Who’s to Blame for Human Depravity?

If ever you find yourself about to be eaten by an alligator, or sat upon by a hippopotamus, it is probably not a good idea to appeal to the better angels of their nature in hopes of securing your release.  In the first place, there are no better angels lurking about the animal world, nature never having gotten around to inscribing beasts with rational souls.  In the second place, they are behaving exactly as denizens of the jungle and swamp are supposed to behave, which is why your destiny may well be their dinner.  What else can one expect of creatures so utterly unlike us that neither the image nor the likeness of God will ever be found in them?

The light of reason illumines only creatures of sense and sensibility, to use the language of Jane Austen; so give it a good and brisk workout from time to time.  God intended the exercise to flood the mind with all that elevates us above the animals.  However cute the cocker spaniel, or cozy the koala bear, their hearts will never soar beyond the stars, nor respond with tender mercy to the anguished cries of the poor.  But our hearts may well be moved to do so.  Yes, and free to refuse as well.  And in that refusal we see unmistakable evidence of that terrifying compliment, citing a lapidary phrase out of C.S. Lewis, paid to us by a God who takes so seriously the freedom he confers that he is willing even to run the risk of men spitting in his eye.  If to be free is to have the capacity for making wise and virtuous choices, pursuant to an end far beyond mere appetite, it is at the same time the right to lose oneself in sin and damnation.

This is not a truth of peripheral importance to the Christian faith.  Of every man made by God, Lewis reminds us, we must say, This also is Thou: neither is this Thou.  What can that possibly mean but that man, even before his bearing the mark of Cain, bore the image and likeness of God.  And that the resemblance is not anything we can possibly erase; that even in choosing to go to hell, we shall carry the connection with us straight into the pit.  “Simple faith leaps to this fact with astonishing ease,” says Lewis.  “I once talked to a continental pastor who had seen Hitler, and had, by all human standards, good cause to hate him.  ‘What did he look like?’ I asked.  ‘Like all men,’ he replied.  ‘That is, like Christ.’”

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Which brings me to the case of Ariel Castro, whose conviction last week for the kidnapping and abuse of three women held captive for ten years in his Cleveland home, will put him behind bars for the rest of his life, plus another thousand years thrown in for good measure.  Followed by, who knows, perhaps an eternity in hell.  So is he no better than a beast?  A wild animal for whom the sufferings of three helpless human beings meant nothing at all?   For he appears to have taken obscene and protracted pleasure in such pain and humiliation as he was able to inflict over and over again.

“These people are trying to paint me as a monster,” he complained after a trial at which no end of evidence was found to suggest something along those very lines.  “I’m not a monster.  I’m sick.  My sexual problem,” he told the world, “it’s so bad on my mind.”

And yet he would insist on the essential normality of his life.  Despite high levels of porn, endless masturbatory fantasies, escalating violence and rape, Castro refused to see himself as other than “a happy person inside,” whose home environment could hardly have been more harmonious.  A regular churchgoer, his neighbors tell us.   As for the sex he forced upon them, that too turns out to have been a hoax.  “Most of the sex that went on in the house,” he explained, “and probably all of it, was consensual.”

Where does one begin to parse the depraved state of such a man?  Well, for starters, by not calling him a beast or a monster.  But a man whose plunge into the depths of savagery reminds us of those standards of right and wrong, decency and compassion, that apply equally to every human being on the planet.   No sentient creature is exempt from the constitution of being.  Because, once again, even the most wicked among us are made in God’s image.  Redeemed, too, by the Blood of the Lamb.  Strip all that away, removing the very template of the Godhead graven into the soul of everyman, and you have no reason to complain of its defilement.  Once you pull the rug out from under any standard of moral judgment applicable to all, the ground beneath gives way and, all at once, you find yourself powerless to condemn the excesses of evil and despicable men.  The reason we do not curse the animals when they kill us is because they are not accountable for their atrocities.  In fact, they haven’t committed any.

“We talk of wild animals,” writes Chesterton in his wise and inimitable way; “but man is the only wild animal.  It is man that has broken out.  All other animals are tame animals; following the rugged respectability of the tribe or type.  All other animals are domestic animals; man alone is ever undomestic, either as a profligate or a monk … it is exactly where biology leaves off that all religion begins.”

So where do we locate the problem of evil?  Is there anyone out there truly responsible for the evil that leaves mis-shapen the moral universe?  Whose train wreck is this?  Will the profligate ones please step forward?  A civilized people mustn’t be held hostage to those who prefer killing other people to the observance of the moral law.  What, after all, is the root meaning of religion—re-ligare—but that one’s life be bound back to a point of origin beyond the self.  Uproot that principle and what you are left with is the triumph of the imperial self, the self-centered-self, what Cardinal Newman called “the outlaw conscience,” whose exercise enables one to spread carnage and chaos everywhere.

Do we really want to provide a pass allowing the bad guys to avoid having to face the consequences of the evil they do?  Of course not.  But only if we begin by locating the problem squarely before the twisted minds and wills of those who do evil, whose deeds of darkness only the most abject moral idiot would seek to mitigate or deny.  It is the only tenable position one can take when confronted with evil.  Whether on a colossal scale  (Adolph Hitler, for instance, our all-time favorite hobgoblin); or in the case of Mr. Castro, whose wickedness, while hideous in every way, was at least confined to a single dwelling in Cleveland, Ohio.

The origin of evil, therefore, is to be found in the resolution of those who seem determined on doing ill to others, or to themselves, or to God.  And it is the only sustainable position one can take.  Why?  Because, as Chesterton tells us, “in referring evil back to the wrong use of the will, it declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will.  Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate.”  And were we to fall into the trap of nobody taking blame for anything, we would once more find ourselves in a pre-Christian world, where dark and chthonic forces hold sway.  Where the only mantra that matters is the exculpatory cry—The devil made me do it!   Yet only he would be the winner in such a world.  Nor would it be a victory that any one of us would care to celebrate.   


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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