Some friends and I were smoking cigars and chatting on the porch of a Brooklyn house during a summer evening in 2010. One of the friends recommended that I read Dostoevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov. Education had taught me that the book was a classic. Experience had taught me that not all “classics” are all that good. But I took up the recommendation, having no anticipation of just how profound the book would be.
The central characters of this novel rival those of Shakespeare in their ability to express very real struggles within ourselves. Dostoevsky anticipated the end results of atheism and ideology decades before Communism swept Russia. The Brothers Karamazov is perhaps the greatest defense of Christianity in world literature.
Among the major characters was Father Zosima, a beloved elderly monk who served as a mentor. His grasp of original sin, and of our interconnectedness, brought him to the logical conviction that the sins of others, even the most heinous, are also our very own.
It can be rather easy to read, or to have some basic conceptual understanding of, profound truths. It can be very easy repeat the words of a saint, saying “I’m a sinner” while retaining a conviction that is as shallow as the mind. A slight self-awareness is all that’s necessary for anyone recall personally committed sins, whereas a deeper awareness is needed to remind us of responsibilities to one another. And so I had read Father Zosima’s words, and agreed with them, while retaining the notion that every man is an island.
“…in truth we are each responsible to all for all, it’s only that men don’t know this. If they knew it, the world would be a paradise at once.”
The words of Father Zosima returned to me some years later, when the news broke of a tragic event on the other side of the country.
The Isla Vista massacre happened on May 23, 2014. It was not the first time I had read about a mass killing in the news, and it certainly would not be the last. Though I had been a Christian for seven years, and Catholic for two, it was still easy enough for me to dismiss perpetrators of such events as “others,” insisting that the deeds of a stranger spelled my innocence.
Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator, had posted videos of himself, ranting in his BMW, during the days leading up to the massacre which ended in his suicide. The videos began trending on the internet in the wake of the event. Morbid curiosity called upon me to watch them, and so I did.
Rodger’s ranting was, of course, incredibly self-absorbed (though most all of us have given to self-pity at some point). His words were those of a self-described “good person” who was fed up with rejection. But rather than deploring him, which I typically would have done, I began to wonder: How did this person, who began life with the blank slate of a newborn infant, develop into a young man who resorted to murder? Where did he pick up the belief that being a virgin at the age of twenty-two was so shameful?
All of us pick up beliefs, at birth onward, from our surrounding influences. Some of us are more fortunate than others in the circumstances we were born into. Many of us, over the course of our lives, are granted the wisdom to choose healthier surroundings, whereas others don’t. Combinations vary from person to person, and we can’t help from being influenced.
Elliot Rodger grew up in an affluent household, the son of a Hollywood filmmaker. His parents divorced when he was seven. He was exposed to pornography at the age of twelve, a very typical age. He claimed to have been bullied and outcasted.
How does a consumerist culture, which practically all of us have some degree of participation in, contribute to wanting which brings frustration? What does an overly sexualized culture, which so many of us indulge in, teach young men and women about their worth? How many of us realize the alienating effects of dismissing any person as “awkward” or “weird”?
Elliot Rodger had picked up warped beliefs from his surroundings, and those around him also had their own surroundings, with surroundings which keep on going until the entire world gets enveloped. And so I wondered: What have I done (before becoming a Christian), or what do I still do (even as a Christian), which contributes to the utter ruin of others?
The answer is “plenty,” and the indulgences of one contribute to the brainwashing of all. And even as a Christian, with ready access to church teaching, I still contribute to that gross sum of evil in our world.
There are sins which appear (hopefully, at least) rather obvious. There are also sins which appear much less obvious, or get overlooked entirely. We sin in what we do, what we fail to do, and the gravity of sin’s sum is far too great to be overcome by human effort. We may be innocent in that we cannot help from being conditioned from childhood onward. We are guilty in that we go on to make so many lies our own, and then live our lives by them. God alone knows the true degree of culpability for each.
Elliot Rodger had cited sexual frustration to justify his acts. Sexual sins can often be dismissed as “private matters,” acts which only affect one or two people who directly participate in a given deed. But the things done behind closed doors very much contribute to the public atmosphere. How often do consumers of pornography realize that consumption gives incentive to producers, or that rampant consumption has misled performers into believing that porn will give them status? What has the standardization of birth control, and along with it the popular idea of noncommittal and sterile sex as casual recreation, done to set up expectations for young persons across the world?
Sins of omission, and those which might easily be dismissed as “small matters,” also contribute to that sum which Elliot Rodger drew from. How often do we look past a person because their looks, job titles, items collected, or social aptitudes aren’t deemed “good enough”? What does casual gossip do to contribute to the normalizing of alienation? How often do we neglect others while burying our faces in our phones? How many people, in need of love, have good enough reason to believe that church communities would only shun them? If a person isn’t loved by those in the Church, how are they going to believe in the love of God?
Questions such as these can go on and on, becoming more specific, until soon enough all of us get implicated in contributing to each and every crime that is ever committed. Rather than passing judgment, I finished watching the video facing a grim reality which Father Zosima had so eloquently asserted: Elliot Rodger had pulled the trigger, but I was also guilty of the crime!
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”
I read the Brothers Karamazov for a second time earlier this year. As I read the words of Father Zosima, my thoughts had returned to the Isla Vista massacre.
Elliot Rodger has gained a hero’s status among many similarly frustrated men in the online incel (involuntary celibate) community in the years since. He has been vilified as a murderous misogynist by others. I wonder if it ever occurs to those who would gladly vilify him, and likewise hold favorable views upon libertinism, that Rodger committed a monstrous act because he believed the very same lies of that libertinism. The frustrated men in the incel community who lionize Rodger have also been persuaded by those very lies, and naturally resent being dubbed as “failures.” What we believe matters.
Elliot Rodger had described himself as a “good person” in the videos. So many “good people” are manipulated into believing, and propagating, all kinds of nonsense (just look at gender theories these days) to remain insistent that they are “good people” on the “right side of history.” So much destruction is waged because there are so many “good people,” those who believe in different things, and even those who believe the very same things!
Having grown up Muslim, I was raised with the belief that so long as the number of my good deeds outweighed the number of my bad deeds (haram) that I would be a “good person.” The terrible events of our world are proof that such a belief is naïve. A strength of the Christian faith is a paradox, insistence that the world will not be healed by “good people,” but through those whom God can work through because they acknowledge themselves to be “sinners.” We begin the process of recovering our innocence by first recognizing our guilt.
Though we each are guilty, we’re likewise very blessed for having a Church to confess our many sins to, led priests eager to tell us “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Though we do indulge in sins, we’re called to partake in the Sacraments, instituted by Christ Himself, so that even the very worst of us can always be made Temples of God. Though we are all part of the problem, the hope of Man is the Church’s invitation to be a part of the solution.