Last Sunday I came to church unaware that a man had opened fire the night before in a nightclub in Orlando. But when one of our members offered a prayer at the 10 o’clock service, I gathered from what he said that there had been yet another mass shooting in America. On the way home to change my clothes for the parish picnic that afternoon, I tuned in National Public Radio, which was airing a press conference, and a special agent of the FBI was speaking about what was known and still unknown about the perpetrator, and the victims, and the crime scene. But over the days that have followed, as more details have come out, the picture they draw of the killer, Omar Mateen, of his personality and history, and possible motivations, has become more confused and contradictory, not less.
So while people have come together all around the world to grieve the victims and show solidarity with the survivors, and demand that something be done to prevent such things from happening again, it is still unclear why he did what he did, or what might have prevented him from doing it. Some have portrayed Omar Mateen as an agent of Islamist terror groups, and it appears that he declared, on more than one occasion, his own allegiance to one such group or another. But he was all over the map in terms of which organization he claimed to belong to, and the FBI has no evidence to connect him with any of them. As his ex-wife and past associates go public with their stories, Mateen seems more like an overgrown version of the deranged children who attacked Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary than like a calculating political operative. His choice of targets seems more reflective of his hatred of other ethnic minority groups or his violent homophobia, both of which he was known to harbor, than any religious ideology hostile to the U.S. Government.
The result of this all this strange and contradictory information has been to leave me feeling confused. But maybe, along grief and outrage, confusion is an appropriate response. If only Omar Mateen had remained simply confused—about his own national identity, and his sexuality, about the politics of war in the Middle East, and the politics of race in America—if only he’d remained confused, 49 people whose lives he brutally cut short would be celebrating Father’s Day today. But he couldn’t bear to stay there anymore. The demons of his anger and hate and despair finally eclipsed what remained of his natural humanity, and he became certain. He became certain of what he had to do, and if there is one thing that lends itself to evil it is when anger, and hate, and despair acquire certainty.
In the welter of maddening emotions and confusing desires, amid the muddled identities, the babble of angry voices and conflicting claims to the truth that fill this mixed-up, crazy world, one certainty pierces through the noise with a bell-like clarity. One path offers simplicity and promises to tie up all the loose ends into a tidy little knot. One solution entices us to give up on the long, slow work of healing what is damaged and reconciling what is estranged, to give up on the vigil of patient suffering that watches in hope of transforming grace. It is the certain knowledge that if we are helpless to deal with life then we can always deal death.
We don’t know, and may never know, what tormented Omar Mateen, what agonies he endured in his own deranged mind—we only know that, when he was unable any longer to bear the contradictions of his own existence, he chose to cancel them out with an outburst of pure nihilism. He chose the path of those who make an idol of their own nothingness, and force others to worship at its shrine. Having lost his own real life, he turned instead to his madness, and gave it a hideous reality by destroying the lives of others.
But right there Omar fell victim to a lie, one of the oldest lies there is. Because hate and violence do not create meaning where there was none. Whatever language we dress them up in—the language of religion or politics, of personal heroism, of grim necessity or the just demand for retribution—acts of violence corrode the meaning of that language until at last it has none. The clarity and resolution such acts seek to bring about is false and temporary. In the long run they only add to the helplessness and confusion of the world. That is why it is so disturbing to see public figures and religious leaders in our country trying to rationalize what Omar Mateen has done. They might rationalize it negatively, as an act characteristic of all Muslims, or all immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. Or they might rationalize it positively, as a divine sentence of judgement on the LGBTQ community. But either way, these bids to certify the meaning of the meaningless only mimic the madness of the killer.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke Jesus meets a man who, like Omar Mateen, has lost contact with reality. The collective forces of meaninglessness have so colonized this man’s mind that it is as if he is already a corpse. He goes around naked and lives in the tombs. But Jesus is not frightened of this man; he understands that he is still a human being and it is not too late for him to be saved. And Jesus also knows that in order to save him, he needs to differentiate the true human person from the spirit of violence, madness, and death with whom he has become identified. This spirit tries to keep up the lie, pleading “I beg you Jesus, Son of the Most High God, do not torment me," as if the oppressor were the victim; as if the man himself fears the pain of being set free. But the spirit does not deceive Jesus, and he asks it “What is your name?” “Legion,” is the reply, which is not the name of a human being, but of a collective entity. Literally, it is the name of a unit of 5 to 6,000 soldiers, the embodiment of the murderous certainty of the Roman Imperial state.
Now it is clear who Jesus is really talking to, and the language of the story stops referring to “the man” and turns to speaking of “the demons.” But what I think is most extraordinary about this moment is that the conversation continues. Jesus, who has the power to cast the demons out at any time in any way he chooses, listens to them first. He lets the demons speak, and they reveal to him what it is they are really afraid of—which is that they will return to the abyss of non-existence. And, of course, their fears are well-founded. Jesus allows the demons to go out into the pigs, knowing that there is no abiding place for them in this world outside of the human imagination. It is too bad for the pigs that they must be the tools of the demons’ self-destruction, but what remains behind is the man, once again clothed, and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus.
The answer that Jesus gives to the madness of the world is a path that leads away from hatred and violence. It begins where it ends, with the truth that every human being is a child of the one that Jesus called “Father.” It steers clear of simple and seductive certainties about other people, even those as frightening as the madman in the tombs or Omar Mateen. If we rely instead on faith in the loving-kindness of God, we can learn to differentiate between the demons of collective hate and self-destruction and the human beings they have taken control of. We can discern the living persons who still, in their essential nature, bear the image of God. Perhaps, with love, those persons can be freed, and called back from the realm of death.
I’m not saying that this is easy to do. It means giving up our naiveté about evil; becoming far wiser than we are now about what it really is, and how it really works to destroy from within human lives and entire societies. But as Christians we carry a unique and extraordinary promise to the world—that if we have the courage to dialogue with demons, to ask them their name, to listen with clear-eyed detachment to their lies, we will find that the Son of God has mastery over them. We will see their downfall with our own eyes, as they return to the nothingness out of which they came. And into the place where there was torment, insanity, and death, by the grace of God, there will come healing and peace.