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Reviews | What does it mean when Greg Abbott calls Uvalde’s shooter “evil”?

Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, began his press conference on the day of the Uvalde massacre not with politics but with theology. He said: “Evil swept over Uvalde today. Anyone who shoots their grandmother in the face must have evil in their hearts, but it’s far worse for someone to shoot small children.

Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, spoke at a conference in Houston, Texas three days later and came up with a similar idea. The problem, he argued, was not the guns but the heart. He said“If we as a nation were able to legislate to remove the evil from the hearts and minds of criminals who commit these heinous acts, we would have done so a long time ago.”

The language of evil and hearts often comes to the fore in the context of mass killings. The suspect in the Buffalo shooting was called “pure evil”. Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who attacked the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015, was deemed “wicked” by one of the survivors of the attack, while the prosecutor in the case against Mr Roof said he had a “cold and hateful heart”.

What to think of this language of evil? On the one hand, it is an articulation of a basic teaching of Jesus. He locates wickedness in the heart: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, immorality, theft, perjury, slander” (Matthew 15:19). Christians believe that humans do bad things because there is something inside of us that is broken.

It seems that Christian politicians who favor less restrictions on guns are pushing this idea because it limits responsibility for harm to the individual. We can’t eliminate evil hearts, so we can’t stop mass shootings. Never mind that America is far ahead of other nations in mass shootings; we must have an inexplicable abundance of bad hearts here.

The problem with such thinking is not that it is completely wrong, but that it is dangerously inadequate as an explanation of evil in Christian theology. Historically, Christianity has taught that evil stems from three interlocking realities often referred to as the flesh, the devil, and the world. When Christians of many traditions are baptized, they explicitly reject all three sources of evil.

“Flesh” in Christian teaching can refer to our ability to do evil as humans, shorthand for our tendency to sin. Sometimes humans lie, cheat, steal, and take advantage of others because we take advantage of them, even though some part of us knows it’s wrong.

Christians also recognize a spiritual reality in evil, which we call “the devil.” We are not suggesting that the devil is an omnipresent being behind every act of malice. Nevertheless, we believe that certain acts of evil bear the marks of spiritual forces that drive humans to unthinkable and indescribable atrocities.

Christian theology recognizes a final reality, “the world”, as the cause of sin. We do evil because societies can encourage or give us access to evil acts. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah addressed a nation that prayed and fasted to God, but God did not answer them. Through Isaiah, God explained why: “on the day of your fast you do what pleases you and exploit all your workers” (Isaiah 58:3). Their practice of religion had remained superficial, dealing with religious ritual instead of combining that ritual with social renewal.

Isaiah called on the people to show their faith in God by turning unjust practices into righteous practices. He said, “Isn’t that the kind of fast I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, free the oppressed and break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6). The prophet called for destroying the structures of society that allowed evil to thrive.

Christian theology has long focused on the need for government to contain social evil. We never expected governments to change hearts or even to solve all social ills. We expected governments to impact culture, changing and adjusting the laws that allow the evil of the world to thrive. I don’t need the government to change the heart of Salvador Ramos. I want him to make sure others like him don’t have access to an AR type assault rifle and 375 rounds.

The institution of slavery in the United States was evil because American laws and customs allowed slavery to thrive. The economic realities of the American financial system prompted those in the North and South to benefit from forced black labor. The problem wasn’t just the wicked-hearted individual slave owners. We can recognize societal evil and hold individual slave owners accountable for their actions. It can be said that Salvador Ramos engaged in some truly evil acts while acknowledging that our society has an unhealthy obsession with guns that made his evil actions possible. Both can be true.

The reason why some Christians cannot bring themselves to support gun law reforms is therefore the same reason why some Christians cannot effectively combat racism beyond condemning individual racists. They have a deficient doctrine of sin and evil, limiting it to the individual.

They functionally recognize only one source of sin: the heart. Our faith takes a much more complex view of evil by focusing on the intertwined realities of the individual, the spiritual, and the structural. The refusal to acknowledge the systemic problems with gun control is a failure of the theological imagination with continuing deadly consequences. A full Christian account of evil leaves us with some hard truths. While the slaughter of innocent children reflects an evil heart, politicians and leaders determined to give evil hearts easy access to the tools of mass death share some responsibility for this evil. These politicians and their supporters are part of the structural injustice that gives individual evil room to operate.

Jesus had a brother named James who joined the Christian movement after the resurrection. James wrote a letter to a scattered group of believers about how they should live before God. He said, “So if anyone knows the good that he should do and does not do it, it is a sin for him” (James 4:17).

He was talking about individual actions, but the principle also applies to companies. The American people and our politicians know what we need to do. We have a good ahead of us: reforming our gun laws to make it harder (dare I dream, impossible) for people with evil hearts to access weapons capable of inflicting mass damage.

If some Christians refuse to do this good, it won’t be because believing in “evil hearts” eliminates the need for gun reform. It will be because they refuse to accept what the Christian faith teaches: societies, like individual hearts, can be broken and twisted.


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