Soon after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, President Obama gave a speech in which he called the violence “an act of evil.”
These are words we rarely hear today. We don’t use them very often because there’s a vagueness about them, an abstract quality with philosophical, religious and perhaps even superstitious overtones.
But listening to the President I was struck that – more than terrorism, racism, homophobia, or madness – those words capture for me the awful reality of the new and sinister malevolence stalking our country today.
Evil has been defined as the complete absence of good, or a profound darkness that’s totally devoid of light. And that fits for me. Mass murders like Orlando and Dallas are empty of reason and humanity.
Yet there are small but hopeful rays of light in the ways many affected communities have responded – captured in images of both black and white Americans standing shoulder to shoulder, sometimes hand in hand.
Just over a year ago, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21 year old white supremacist, slipped into a prayer service at the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and opened fire, killing nine African American parishioners. As he was being arrested the next day, he stated that he’d wanted to incite a race war.
During his bond hearing several members of the victims’ families told Roof that they forgave him.
So it seems that while we Americans are known all too well for violence, and justly so, we can also add “forgiving” to the vocabulary that describes us.
At the same time, we can work harder to respect and embrace difference, while rejecting vengeance. In so doing, we shine a blinding light into the dark corners where evil hides.
I like to think of the battle against evil this way. In mythology there was a hero by the name of Sisyphus whom the gods condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain every day, only to have it roll back down at night. This meant that Sisyphus would have to start over every day at the bottom of the mountain, again and again.
But instead of imagining Sisyphus giving in to despair, French writer Albert Camus suggests that we think of him as content anyway, because to be human is to be alive and eternally striving – like Sisyphus.
And like him, we may never conquer evil, but we must always keep trying.