If chance be the father of all flesh,
disaster is his rainbow in the sky.
And when you hear:
State of Emergency!
Sniper kills ten!
Troops on rampage!
Whites go looting!
Bomb blasts school!
It is but the sound of man
Worshiping his maker.
~ Steve Turner
Do not misunderstand me. The shooting that took place in the Colorado movie theatre is a tragic and evil event. Nothing that follows should be read as dismissive of that evil and tragedy, or of the lives that were and are affected by it. I intend, rather, to begin to work through the nature of some of the circumstances and structures surrounding, supporting and penetrating the event.
I saw the report of the shooting as I was travelling from Canada back to Europe. At the same time, I was reading The Man who was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton, which turned out to be eerily appropriate to the situation. The book is about Syme, a law-enforcement officer who infiltrates a group of what he believes to be anarchists. He learns, however, that each member of the council of anarchists is also a representative of the law that has penetrated the council just as he has. It is the leader of the anarchists who has intentionally brought this group together, and we learn in the end that he is not an anarchist at all, but The Peace of God. The book begins with the presumption that there are dilettantes who masquerade as anarchists but who would never really do any harm. They simply like the ideas of anarchy. The real anarchists, represented by the council, are rather more sinister because “When they say that mankind shall be free at last, they mean that mankind shall commit suicide. When they talk of a paradise without right or wrong, they mean the grave” (45-46). They are, in a word, nihilists. The irony, however, is that the deeper Syme penetrates into the ranks of anarchists, the more organized and less anarchic they seem to become until anarchy finally disappears altogether at the highest level. The anarchist council itself is literally a nothing. The nihilism annihilates itself. The only anarchy that exists is the half-hearted kind that manifests as a fear of the world that lives in the soul, and an encounter with The Peace of God unveils that anarchy for what it is; nothing at all. The introduction to the book states that Chesterton “…takes himself and his notions at face value, only every face is a mask with another mask underneath (xv).” So we find, in the end, that the really dangerous anarchist, the serious anarchist, is in fact the dilettante who, because he does not have the courage to follow his convictions through to their nihilistic end cannot have them unmasked as the nothings that they are, and so lives in petty hatred toward the world.
I bring this up because a review that I skimmed of the Batman film at which the shooting took place characterized the film as anarchist and nihilist. But it is we who are the anarchist dilettantes, we who think that we can sit in the comfort of a theatre in order to be entertained by anarchy, we who think that we can keep it at a distance by watching it on a screen and then going home again. We who do not have the courage to confront the anarchy in our souls dabble in it at a distance. Is it possible that the structures that prevent us from taking anarchy seriously by turning it into entertainment contribute to producing the really dangerous anarchists who shoot people in movie theatres? The dangerous anarchy is not the sort represented on the screen. It is not a world of nihilism and disorder. That sort of anarchy is a nihilism that exposes itself for what it is and swallows itself up. It is the kind that breeds costly hope rather than cheap complacency. The dangerous anarchy is the half-hearted kind that simultaneously rails against all that constrains the will and yet seeks protection from the consequences of the will’s exposure within those same constraints.
During my master’s thesis defense, I was asked why I thought that Christian theology ought to take certain contemporary continental philosophers seriously, since there are many theologians who say that they are simply nihilists. I now know what I should have said. Namely, that even if that is the case, nihilism is something that theology must always take seriously. To not take it seriously, to make it the object of entertainment, is to accept the mask as reality. In the end, nihilism is always its own undoing. It nullifies even itself. But this requires that we move through it rather than distance ourselves from it. We cannot create a false sense of security to obscure the fact that we are all heading for the grave, because such a false sense of security obscures a greater hope – resurrection. But there is no resurrection without the grave.