Since Oct. 7, I have been trying to understand something incomprehensible.
There is a lot that has happened since that bloody date that is incomprehensible, but I don’t mean the planned slaughter of civilians and innocent children — hatred gone mad and become inhumane is not completely incomprehensible, for we see it daily: the sin is “ever before us,” as the psalmist says, though writ small.
History runs on rails of animosity gone murderous and that’s usually thanks to politicians or polemicists peddling dubious ideologies or, God forgive us, religious mouthpieces hawking their spittle-laced bromides against whomever they decide is evil and/or profane, “for the sake of the sacred.”
All of us are, in our ways, familiar with unbridled hatred; we even understand how it moves and lives and grows.
Without realizing it, we have become comfortably numb with observing (and thus living amid) sneering hate, all around. It’s usually rendered with just a thin enough coating of civility, or plausible deniability, to pass through our awareness prompting just a twinge in the gut or a frown on the forehead. We read it in editorial pages, hear it on punditry panels and of course observe it on social media (where any wannabe influencer with a following can feed his or her own dogs of prey a steady diet of barking hate with near-impunity), and we know that the negative ranting is what drives the economics of communications. The language of love may be consoling or uplifting but it just doesn’t get those subscriptions, those ratings or those “like” buttons popping like a dependable hit of hate, offered just when people really need it. A priest leads a Eucharistic procession in New York City? Just run to Twitter and find the nag you know will mock it, if that’s how you roll, or click on anyone else whose take you believe will affirm your own feelings for you. Hamas launches a slaughter on Israeli civilians? Well, just turn to the cable news channel that will say whatever you need to hear about that so you can sleep with a clear conscience.
God help you, though, if you’re looking for a voice to tell you anything beyond “killing civilians and babies is wrong, full stop.” It’s always wrong, no matter the circumstances.
And yet, in our shattered world, someone will always argue that in “this” case or “that” case — always their case — it’s justified.
Perhaps this burns me a bit because, up until 2012, I had (to my ever-living shame) managed to write my share of the “them and they” pieces, usually about politics. I’m not proud of it, and I am profoundly grateful for the day I suddenly came to understand that I was participating in a sick game, ruinous to my soul, and for the sake of something as lunatic and illusory as ideology — a most powerful and disorienting Strange God, one that leads people of faith into breaking the first commandment without ever realizing it, and encourages them to feel righteous about it, besides.
Theology and ideology rarely mix well. Often when blended ideology becomes an idolatry as poisonous to the spirit as hemlock, as destructively explosive to society as TNT. We are currently watching and worrying over the potency of this particularly lethal cocktail as it saturates Israel and Palestine and spills over to France and elsewhere.
None of that is incomprehensible, though. We’ve seen human horror, read human horror, watched and touched and smelled human horror in ways big and small. Human horror has touched each of us, to some degree, all our lives.
What is incomprehensible is watching someone on social media say to someone else (I will paraphrase, here): “for the sake of my god, I will kill you. I will kill all of you, for the sake of my god. Even though my loving and merciful god created all things, including you and including me, I will kill you for his sake.”
It’s beyond my ken. Why would a loving and merciful god ever want one created creature to slay another created creature for his sake? Yes, I know the Old Testament lines about killing one’s enemies; I’m aware of the psalm verse about smashing the skulls of infants, that ill-phrased, metaphorical call for “justice,” written by broken and imperfect humans — (the psalter remains the perfect reflection of the human condition in its every euphoric or awful excess) — but I’m also aware that such lines are not meant to be isolated but consumed within the whole counsel of Scripture, where they are countered by the greater, weightier and more consistent demand to love an enemy, to pray for the enemy’s good.
In a broken world, the Creator God recognizes that enemies will come, but that permitting oneself to have them means there are rules. It is good to have such rules; they’re there for the sake of the world, and our own souls. Anything else is, yes, incomprehensible.
Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News.