Emulating the Children of Darkness
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

These are very interesting readings. The first reading is especially interesting, for it gives us a small glimpse into some of the characteristics of those given over to evil. In this first reading, we read: “’When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain, and the Sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the ephah (22 litres), add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating! We will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!’”

In other words, those who are evil exploit the poor, and they are devious and underhanded in doing so. They lie. And, they are a source of scandal. They lead the poor and the weak into sin for their own profit. “We will buy the lowly for silver, the poor for a pair of sandals.” They tempt the poor to sell their soul, to give up their principles for certain temporal goods that they need. In other words, they have no regard for the character or moral identity of others. They don’t care that others may lose their soul. They value their own temporary prosperity over the salvation of another human being.

I think it is important to keep in mind that these characteristics not only exist on the individual or personal level, but can also exist on a social or cultural level. A culture can also be one that lures those who are weak in faith to sell their souls for the sake of temporal gain.

The Gospel reading today speaks of the cunning or shrewdness of the children of darkness—that they are more shrewd than the children of light.

This is interesting, because I’ve always said to my students that we in North America are very naïve when it comes to evil. Many of us don’t believe human beings can be evil, and I think there are a number of reasons for this. A great book to read on this subject is called The People of the Lie, by Dr. Scott Peck, who also wrote The Road Less Travelled.

The People of the Lie is all about people he’s encountered in his practice of psychiatry who, for lack of a better word, he refers to as “evil”. They are not psychotic or mentally ill. And the evil people he describes are not who we tend to think they are, like the common criminal or the one with tattoos and piercings all over, wearing an angry demeanor all the time. Rather, they are often the pillars of the community, well-dressed, white collar, with families, even Church going. He writes about how he eventually caught on to these kinds of people. It’s quite an eye opener and worth reading.

But there are reasons why we tend to deny evil and reduce it to a disease, or a condition caused by factors in a person’s environment or upbringing. I believe the principal reason is fear. If we can convince ourselves that evil is something genetic or in the brain, or if we can convince ourselves that it is environmental, a result of a certain upbringing, or a result of poverty, then it becomes something that we might eventually be able to control, either with an increase in taxes and social programs, or eventually with medication.

As a culture, we’ve also been influenced by the psychology of Behaviorism, which attempted to explain all behavior as determined by genetic factors and/or environment. Psychologist B. F Skinner was the founder of the school of Radical Behaviorism, and he explicitly denied the reality of free will. And if we deny free will, we deny the possibility that one can freely determine oneself to a course of action that is truly evil.

I remember reading an article on the murder of my good friend, the late Monsignor Tom Wells of Washington D.C. He was murdered on June 8th, 2000, by an unemployed tree trimmer who was living out of his van. He broke into the rectory to rob it, and after my friend did not show up to say Mass the following morning, the housekeeper went to check on him, only to find his dead body with a large number of stab wounds. The murderer was eventually caught and is now in prison. But I recall reading the comments from this forensic psychologist, Dr. Santon Samenow, and I was intrigued by what he was saying, so I ordered one of his books. He’s an expert on the criminal mind, and what I found so interesting is that he takes free choice very seriously. He is very critical of Behaviorism and the way we tend to regard criminal behavior in this culture—as something determined by upbringing or environment.

Early on in his career while researching criminal behavior at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington D.C., he came to the realization that the successes he was experiencing with his patients were only apparent, and not real. The patients had not changed their criminal ways at all, despite appearances to the contrary, and were only cleverly manipulating the researchers, fabricating environmental causes that they sensed the researchers were looking for.

This was a turning point for him, and it led to a real paradigm shift. To make a long story short, Samenow argues that a child is not a “passive receptacle” that many tend to think they are. He writes: “Rather than haplessly being shaped by his surroundings, he himself shapes the behavior of others.” In other words, the child is an active agent in his interactions with others. He continues: “ …children make choices. Although they do not choose the environment in which they are raised, they do choose how to deal with it. Does this mean that I believe that what parents do has no impact on their children? Not at all! Most of us who are parents try to be good role models. It is important that we endeavor to practice what we preach. Usually our children internalize the values we endeavor to instill in them. But this happens by choice, not by passive absorption.”

And I believe that too often parents blame themselves and carry tremendous guilt when their children go off course, as if a child is a piece of putty that can be molded and determined. That’s what Dr. Samenow challenges.

