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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Do You Believe in Evil? Do You Believe in Satan? Do You Believe in Prayer? Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

Children wait outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, after the shooting.
Reuters. Michelle McLoughlin. December 14, 2012

After I left my working class, Catholic, immigrant hometown and began mingling with ethnically and socioeconomically superior people, I rapidly realized that these better people were not better in every way.

For example, many of them would say some version of the following: "I don't believe in evil" or "I have eliminated the word 'evil' from my vocabulary."

Yes, they would actually stop conversations in which the word "evil" was used. "No. We can't have this conversation. You just used the word 'evil.' There is no such thing as 'evil.' Some people are hurt, are misunderstood. We can't judge them. Judgment is primitive and backward. I don't want to have any part of that judgmental mindset."


I believe in evil. I believe in Satan. In my book, "Save Send Delete," I retell the story of my yearlong debate, and love affair, with a prominent atheist I first saw on television. At one point in our debate, I tell him who Satan is to me. An excerpt:

"Satan is not a mustachioed trickster with horns and tail in a tight, red, vinyl jumpsuit. My best conception of Satan is this: in a human being, a religious certainty of one's own personal importance, combined with a cultivated conviction of one's own unjust victimization, and a refusal to see God, and good, in one's fellow human beings. That recipe left to percolate in the human soul has been the justification for an infinite amount of pain.

I live a small potatoes life. My Satanic acts will never earn me a slew of tribute webpages like those fans dedicate to serial killers. But that I push on public transportation, or speak subtle, clever putdowns to my students, or snap impatiently at cashiers who have strived to smile at me while handing me my change, or blind myself to the good in the world, tells me that my rejection of God creates a vacuum, a vacuum that Satan is happy to fill."


"Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero" is a riveting PBS documentary about the impact of the 9-11 terrorist attack on the spiritual lives of survivors and spiritual thinkers. I was deeply grateful for, and moved by, the program's overtly religious content. I value religion and I recognize its power. "Religion" has become almost a dirty word in our New Age. So often we can't talk about it except with the kind of nervous prohibitions that used to be reserved for pornography; Political Correctness vitiates our words and renders them insipid: Christmas trees become "holiday trees;" Islam becomes "the religion of peace."

Psychiatry and religion scholar Ann Ulanov said things about evil in "Faith and Doubt" that give me goose bumps. An excerpt:

"You can go to the place you've been hurt or threatened to be destroyed, or pieces of you have been destroyed, mangled, treated as if they are of no value. You can get to your outrage, your absolute determination to retaliate for vengeance, and you can understand how you feel that because of something done to you.

But deeper than that, it's like an undertow of the ocean. It's like an undertow current. There's something that you contact that's much bigger than what you did to me or what I'm going to do to you. And you get caught in that; you're in something that's outside yourself. The personal explanation is not enough. In the larger, psychological explanation -- archetypal pattern of energy, unconscious instincts of hate and cannibalism -- even that isn't enough. That's involved, too. It's as if one has a spell cast on one. But you feel you're caught in what the New Testament calls 'principalities and powers.' It's a power that catches you, and you are not enough by yourself to defeat it."

My friend Arno had been horribly abused, almost murdered, by his own father. His father was a survivor of Plaszow, the Nazi concentration camp depicted in the film "Schindler's List."

I had also been an abused kid.

Arno asked me how I survived the abuse.

I told him that Mary was a great help to me. When I was a kid, I could go into any Catholic church, preferably an empty one, and kneel before the statue of Mary. She was my loving, maternal presence.

Arno told me that he envied me Mary. He had grown up Jewish, in a tradition that did not include images of loving mothers or saints. 

My brother, Phil Goska, is at the far left of this picture. 
My brother, Phil Goska, was killed on my birthday. My sister told me a story recently of how out of it I was at Phil's funeral. She described a tear-streaked sleepwalker. I don't remember that. I remember busily making sandwiches for all the relatives who came to the funeral. This much is true: nothing anyone said reached me.

What did finally reach me, and I this was such a moving experience that I remember it to this day, was opening a condolence card and finding, inside, a picture of Mary cradling her dead son, Jesus.

And the thing is, even at the time, I remember thinking, Wow, this is an over-the-top, graphic, heavy-handed and even corny depiction of Mary cradling crucified Jesus. It is an aesthetically unworthy painting!

