God Squad: Faith in light of Aurora

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God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

So often, deadly attacks like the one in Colorado are perpetrated by someone who is mentally ill. Let's leave aside the discussion of gun control. One thing that always haunts me is the line where evil ends (or does it?) and madness begins. If a deranged person commits a terrible act, where is the ethical aspect? If this person is actually unable to connect to his basic humanity, what is the meaning of his actions? Is he evil? If not, has a good person been trapped in his own mind simply by faulty wiring? How does that jibe with the relationship of all of us with God? Of course, such a person must be brought to justice, and perhaps punished, but can he be blamed for his actions? Sometimes I'm tempted to agree with the people of ancient times, who said the insane were possessed by demons. At least that makes sense of behavior that otherwise seems outside of the realm of moral choice. Even if the answer remains a mystery, I think we're obligated to ask the question.

-- J., via email

 This is all I know and all I believe and all I hope:

Praying matters.

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Praying for the dead and injured following an attack like the one in Colorado is a powerful act of love, not, as some skeptics believe, just an impotent spiritual reflex in response to mass death. In a profound way, praying is the only way we have to link up with each other and express our compassion, grief and sickness of the soul.

Knowing that I was not praying alone gave me comfort, and I know from speaking to victims' families after other catastrophes, that all our prayers might bring a measure of comfort to them. Our prayers are the way we affirm that the killer in Aurora is not like us, and that the victims are not alone. We're together in a world where we still believe that goodness will win out over evil -- even though goodness was just defeated before our grieving eyes. For prayer to accomplish all this is not a small thing. It's a great thing that we cast out against great evil.

Pray for the victims in Aurora.

It's OK to feel lucky.

Many survivors of the Colorado massacre, and many of us, are feeling guilty. We say very quietly, "There but for the grace of God go I." It's OK to feel lucky that sudden death missed us. "Luck" is the right word. We're not more worthy than the victims. We're not more righteous than the victims. We're not more beloved of God than the victims. We're just luckier, and that's the way life is. Why them and not me? This is not a real question because sheer dumb luck has no reasons.

Mentally ill killers are not evil.

There are different types of people who kill the innocent. There are dictators, who murder innocent people as a part of their ideology. They are truly evil because they kill as a part of a purely evil lust for power. It's not just the scope of their killing that makes them evil, but the fact that they know precisely what they're doing and the carnage it will cause -- and they don't care.

Mentally ill people are not evil, although they may commit evil acts. Their actions are morally reprehensible, but such people are not morally or legally responsible for their actions because they don't understand the moral consequences of their actions. They don't understand the difference between good and bad. They can't feel the pain of others. They don't know what's real or what is right. They can be held accountable for evil deeds, but they're not responsible moral agents. They need help and they need to be restrained, but blaming them is like blaming a lion for killing an antelope.

God is about the hope, not the horror.

God never promised us a life without burdens. God only promised that our blessings would exceed our burdens. Without God, Aurora is how the universe really looks. With God, Aurora still exists, but so does the hope for healing. I love this passage from Revelation 21:4 (which echoes the sentiments about God in the Book of Isaiah, 25:8), envisioning a bright "new heaven and a new earth": "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying. Neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." (Revelation 21:4)

This is all I know and all I believe and all I hope.

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