Making Meaning out of Mayhem

It’s been a few weeks since the tragedy in Tucson and the initial frenzy to place blame has given way to some more sober reflection and thoughtful attempts to place the events that Saturday in a larger context.

I came across this essay today by Rochelle Gurstein. Riffing off of the coincidence that Christina Green was born on 9/11, Gurstein puzzles over various attempts to make sense of it all.

The horrific mass shooting, I am supposed to tell myself, was nothing more than the act of a lunatic, signifying nothing, utterly absurd. And this is how Representative Giffords’s forum with its homey name, “Congress on Your Corner,” that terror-filled Saturday morning is starting to feel, now that providence, fate, and finally, cause-and-effect relationships have lost their powers of elucidation. All we are left with is the standard, all-service, therapeutic explanation of mental illness…

Gurstein resists the attempts to make some connection between the coincidence of Christina’s birth, observing that had she grown up and gone into politics, that might have provided an context or explanation for her life choices. She also is critical of efforts on left and right to connect the events in Tucson with political rhetoric or violence in the media. At the end of the article, she even opposes the desire of Christina’s father to grasp some larger meaning from the donation of her organs.

Gurstein’s ruminations are challenging, especially in light of the universal human effort to make meaning out of life and out of events. And it offers an interesting perspective from which to examine another exchange, this one between Mark Ralls and Melinda Hellenberg. Hellenberg, writing in Politics Daily, argues that Christians should not label mental illness as evil:

Yet it’s the Christian underpinnings of my view of evil, in a world in which we do have free will, and sin, which in all cases involves a choice, that makes it impossible for me to ever see those who suffer from schizophrenia as an embodiment of moral evil. We don’t know for sure that Loughner has schizophrenia, though his paranoia and references to “mind control” are classic markers. But those who are so afflicted haven’t chosen their delusions and hallucinations; a stand-out even in the pantheon of dreadful diseases, theirs is an illness no one would choose.

I found her analysis somehow wrong, but couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I read Mark Ralls. Building on the Augustinian notion of evil as a privation of the good, Ralls articulates the conception of evil as a “tear in the fabric of creation.” He goes on to point out that in Loughner’s fascination with nihilism. Then he shifts to an observation about our culture’s embrace of nothingness:

Consider something as silly – and seemingly harmless — as “Reality TV.” Shows like “The Jersey Shore” not only make light of terrible life choices. They glorify the wasted life. They propagate the cultural myth that our lives lack purpose. As Christians fail to counter this myth with prophetic utterance and interceding prayer, we are complicit in the cultivation of troubled young hearts and minds.

With Ralls, I agree that naming evil is among the most important tasks of Christian theologians and communities; to name it, not only in the choices of individuals, but in structures and institutions like inadequate mental health. He concludes:

Melinda Henneberger is right. We must not personify evil and casually ascribe it to someone else. Yet Barack Obama is more right. We must dare to speak of evil when we encounter it. Otherwise, we have no chance of recognizing it when it comes to “sleep in our bed, to eat at our table.”

Reading the three essays together is an instructive lesson in theodicy.

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