School Shootings and the Evil Within Ourselves

by Fr. Nicholas Roth

I’m sure that by now everybody knows about the most recent mass shooting that occurred last Friday at Santa Fe High School outside of Houston, TX, in which a 17-year-old fatally shot 10 people and wounded 13 others.

Unfortunately, as shootings become increasingly common, it seems as though it’s almost impossible to even keep count of such horrific tragedies anymore. Indeed, it’s hard to even remember the names of all the places where they have occurred: Santa Fe, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs Baptist Church, Orlando – sadly, the list goes on and on.  And all those have been within the past two years!

When the news of this latest atrocity first broke on Friday, our initial reactions might have varied, ranging from sadness to anger, or maybe even outrage, thinking “Again? What is wrong with people these days? Our society is sick!”

Perhaps our thoughts turned to the political, wishing for either more gun control or more police officers in schools. Hopefully, as Orthodox Christians, we at least paused to pray for both the victims and the shooter. In many ways, we probably felt powerless, thinking that there’s nothing we can do to help or to stop these events from happening. Many of us might have thought, “Thank God, I could never do anything like that!”

But as news slowly emerged, we learned the most recent shooter has a Greek name, and then we found out his family attended an Orthodox Church in the Houston area, raising the question of how did we THEN respond?

It’s likely that we were still shocked and saddened, of course, but it also presents itself as more of a challenge to who and what we are as Orthodox Christians. After all, if one of our own could do such a terrible thing, what does that say about us?

We might have become a bit defensive, thinking, “No real Orthodox Christian could ever do such a thing! He’s not really one of our people.”  Yet, notice that our initial reactions actually have quite a bit in common with how we felt when we heard the rest of the story.

In both cases, we put distance between him and us: in the first instance, blaming outside forces for what happened, such amorphous concepts as “people,” society,” and “culture.” In the second, not wanting to see him as a true part of our group, we possibly cast him as not really “one of us.”

Because the reality is that if we admit we have something in common with the shooter, then we also have to admit that each of us also has the potential to commit a similar atrocity. Instead, it’s much easier to think of the problem as something “out there,” something that is “other” or “foreign,” instead of something of which we are a part.

The distances we apply protect us from having to face the darkness within ourselves – that part of us that we refuse to acknowledge and we pretend doesn’t exist. It’s much easier to believe that we are “good” and others are “bad.”

In his famous work The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrestles with just this concept as he reflects on his own arrest and imprisonment, realizing that if things had worked out slightly differently, he might have been the one arresting people in order to protect himself:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?[1]

Yet, isn’t that exactly what we are all called to do? Just last week, during the Saturday evening Great Vespers commemorating the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council, we heard the words of Moses to the Israelites – and, consequently, to us: “You shall circumcise your hardheartedness and shall not harden your neck any longer.”[2]

We are called to destroy everything within us that incompatible with faith in Christ in order to allow His light to shine fully within us. We all have those things that we think are “ours” instead of God’s, the things that we choose to be blind to instead of confronting and driving out, because to acknowledge that they exist is to accept the reality that we have not entirely given ourselves over to God – that the line dividing good and evil cuts through our hearts, too.

Many of us tend to view evil as something lurking “out there,” something that is “other” – something in which we, the “real” Orthodox Christians, could never have any part.

But to view evil this way is to try to distance ourselves from the truth: that we, like everyone else, have evil lurking within us, in the dark places in our hearts, where we refuse to let the light of Christ shine.

Any time we are tempted to think about evil this way, we should remember the words of Archbishop Averky, Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery from 1960-1976:

A Christian should fight every type of evil wherever it appears, but this battle with evil should, in the first place, be a battle in his own soul. The battle with evil should begin with oneself, and only then will it be correct, reasonable, and sound…

‘A battle with evil in my own soul’ is a true Christian’s fundamental motto, and it is the one true principle, the one sound and reliable foundation on which one can build the well-being of humanity.[3]

So, we must ask ourselves: What are we blind to in our own lives that is incompatible with being a Christian? What do we choose to ignore or leave hiding in the dark instead of dealing with it, rooting it out so that our lives can become living witnesses to Christ?

What do we not see about ourselves? What parts of our lives have we not yet given to God? This is obviously much harder than simply blaming external forces for the problems in our society, but it is the only necessary and real work of a Christian.

Fr. Nicholas Roth is the Priest-in-Charge of the SS. George and Alexandra Mission in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

[1] Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, vol. I-II (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 168.

[2] Deut 10:16, NETS.

[3] (Taushev), Archbishop Averky, The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Publications, 2014), 111-12.