The news last week was about a shooting spree in California. The news was disturbing, not so much because of the number of victims, but because of crazy randomness of the whole event.
The protagonist was a 22 year old name Elliot Rodger. As best as journalists can determine, the event began when he stabbed three roommates – all three of whom died from the wounds. He then drove around town shooting at pedestrians and running into two bicyclists with his car. After crashing his car, he apparently shot himself in the head. Counting the shooter, a total of 7 people were killed and 13 people were injured. This kind of violence for no apparent reason is deeply shocking and disturbing. How do we make sense of this kind of evil?
It seems to me that the authentic Catholic way of responding to this sort of evil is to blame the person, but with great mercy. It is easy to fall into the temptation of blaming what happened on things other than the person: state gun laws, Hollywood movies, the person’s classmates, his parents, his family life, or mental illness. If we write off the incident by saying “he was crazy”, we are blaming what happened on mental illness.
Sometimes it happens that a person just snaps and does something violent in the heat of anger or on the spur of the moment. The person is still responsible for that choice to some degree. There is always a moment where anger is knocking at the door and we choose to let it in. In this particular case, there was evidence that anger had been living in the man’s heart for a very long time. He had been harboring feelings of pride and anger, nourishing them and encouraging them to grow, apparently as a way to cope with the hurt and alienation and loneliness that he felt. He had been planning to do something like this for some time, a fact described in a very long e-mail manifesto he sent out just before taking action. The fact that he had a plan – something he had been thinking about and developing for some time – makes what happened even more evil and morally reprehensible.
At the same time, though, we need to see his actions with eyes of mercy. Mental illness might have contributed to his decision, as well as his family and the world around him. We all contribute to a coldness and lack of love in this world. We are also partly responsible for a culture of violence in our country. Men and women with weapons: soldiers, gunslingers, lethal secret agents, and smash-happy super-people are our national heroes and the heroes of our collective fantasy world. From the time we are very little, we have been fed the image that violence solves problems. What happened in California was a personal sin, but was also a symptom of a disease that infects our country and our human world.
Jesus has already given us the answer to this problem. Jesus has shown us that we must sacrifice ourselves for others instead of sacrificing others for ourself. This attitude needs to reach every part of our lives: our thoughts, our words, our way of driving the car, our way of talking to our spouse, our way of dealing with hurt and pain. Until we are willing to let go of our pride and anger, and until we are more willing to suffer hurt than to hurt others, the human race not have peace.
A final question is whether or not the Catholic Church believes that Elliot Rodger is in Hell because of what he did. The answer is simple but inconclusive. The Catholic Church believes that Elliot Rodger deserves to be in Hell for what he did. A single mortal sin is so extremely serious that it deserves Hell. Stabbing a person with a knife just once, or driving into a person on a bike on purpose are both sufficiently evil to qualify as mortal sins. Tallying up the things we know that he did there is more than enough in there to deserve Hell.
At the same time, we are not able to say that he is in Hell. The reason is that Jesus Christ suffered and died for Elliot Rodger’s sins; Jesus already shed His blood for everything that he did, not only the horrible things that got on the news, but all the things he ever did in his life. Despite all his sins, he could still go to Heaven because Jesus died for him.
Where is the dividing line between this great mercy and our great evil? Christianity finds the dividing line in the human heart, and specifically the state of the heart at the person’s last moment. The last moment is very important because it sets our trajectory. If we are cut off from God at that moment, we will be cut off from Him forever. If, mired in the deepest sin, our heart is reaching out towards God and crying for help, we believe that God will hear that cry.
No one knows exactly what was going on in Elliot Rodger’s heart at his last minute except for the Almighty, and so we have to leave that up to Him to decide. And we pray for sinner, so if you are reading this, please say a prayer for Elliot Rodger and for his victims. This, by the way, is the reason why I made sure to mention the shooter’s name in my post.