That's what made it work for me. The over-the-top-ness, the graphic depiction of a crucified corpse, the maudlin sentimentality of an obviously mourning woman.

That bloody, corny, heavy-handed painting of Mary and Jesus was the very first thing that reached me in my grief after my brother was killed.

Hail Holy Queen
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope!
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve!
To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears!
Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus!
O clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary!
Pray for us that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ!

Willaim-Adolphe Bouguereau "Pieta" 


  1. Thank you for this. I'm one of those who don't believe in evil people, but this morning, I believe I live in a society that allows evil: mentally ill people alone in their torment, without treatment, walking among us ignored, military style guns sold for profit, video "games" sold to children who learn to play at killing in large numbers. This morning, I wonder which petition to sign, where to speak up, what prayers to say. All of them, I guess.

    1. Linda, thank you for reading and commenting. I also abhor violent "entertainment" and decline to purchase it or support it, and would happily return to the Production Code era.

      It is folly to deny the research that links violent entertainment and violent behavior.

    2. By the way, now they are saying that the guns used were legal, purchased by the killer's mother. She taught him how to use them, reports say. Also they are saying that he played violent video games. No, legal gun ownership and violent video games don't explain everything, but this news, if verified, is worthy of note.

  2. I hope everyone will read this and remember the victims, say a prayer and take action to fill the void that gives evil room to breath, to move, to act.
    Linda summed up so much of how I feel also. I hope the see some rationale cause and take some action so it never happens again.
    Do we create and nurture evil monsters?
    In word and action. In inaction.

    How can God allow this to happen turns into doubts about God's existence.

    As the stories about Sandy Hook come out we see heroic acts of self sacrifice and hopefully faith is restored in both man and God.

    Great article Di.


    1. Otto - I respond because your line: "Do we create and nurture evil monsters? In word and action. In inaction." I believe we do, when we refuse or are 'bullied' by political correctness gone awry to be silent about the evil in our society. It is true that each of us sees a different response to that evil. I abhor the images I see on TV, the vulgar that has become the norm, and the ads for the violent computer games that mimic reality.

      I have always said the children can tell the difference between 'cartoon' or 'fantasy' and the things that are real. Hence, I do not object to the Roadrunner and Wily Coyote, or to World of Warcraft (although not for young kids). I do object to the constant killing on TV, even the news that shows nothing but killings in our society, which tends to make it 'ok' to do this, no matter how much we say it is wrong. I think it also lets them think that the person who is killed will get up and walk away because tomorrow you see them alive on another show.

      I grieve for the families impacted by this tragedy in Sandy Hook/Newtown. I grieve for our society in which this happens. I grieve for the person who seeing this now thinks doing the same is the way to get 'known' and have an 'impact' in life.

      The answer? I'm not sure I have one. But the "BY INACTION" struck me the most. Not just by not acting, but by not speaking good (and God- or God and good) into our communities in a way that can be heard. Not a 'preachy' don't message but a message of hope against all reason to hope, the Hope given by God in the promise of ultimate redemption through Jesus Christ and in his promised return. I know this will not speak to all people. I know some will object to this as 'partisan' and 'unfeeling'. But as Danusha finds comfort in Mary as the comforter of those who suffer great loss, I find comfort from the God who chose Mary as the earthly mother of His son. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And of Peter, John, Paul and the rest of the 12. And of millions since the first century, despite the errors of other people, even within the (institutional) church.

      Danusha - thank you for your original post. Very meaningful in so many ways. It is only as we share our own brokenness (I, too, was abused, but I cannot let it become my life even as you have not let it become your life) that we can truly relate to those who are also broken by the horrors of this life. And we must face and talk about but not get caught in the undertow. Thank you again. I appreciate your posts on the ChristLit lists.

    2. Otto, thank you for mentioning the heroes on this day. We both know, Otto, you and I, that there are always heroes. That we don't have to focus only on darkness. Amen.

    3. JT, thank you very much for your post. I don't know you, but i hear the decency and compassion in your post. You care about these innocent victims, people you never met, perhaps far away from you. This is evidence of the goodness in the world, in our fellow human beings. We can't allow these dark moments to hide that. We can't become cynical.

  3. Thank you JT.

    I appreciate the response. I'm Lutheran and I too was abused.

