Twenty-six people were killed Sunday morning as they prayed in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Five days before that, eight people were killed when a terrorist, who claimed allegiance to ISIS, drove a truck along a pedestrian path in New York City.
A month before, a sniper killed 59 people as they attended an outdoor concert in Las Vegas.
Most people, in the wake of these kinds of evil acts, ask themselves why such things happen. People become fixated with a search for answers. Media reports often reflect this: seeming to search for some clue, or some hint, that might point at the reason such things happen.
Pope St. John Paul II said that the search for answers is a part of being human. “From the beginning, humanity has known the tragedy of evil and has struggled to grasp its roots and to explain its causes,” he wrote. “Evil is not some impersonal, deterministic force at work in the world. It is the result of human freedom. Freedom, which distinguishes human beings from every other creature on earth, is ever present at the heart of the drama of evil. Evil always has a name and a face: the name and face of those men and women who freely choose it.”
We cannot know whether every person who commits some act of terrorism, acts in freedom. At times, psychological or spiritual illnesses can distort and limit freedom, and our very perceptions of reality. To be sure, some people who commit acts of violence do so because they are sick. But we can also be sure that evil always begins with some choice, by the perpetrator or by another — a choice to ignore the demand of love, and the obligations of truth. And the Evil One, Satan, is always preying upon the weakness of fallen human nature.
We rarely get satisfying answers to why particular acts of evil occur. Perhaps this means we are asking the wrong question. Instead of fixating on why evil happens, the Church calls
Catholics to ask what they can do in response to evil. How do we deal with the evil of the world? What is our response?
St. Paul puts it simply: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Jesus Christ taught the same. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.”
To overcome evil with good seems to be a nearly impossible challenge. To love our enemies seems even more difficult. This is especially true when we have been shaken by seemingly random acts of violence, which remind us that we can never know what strangers might seek to hurt us, or who our enemies are.
This means that our real obligation is to love selflessly and generously all those with whom we come into contact, and to trust that our love, because it is a share in God’s love, will be a part of Christ’s victory over evil.
To overcome evil with good is to value the dignity and beauty of every human person. To overcome evil with good is to work to build a culture which supports the common good, the flourishing of all. To overcome evil with good is to foster and call for a culture of peace. To overcome evil with good is to work for laws which promote dignity, freedom, and security. To overcome evil with good is to help build a “civilization of love.”
None of that is easy. All of it requires virtue and grace. And none of it can begin without prayer.
In fact, to overcome evil with good, our first step should always be prayer. We should pray for the victims and their families who are harmed by acts of violence, and we should pray for their salvation.
We should pray for the conversion of those who might commit such acts, that they will encounter the Lord’s mercy. We should pray that we might be instruments of peace and witnesses to love. And we should pray that God would bless our culture with peace.
We cannot deny that there is evil in this world. We cannot pretend that we have any certainty about our own safety and security. And we cannot ignore the sadness, weariness, and hopelessness that so many experience in the face of horrific acts of evil and violence.
But we need not be despondent. We need not be afraid. The love of the Lord overcomes all evil. Our goodness can overcome the evils that we face. And our prayers, earnest and sincere, are the first and most important step to “delivering us from evil.”