another chilling feature is Bishop's behavior after such incidents. Not only did she not evidence remorse, she seemed completely unaware of what she had done. After the shooting in Huntsville, according to the Boston Herald, "she calmly called her husband and asked him to pick her up as if nothing had happened."
Mulling Bishop's horrendous story, I recalled an observation of psychologist Scott Peck in his book People of the Lie, "Evil arises in the refusal to acknowledge our own sins." If Peck is right, the world does not divide, as we might like to think, between the good people and the evil ones. Rather the divide is between those who are able to acknowledge their own capacity for evil and take responsibility for the wrong they do, and those who are unable to acknowledge their own evil and are blind to its consequences.
As a pastor, you get a chance to observe people, including yourself, closely, sometimes a lot more closely than you might wish. What I've learned does not, alas, confirm the American creed of optimism or the idea that deep down we are all basically good.
No, it's closer to Peck's observation. That is, we are all, in some measure, creatures who practice self-deception, who distort life, who deny, rationalize, and project our own evil. We only stand a chance of keeping evil in check by acknowledging our own, by admitting to its presence. Amy Bishop, for whatever combination of reasons and experience, seemed incapable of this. She had no part in her situation. It was someone else's fault. Others were to blame.
In this respect, Bishop while an extreme example of one unable to acknowledge her own capacity for evil and accept responsibility, seems not so much unique as symbolic.
Many of the dominating narratives in American life today operate by creating a sharp divide between "us" (the virtuous) and "them" (the source of all our problems). It may be the populist division of haves and have-nots. "It's all the fault of Wall Street bankers," say some without quite wanting to notice the wide participation in credit-to-the-max phenomenon. Or it may be the alleged distinction between "real Americans" and "the government," the kind of self-deception that led to the infamous, "Keep the government's hands off my Medicare" rant.
For Christians, it is the season of Lent, the 40-day period of self-examination and repentance that precedes Easter. If my read on these things is at all accurate, Lent has lost some traction in recent decades. To many, Lent appears a little too grim, gray, and dour. These days most of the mega-churches forego Lent entirely, preferring to keep things positive and upbeat.
That's hardly a surprise, for Lent asks us to ponder and confess our own capacity for evil and sin rather than blaming it all on someone else. Besides Lent losing traction, a related feature of the faith that today encounters resistance is the Prayer of Confession. With such a prayer, people acknowledge their own fault and failures. But as many pastors today will tell you, people (at least many) don't care for this and will complain. "This is too negative." "I don't come here to feel bad about myself."
To be sure, all such things, Lent and prayers of confession, can be distorted and abused. Moreover, there are Christians who have dutifully said their prayers of confession and kept Lent and still have been self-righteous SOB's But at their best, both are a paradoxical strengthening of our spiritual immune system. They probe our self-deceptions and challenge our denials. They do what Dr. Bishop, and increasingly our culture, seems to find difficult if not impossible to do: name our own capacity for evil and to take responsibility for our own part of the mess.
So here's a little Lenten gift. Two of my favorite prayers of confession, the first from the book Prayers from Riverside (The Riverside Church in New York City), the second written by John Vannorsdall when he was chaplain at Yale University.
"Deliver us, O God, from the habit of blaming others for our faults, and help us instead to become fluent in the language of confession. We acknowledge before Thee our frequent lapses into sin; our failure to follow through on good intentions; the mediocrity of our faith; the devices we have developed to keep at a distance needs that we could have met; our tendency to label others according to our prejudices, our fear of the new; and our unwillingness to change. Be patient with us yet awhile, and lead us through penitence and trust, so to mend our ways, that we may more nearly resemble Him whom we are pleased to called Master, Lord and Friend. Amen."
"O God, if we thought even a little about our failures of love and courage since we last gathered, there would be no strength for praise. Each of us brings some specific tearing of the fabric of your grace, some erosion of the time given for making peace and sharing hope. But what binds us most is the self-pride that assumes that until we are perfect you will not come among us and that no good thing can happen. From this rejection of your grace, deliver us. Amen."
A capacity to pray prayers such as these seems to me not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.