When all is said and done, what Dr. Samenow argues is perfectly consistent with the Catholic faith. The human person was created in the image and likeness of God, and this means he was created with mind and heart, or intellect and will. Man has the power to know and to make free choices, and it is these two powers that distinguish him from brute animals.

To deny free will and to treat persons as if they are completely determined by their environment, to excuse them and reduce them to victims, is to deprive the human person of his dignity as a being created in the image and likeness of God. But many, on a practical level, deny the existence of free will because they would like to live in a world in which evil is not a possibility; for if human beings can make free self-determining choices that are evil and are not determined by their environment or their physiology, then we can’t really control human behavior. That’s what is frightening to many people.

I remember describing to a colleague at school one of Dr. Samenow’s books called The Myth of Out of Character Crime. As a forensic psychologist, he is asked to interview people charged with serious crimes. The reason is that their lawyers will claim that their crimes were out of character. He points out that often, after 30 hours of intense interviews, he will come to the determination that the crime was not out of character at all, but perfectly consistent with their character, and that the person charged with the crime had everybody around him fooled about his true character, because he was able to cleverly hide it for years.

I remember one teacher in particular who was listening in on our conversation; she got up and said: “I can’t take this anymore, I have to leave”. The thought that there are people who freely choose evil was just too much for her.

But it’s that devious and clandestine nature that is so characteristic of evil. Egotism is also a major characteristic. Those who are given over to evil love themselves as the very center of their lives, but they are brilliant at making themselves appear as paragons of virtue. This is because they feed off of the praise and adulation of others. But make no mistake about it, to them other human beings are nothing but a means to an end, just things to be used. Those who are evil are consummate users.

Another reason that many people have difficulty taking evil seriously is excessive empathy. Empathy is the power to enter into the feelings of others. It is the mark of the humane. But empathy, if excessive, can cloud judgment.

The late Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Murry McGovern, was responsible for evaluating candidates for the priesthood for the Hamilton Diocese, and he did an extensive psychological evaluation on a priest friend of mine. He told me what Dr. McGovern said to him, which he never forgot. He showed him pictures that he had to interpret by writing a story, rendering the scenes meaningful. He’d be given a picture of three men sitting by a railway track drinking, or a woman looking out her window, very sad, etc. And what my friend wrote were stories that depicted them as victims of a cruel environment, i.e., the Depression, or an unjust employer, or in the case of the sad woman, a cold and unloving husband, etc.

Dr. McGovern called his attention to this afterwards. He said something to the effect that “there are a lot of victims in your world. Maybe they got fired from their place of employment because of something they did, etc., how come you didn’t write something like that?” He warned him to keep in mind that many of the situations that people find themselves in are a result of bad personal choices made in the past and that if he fails to keep this in mind, it will lead to serious problems down the road. He told my friend that excessively empathetic priests—even social workers and teachers—, tend to be vulnerable to the artful schemes of evil and blind to the preternatural malice of Satan; for they readily believe that everyone is good willed, and are dangerously unsuspecting.

Interestingly enough, Jesus uses an illustration of the cunning and devious nature of those who belong to darkness. The cunning are single minded and determined, but their purpose is always twisted. They scheme in order to benefit themselves, and they are very clever and very manipulative. Christ is not telling us that we should manipulate others, but I believe what he is pointing out is this: We have the light (the light of the gospel), but we don’t have the fire in our bellies.

The children of this world of darkness have the fire in the belly, but no light. They have the determination, the single minded devotion to their causes, which are twisted. We, on the other hand, don’t have that single minded determination. We have one foot in this world, and one foot in the kingdom of light. We are still too attached to this world and its pleasures, and so we tend to compromise with the world. We are not single minded in our devotion to the kingdom of God, we lack that fire, and so we are not as shrewd and astute in matters of the kingdom of God.

The more purified we are, that is, the more single minded our commitment to Christ, the more shrewd we will become and the less likely will we be deceived by the schemes of the underhanded who belong to darkness. That will make for a much better society for our children and grandchildren, because we really are at war. St. Paul made it clear that we are at war, there is a preternatural battle going on, it is a war for the souls of our children, and the enemy is very clever, very patient, very calculating. We have to be just as calculating, as patient, and determined. Innocent as doves, but shrewd as serpents, Christ said. We have the light, but we have to emulate their fire, their wit and determination. If we do so, we will bring about an incalculable amount of good for generations to come.