In one of John Steinbeck’s earliest novels, To A God Unknown, he tells the story of a young man whose wife dies suddenly and tragically. Joseph returns to his home shortly after the accident that kills Elizabeth, and he finds that the whole house reminds him of Elizabeth.
Her life was not merely the life of her organic body; her life was invested in the ways she had changed the world. She had set household items she used in their place, and so they still bore the mark of her life. Lives disappear slowly, one effect at a time. Steinbeck puts it like this:
“The clock wound by Elizabeth still ticked, storing in its spring the pressure of her hand, and the wool socks she had hung to dry over the stove were still damp. These were vital parts of Elizabeth that were not dead yet. Joseph pondered slowly over it—Life cannot be cut off quickly. One cannot be dead until the things he changed are dead. His effect is the only evidence of his life. While there remains even a plaintive memory, a person cannot be cut off, dead.”*
I’m not offering this as consolation to those who have lost someone they love, but as a warning. What’s true of those we love may be just as true of those whom we hate and fear: we become like what we worship, and we worship what we cherish in our hearts.
When people commit monstrous deeds, it is hard not to turn and stare in horror. Think about how hard it is to pull your eyes from the television even when none of the news is new, just the same breathless commentary about what we don’t yet know, what we still don’t understand about the latest act of terror.
When the monsters and their violence become our focus, they grow and become our gods. We’ve become very good at hurting one another, so of course we need to be vigilant. But it’s possible to take our fear too far, to let our natural reaction to sudden violence become a permanent policy of suspicion and terror. Then we are in danger of worshiping our would-be enemies. We don’t worship them joyfully, but we worship them anyway, the way we might worship any vengeful, unstable, wrathful gods: looking over our shoulders and fearing their power. If the best we can come up with is invective against immigrants, suspicion of people unlike us, and perpetually heightened security measures, it starts to look like our hearts are full of fear.
The violent acts of angry young men are like the clock that Elizabeth wound; the violence is the effect of their lives. Killing the bodies of our enemies does not make them disappear. We must also choose to forgive them, in a refusal to let their violence rule our hearts. The alternative is to cherish their violence, silently fondling it in our minds and enshrining it in policies founded on fear.
We’ll always need good laws, but more than anything we need to strive to become good people. People who reject the idolatry of fear. People who refuse to prostrate ourselves before the monsters on our televisions. People who choose to worship love, in the belief that the antidote to violence is not more violence but the perfect love that casts out all fear.
*John Steinbeck, To A God Unknown, (New York: Penguin, 1995) 136.
David O’Hara is a professor in the department of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at Augustana College, an ELCA Lutheran college in South Dakota, where he directs the philosophy program. His most recent book was on C.S. Lewis' environmental vision. O’Hara also contributes to the Chronicle of Higher Educationand blogs here.
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