Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
What ultimately happens to people who commit heinous crimes, then suddenly say they believe in God and have no idea why they did such awful things?
-- C., via email
I was thinking about a heinous crime myself even before your thoughtful and painful question reached me. It occurred recently in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee very close to where I grew up. A 12-year-old girl was stabbed and nearly killed by two young classmates. The attackers apparently were trying to prove to Slenderman -- a spooky fictional Internet character they considered real -- that they were worthy of joining his child-killing crew.
Two elements drew me into the vortex of violence in this story. The first was that the would-be killers were 12-year-old girls. Their profiles didn't match those of most knife-wielding criminals. These were the kind of kids you see giggling and taking selfies, not reaching for kitchen knives to stab a friend. I'm always bewildered by violence, but this story made no sense in any way I could comprehend.
Secondly, I was drawn to this story by the fact that I grew up in the area and encountered a murder case there as a boy. A friend from across the alley was murdered by his father, who killed his entire family before taking his own life. I can't recall everything I should about that day. I didn't sleep well for a long time.
I also remember being traumatized by reports of a local mass murderer who made lampshades out of the skin of his victims (and who was the inspiration for the lead character in "Silence of the Lambs"). I wasn't sure for a very long time whether he could find me. The recent stabbing awakened the part of my heart where terror lies only partially hidden by time.
If you're asking whether violent criminals can escape punishment in hell when they die by feigning repentance, God is in charge of that. My question is: How did they become capable of such deeds? What happened to those girls in Wisconsin that leached out of them every ounce of compassion for their friend? Poverty is not an explanation. These girls were not poor. They don't seem to have been abused. Mental illness is the explanation du jour, but mentally ill people aren't usually violent, and if so, their violence is often directed inward.
It's culturally attractive to blame society for not devoting more resources to caring for the mentally ill. I'm supportive of all efforts to rehabilitate or restrain those among us whose personal compasses have lost track of moral north. However, the spiritual connotation of evil still means something to me. Evil still is an important word in explaining what those two girls did to their innocent friend.
Evil is choosing a path away from God, just as goodness is choosing a path toward God. The habituation to evil -- or goodness -- involves many small choices. We don't become either saintly or demonic in one step. We get there by many small steps that ultimately decide our fate in the world, and I think, in the world to come.
The Book of Exodus, in describing the evil Pharaoh, says his heart was hardened. I think of winter days as a boy in Milwaukee when I'd go outside without mittens. Eventually, my fingers became numb from the cold. Our souls react to the evil we do the same way. We move from feeling the pain of others to not feeling anything for them.
The biblical idea that God hardened Pharaoh's heart is just another way of saying that at a certain point we're no longer in control of our moral choices. We're frozen -- morally hardened by our own past cruelties.
As for why some people choose evil day by day until it's too late, I cannot know. What I do know is what God said to Cain before he murdered his brother, Abel: "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." (Genesis 4:6-7) We can overcome a predilection to evil. We can step over the demon at the door and choose finally to walk into the light.
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