In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, through hashtags and in the quiet of our hearts, we seek to identify with slain French cartoonists and policemen. “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis Ahmed” not only serve as rallying cries—a way to publicly condemn a heinous act of terror and to stand in solidarity with its brave victims—but also reflect our desire for moral beauty; we want to be brave ourselves, to be on the side of right, to be people of justice.
I’m uncomfortable with terrorists being, in any way, empathetically human, God’s image-bearers, because I’m deeply uncomfortable with admitting that I, in any way, share in depravity and brokenness with a terrorist.Tellingly, in the face of such palpable evil, we tend to see the disfigured extreme of those we already consider our enemies. Those on the left might see, in such tragedy, the ugly extreme of the right— they blame severe religious conservatism or income inequality or lack of education. People on the right might see the ugly extreme of the left— chastising those who shut down offensive speech (through speech codes or trigger warnings) or who demand open immigration. What few of us see in perpetrators of evil is the ugly extreme of ourselves. It is all too painful, humiliating, and threatening to admit that we, ourselves, are capable of inexcusable evil.
My sister visited Ground Zero when she was a new mother. I asked her what it was like for her to be there and she said that she felt really angry–rage against the injustice and atrocity that had happened there. She (rightly) uttered some curse words about the terrorists. But, a little later in the conversation, when we were talking about Osama Bin Laden, she paused and, almost to herself, said sadly, “he was someone’s little boy once.” Her aside stuck with me for weeks. It bugged me. It made me mad.
My sister does not have a schmaltzy bone in her body; she’s cosmopolitan and sarcastic and revels in moments of hilariously-timed irreverence. So (try as I might) I couldn’t shake off her brief comment as over-sentimentality. Her love for her own son allowed her to see the humanity, the stark, naked vulnerability of a monster who she’d cursed about a few minutes before. Her comment bothered me because I knew she was onto something. In identifying the humanity of a global terrorist, she named not only the image of God in a mass-murderer but also the reality of evil inside of me. I’m uncomfortable with terrorists being, in any way, empathetically human, God’s image-bearers, because I’m deeply uncomfortable with admitting that I, in any way, share in depravity and brokenness with a terrorist.
To be clear, by identifying the humanity in terrorists and saying that we all are capable of atrocity is not meant to excuse acts of terrorism or minimize the evil that’s been committed. But the very fact that such a disclaimer is necessary, the very fact that naming humanity’s shared collective disorder might therefore belittle viciousness or remove culpability reveals what’s at issue: we can often assume that if we, ourselves, are capable of it, then it must not be that bad. At root, many of us, often subconsciously, believe that we are basically good and that following our “bliss” will lead us to beauty and not brutality. I am not saying that we need to excuse or downplay evil through some kind of psychological profile of terrorists or empathetic reading of their actions. Nor am I saying that we ought not combat terrorism. I am saying, instead, that we must take evil far more seriously than we do. And that we must begin by looking at the evil inside ourselves.
In an NPR report, the former lawyer of Cherif Kouachi, one of the Paris terrorists, was quoted as saying that Cherif, as a younger man was “more victim than perpetrator,” a “lost child,” scared and confused, “over his head.” He said, with shock, that he could scarcely believe that that same kid, along with his brother, Said, and others, would be capable of such evil. As a Christian, I would confess that anyone, including myself, is capable of atrocious evil. But if I’m honest, I often don’t actually believe that. And yet, to the extent that I underestimate my own capacity for sin, I also diminish my capacity for gratitude, for experiencing God’s grace, and for extending forgiveness, grace, and understanding to others around me.
I have a friend getting a PhD who teaches a section of undergraduates. He mentioned to me that what strikes him about his students is their strong sense that they are on the “right side of history.” They are not relativists who see the world as morally neutral—there are good guys and bad guys are and they, decidedly, are part of Team Good Guy. My friend realized that, for his student’s worldview to hold together, there must always be a culture war (often the newest wave of civil rights) so that his students can be on the “right side” of it, always the ones pushing for righteous change against the bigoted and backwards who would keep us in darkness. In my own urban, progressive neighborhood where notions of moral absolutism would likely be balked at, many of my neighbors seem nonetheless as confident in their own righteousness as some of the more moralistic, holier-than-thou religious types I have known (and, at times, been.)
And yet, Christian theology, whether it be in Calvin’s (mostly misunderstood) notion of total depravity or farther back in Augustine’s idea of the bound will (the will “turned in on itself”) or even farther back when Paul, without guile or false humility, calls himself the “chief” of sinners, will not let us off so easily. In his book, Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller describes the complicated reality we espouse as Christians, “Sin infects us all, and so we cannot simply divide the world into the heroes and the villains. (And if we did, we would certainly have to count ourselves among the latter as well as the former.) Without an understanding of the gospel…we will be demonizing something that isn’t bad enough to explain the mess we are in; and we will be idolizing something that isn’t powerful enough to get us out of it.” We cannot tidily divide the world into saints and sinners or locate evil “out there,” outside ourselves, in the other, in the territory of the “bad guys” where we cannot be implicated. We can never congratulate ourselves for being clearly on the ‘right side’ of history, hermetically sealed off from the encroachment of evil.
Perhaps, in a culture that, whichever side of the culture war one lands on, commits itself to neat categories that reify our own self-righteousness, one of the most countercultural realities of the Christian faith is our confession that the line between the good guys and bad guys isn’t so starkly clear and, in fact, (to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn) runs through each of our hearts. Je suis Charlie and Ahmed, but also Je suis Cherif and Said.
And honestly, that feels atrocious to even admit. Yet, when I read the story of the crucifixion, I see the crowd calling for the exchange of Barabbas for Jesus. And I know, in the story, I’m Barabbas. I’m the sinner exchanged for Christ, but though that’s a valid theological point, with the ink of scripture long-dried, it doesn’t quite sting as it should. I’m too far removed from the first century to feel much offense at being identified with Barabbas. But Barabbas was a terrorist, one, we are told (in Mk 15), who committed murder in the hope of political insurrection. If I replace Barabbas, in my mind, with the French attackers or 9/11 hijackers or Osama Bin Laden, the scripture becomes, suddenly, far more offensive and far less comfortable. I identify not with the righteous savior but with the terrorist for whom he was exchanged and with the crowd that called for Christ’s crucifixion over justice for a militant and murderer. And yet, this is the offensive gospel that we claim to believe. Christ came, not for the righteous, but for Barabbas. For the French terrorists. For me.