    It feels like it's not the violence necessarily or the desensitizing but what we let thrive in our hearts.
    At some point "dumb" became "cool", "sadistic" won out over "compassion", "self-less acts" became "self-centered" and "hope" became "instant gratification".
    I feels like modern version of the Four Horseman.

    I just read that a man walked into a hospital in Alabama and killed one and wounded two before he was shot.

    God grant us the strength to endure and the hope that we can stop the evil.


    1. Otto mentioned that he is a survivor of abuse. Otto is the son of a Nazi soldier. Otto's account of his childhood is the first thing I read that caused me to think twice about my Polish, anti-German prejudice. Otto's story, entitled "Ripples of Sin," is here:

    2. Otto, thank you, very much, for not allowing what happened to you cause you to take it out on others, as this young killer has done.

      It is so interesting that you say it feels "like a modern version of the Four Horsemen". That is exactly where we are, living in the events prophesied in the Book of Revelation.

      The "image of the beast" is standing there now, right in front of us. And the Horseman ride.

      But the Book of Revelation promises us that Jehovah "will bring to ruin those ruining the earth". He will do this through the incoming Kingdom of God.

      This is the darkest hour before the most wonderful dawn.

  4. Thank you Danusha for the beautiful post today. Evil is among us I too believe. Instances of people killing dozens and even twenty young school children with knives have happened in recent years in both Japan and China. It is pure evil of an oddly modern, public type. There is something about 21st century man that takes selfishness to new evil levels, where even suicides must involve the taking of as many innocent lives as possible in the process.

    The numbers shock and numb but they should not cloud judgment in my mind. Connecticut was pure evil but everyday in the US, according to the CDC, 10 people drown at home in non-boating related accidents. More than half are under 4 years old. No one is talking about the legality or lethality of bathtubs or buckets and rightly so. Let's hope overall crime and safety statistics are used to evaluate any coming restrictions on legal firearms as evidence shows facts are as easily mis-characterized as worrying about flying every time there is a plane crash.


    1. If I understand your post correctly, MB, you are saying that we should not impose gun control because people drown.

      That strikes me as an argument without merit.

      We should impose gun control in our best effort at preventing future school shootings.

      The number of fatalities in the knife attacks is not comparable to the fatalities in this gun attack.

  5. Danusha you say: "Satan is not a mustachioed trickster with horns and tail in a tight, red, vinyl jumpsuit."

    Yes. I am not sure where that idea comes from, but it seems very prevalent. He is also pictured (in his red jumpsuit) as presiding over a hell of fiery torment. And yet, according to the Inspired Scriptures, hell - "Sheol" in the Hebrew Scriptures, "Hades" in the Christian Greek - is one place Satan never was, never is, and never will be.

    The Bible tells us that he is a beautiful and powerful angel who made himself into a rebel, and a slanderer of his Creator. And that he rules all the kingdoms of the world.

    You will remember that he offered them to Jesus, in exchange for one act of worship.

    Jesus called him "a manslayer" and "the father of the lie". Satan is also called "the original serpent". He is the one who told the first lie ever told, in Eden, when he told Eve that she would not die if she cut herself off from her Creator, her Source of life.

    The young shooter who has just killed so many was surely acting in exactly the way Satan wanted. I am sure he was full of anger and pain, and I only wish that he had sought for and found his Creator, Jehovah, as then he would have found real help for his pain, and real hope. And so many families would not now be in stunned mourning for their children.

  6. I'm an atheist, so I don't have to wrestle with the question, 'Why did God allow this to happen.' I think evil is very real, but it it not external to us. It is part of the human capacity to commit acts of great evil, and very often, these are carried out by ordinary people, unexceptional people. Hannah Arendt's concept of the banality of evil is an important one - so many evil acts are carried out by people doing what has been made normal - by the state, or by ideology.

    I think it is important to be aware of this capacity within ourselves, and always be prepared to ask questions about what we do and why we do it. I don't know for sure, but I often wonder if the very young me, in my early 20s, full of changing beliefs and an awareness of the instability of what I had previously assumed fixed and given, might not have marched to the tune of some guru of fanaticism, drawn by an ideology - religious, political, other. I don't know, I wasn't tested, but I do know I was not immune.

    Philip Zimbardo expresses this very well in his book The Lucifer Effect. I don't accept, as some religious people tell me, that belief in religion can protect you from this, because I have seen the evils people carry out in the name of various religions (and political ideologies, and other causes).

    We don't need Satan, or devils, or even concepts of possession to explain evil acts. We just need to know we are human.

