12 October 2012
If evil is real
Last week, thousands of mourners crammed into Manchester Cathedral to join in the funeral services of PCs Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone.
These officers had been shot in an act that deserves the epithet ‘evil’. There was no motive, no mitigating circumstance, no meaning – just the merciless ending of two young, promising, hopeful lives.
Evil disturbs us. We can comprehend wicked acts if there are attenuating or at least explanatory circumstances. We may not fully understand, let alone sympathise with them, but reasoning can at least help us accommodate them within our moral universe.
Unprovoked and meaningless acts of pure destruction, however, such as these murders, upset us profoundly, and in more than just the obvious, emotional way. This kind of evil can burn a hole through the bottom of our world, not simply in alerting us to the fact that there are people ‘out there’ ready to do such things, but that there is a way of seeing the world that utterly negates all that is good.
These murders captured national headlines. Others do not.
A report to be released next week on the future of English cathedrals recounts how a popular man was kicked to death in Lichfield a few years ago. It horrified and perturbed the community. Such raw, mindless acts of evil don’t happen ‘here’; when they do, our worlds are re-coloured.
What was curious about that tragedy, as with these, was the manner in which the cathedral, then Lichfield, last week Manchester, was judged the right place to host the funeral service. In one respect, this is no surprise. It is still within our cultural DNA that we should seek churches for funerals. But in another it is striking. A humanist ‘celebration of life’ was just not enough when tragedy had intruded so horribly.
In his recent book, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, Francis Spufford observes that it is not awe, so often the emotion of first and last resort when it comes to discussions of religion, which brings people to their knees. It is desperation. We pray because there is nowhere else to go, no one left to speak to, nothing else to do.
It is from this nadir that we might hesitantly, uncertainly emerge blinking into the light of faith and future. That journey is painful; its success not guaranteed. But if evil is real – if innocent brave policewomen can be killed for no reason, or a young, charismatic, loving rabbi tortured to death in public – then we cannot pretend otherwise. As is often observed, the only path to resurrection is one that goes the way of Skull Hill.
Nick Spencer, Research Director, Theos Think Tank