    1. Danuta thank you for letting me know that you believe in evil. I do, too.

      Zimbardo explains some things, but not everything. I do believe in that undertow that Ulanov describes so eloquently.

  7. From the on-line Mail today: "While an official has said that the 20-year-old gunman in the Connecticut school shooting had Asperger's syndrome, experts say there is no connection between the disorder and violence."

    Read more:

    Speaking as an Aspergery person myself, I don't say there is any connection between Aspergers and violence, but doesn't the school system put extra stress and strain on those of us with this type of personality? I am dubious anyway about the idea of herding children together in large peer groups. When herded together like this, children need good interpersonal and political skills to negotiate the politics of the playground.

    Aspergers people are, by definition, lacking in these skills.

    I loathed my schooldays. Thank goodness, I had a pretty happy and secure home life. But so many people don't.

    I am also wondering if this young man was one of the many put on those strong psychiatric drugs when he was of school age.

    Hello Danuta - and, yes, the evils people carry out in the name of vaious religious beliefs... The Book of Revelation has a lot to say about that. But isn't this the vital safeguard within Christianity - that Christians are "no part" of the world"? They have no political or military power, no political or military alliances, so Christian beliefs can never be enforced on others.

    1. Sue, fwiw, I don't think he did this because he may or may not be mentally ill. there are plenty of mentally ill people who never hurt anyone. I think this killer was evil.

    2. Yes, it does sometimes seem that, nowadays, everything is excused as "a personality disorder" or a mental illness, and I don't go along with that at all. I think that Adam Lanza could have chosen to deal with the anger and the pain he clearly felt in a very different way. And I wish he had.

      The way he chose was plain evil. Demonic, in fact, as that is exactly the way Satan wants us all to behave.

      But i do think that there is something profoundly wrong with the school system, and that it weighs heavier on the introvert personality type - such as myself. I am mulling over what might have prevented this.

      Above all though, God's word has the power. And I wish he had stopped and prayed for help and then listened when the help came.

      The Inspired Scriptures set before us the example of Cain and Abel. Knowing Cain’s attitude, God counselled him, saying: “Why are you hot with anger and why has your countenance fallen? If you turn to doing good, will there not be an exaltation? But if you do not turn to doing good, there is sin crouching at the entrance, and for you is its craving; and will you, for your part, get the mastery over it?”—Genesis 4:6, 7.

      There is a lesson in this for us. Sin lurks at the door ready to overcome us, if we let it. Yet, God has given us free will, and we can choose to do what is right.

      I believe Adam Lanza could have made a different choice, and wish he had.

    3. Sue, wondering why you think the school system is especially hard on introverts

  8. Perhaps not so much introverts - but I think it is difficult for those who are not good at negotiating the often savage politics of the playground. And asperger/autistic types by definition lack people skills.

  9. Dear Danusha,

    I'll re-post and add here from the new open section today. The drowning analogy was utilized to illustrate an irrational and emotional rush to judgment, a desire to create more, useless feel-good laws that are either unenforceable, create "criminals" overnight with certain guns at home, or mostly just have no impact at all.

    The US has had more violent crime than Europe since the 19th century, even when Europe had far more guns available. Then again, Europe still has gun crime now, even acts of mass murder, with strict levels of firearms control that could never even be considered for the US. Additionally, in the US, so-called "assault rifles" account for an insignificant amount of crime, maybe partly because they cost more than other firearms.

    Japan and China (and elsewhere too I'd guess) have had several high volume mass murders with knives, not just non-fatal stabbings as just happened. The high-number attacks in Asia usually involve small children at schools. A dynamite attack was the biggest school kiling in US history. Evil and insanity have a way of working things out, like the Unibomber too for that matter.

    The UK still still has 2/3 more occupied home invasions than the US as well as lingering gun crime even though its an island and has had strict gun control since the 1950's. Take into account the hundreds of millions of legal firearms already in the US along with the porous Mexican border, that can supply anything illegally in demand in the US from freon gas to illicit drugs and one can see the futility of looking at "gun control" as a way out from such senseless violence. Its societal and its Evil, let's face it. The only means to security is the same means used by Federal Govt Buildings, politicians, captains of industry and even rock stars: trained armed guards. All "gun free zones" need armed guards to ensure a higher degree of public safety; Malls, Churches, Schools, etc.