During WWII the Japanese killed between 3 million and 10 million people, mostly civilians. More recently the ISIS body count is growing as they continue their bloody campaign of beheading and terror. May God have mercy on all sinners. How can men act so inhumane?
For most of us, these acts are unthinkable. Our minds reject them. Our only reactions are shock, sorrow, and anger. Those who don’t shut down at the very thought find more questions than answers. How can people commit such evil? Is the nature of man as vile as this? How can such evil prevail over the good?
We can rush to the easy answers. These people have lost their humanity. These people are monsters. These are not human acts; they are clearly demonic. Only the devil could be responsible for such atrocities. These are comforting thoughts. They separate the “us” from the “them” and reassure us of our, perhaps Pollyanna, assumptions about humanity. But good religion never comes from separating the “us” and the “them.”
In WWII when “we” sent “them” into internment camps and then “we” became the first and only nation to use a nuclear weapon for combat, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed at least 129,000, possibly over 246,000, Japanese, mostly civilians, on one terrifying day. Americans are right to condemn those who use mass killings to terrorize their enemies. We are wrong to pretend we’ve never done the same.
So here come those unthinkable questions again. How could we commit such evil? Are we as vile as this? What does this say about our nature? Can evil triumph over good?
My all time favorite film is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Recently I got to watch his companion peace The Look of Silence play at SxSW. If you haven’t seen these films, I highly recommend that you do. There is a good chance you will not enjoy them. But they will help your mind understand the unthinkable.
The story behind these two incredible films started in the early 2000’s when a young film maker Joshua Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia and was forced to grapple with unthinkable questions. Initially, Josh went to Indonesia to document an impoverished people’s attempts to unionize. The poor farming women in Indonesia were hoping to get their bosses to purchase gear to protect them from the pesticides they were using. But instead of buying protective gear, their bosses gave the money to gang bosses to intimidate the union. The farmers quickly backed down and became silent. Then Joshua learned, in the 1960’s that same gang had been a major part of a government sponsored genocide that killed over a million ethnic Chinese. The killers were still in power and no one in Indonesia would talk about it.
Josh describes it as traveling to Germany in 2003 and discovering the Nazis were still in power. Evil had prevailed. And the evil in power used intimidation to make sure only their version of history was known. Then a very strange thing happened. The people knew that the gang members had nothing to fear from talking, so they asked Josh if he could ask the killers to tell their stories. To Josh’s surprise the killers were quite willing to tell their stories. What they said revealed more about the nature of man than anyone could have predicted.
The Act of Killing is easily the strangest and most disturbing film you will ever watch. It follows Anwar Congo, the aging, formerly high- ranking member of a brutal death squad, as he reenacts in meticulous, if not entirely lucid, detail how he personally murdered thousands of people. It is a documentary of a Hollywood fever-dream portraying an historical nightmare. Josh wasn’t just documenting Anwar’s actions; he was showing them through Anwar’s eyes. What he revealed was that Anwar wasn’t a monster. Anwar was a confused, vulnerable, tragically broken old man seeking forgiveness.
Anwar’s re-creation of his own true life horror involved Hollywood movies, tortured stuffed animals, dancing women, and giant fish. One thing was clear from the beginning; Anwar simply had no grip on reality. Anwar had chosen to live in a poorly drawn violent cartoon rather than face his own truth. As the movie went on, it became increasingly clear Anwar was not happy.
No human authority had ever punished Anwar for his crimes. In Indonesia the genocide is told as a victory for democracy, and Anwar was hailed as a hero. But Anwar had been a real human part of the horrible truth, and that had left a very deep scar. This too is the nature of war. Anwar started the film to boast about his heroic deeds, but as the film went on, his boasting became a confession. And when Anwar didn’t know how to find forgiveness, his confession became silent defeat.
What Anwar was suffering from was an extreme form of what many people you may know have suffered from, a moral injury. I credit Thad Crouch for teaching me the term moral injury (more on him later). A moral injury is an injury to one’s conscience resulting from an act that violates one’s moral beliefs. It often results in deep shame, guilt, anxiety, self-judgment, and a loss of one’s sense of humanity. Moral injury can lead to withdrawal from others and even suicide. Moral injuries can be experienced by prison guards and wardens who participate in executions. Moral injuries are experienced by women who have had abortions, and by doctors, nurses, and other workers in abortion clinics. In any war moral injuries are suffered by troops on all sides.
This is why in reality Evil cannot prevail. Even for the most “monstrous” of men, something inside us will cry out for justice. As Catholics we believe that all men in their hearts understand right and wrong. According to our Catechism-
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God…. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. Gaudium et Spes 16.
A moral injury is the voice of conscience crying out for God’s forgiveness. No matter how hard our words may boast, our souls want to confess.
In The Act of Killing Anwar was more than willing to say how he killed so many people, but he had much more difficulty saying why he did it. He would often say what the government said about why “communists” had to be killed. He would say what the military had told him about why the “communists” had to die. He would even sometimes say what he himself had said about “communists.” But he never acted like he believed it was true. Anwar knew as well as anyone how war time propaganda works. What Anwar seemed to say is that must have been why he had killed them. Because if it weren’t true, why else would he have done it?
Joshua Oppenheimer has a great theory explaining this. Josh claims once you kill one person, it’s easier to kill another and believe there was a reason to kill the first than to stop killing and face your truth. Facing the truth means facing an open moral wound. Josh claims as he got to know Anwar, he realized how hard facing this truth was. I say man needs God’s healing love to truly face his sin.
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film The Look of Silence Anwar’s friends reveal another cost of refusing God’s healing. On several occasions entirely different gang members abruptly changed the subject from why they killed people and stated, “We had to drink their blood or else we would have gone crazy.” In interviews Joshua confirmed there is no native Indonesian custom related to the drinking of blood. The killers did do this. But the origins of this demonic practice are unknown. Josh described it as “emergent culture.” Similar customs have “emerged” among killers in the Congo and South Africa. There isn’t any cultural precedent for blood drinking in any of these societies.
But I believe one of Joshua’s interviews reveals this mystery. When pressed, one of the killers actually describes what they meant by “going crazy.” He recalled that a former gang member who wouldn’t drink the blood started climbing trees every day to pray. That’s right; they were using spontaneously learned blood rituals in order to protect themselves from having to talk to God. Eventually just turning your back on God’s forgiveness isn’t enough. God loves you so much … he is going to find you. When people really cannot accept God’s healing, eventually they start to bargain with Satan for a place to hide.
As dark as the two movies were, I find great hope in what they say about human kind. They seem to suggest that even the worst among us in his soul knows good from evil and wishes to be good. It proves we can be twisted and turned away from good, but even the most twisted among us yearns to turn back. These real life events suggest that evil will not prevail in our hearts forever. And the great news for all of us– there seems to be a powerful spiritual force at work seeking us out to heal us.
Yes, these movies capture real life evil spiritual forces. But which is more powerful, the force that needs to be constantly refreshed in blood and sin, or the force that never gives up, tugs at our hearts for decades, and will move cameramen around the world to break down our walls? Joshua Oppenheimer turned his camera towards this great evil and showed that it was weak.
There is good news and bad news when it comes to human nature. The bad news is that we are not impervious to sin, and sin can injure us deeply. The good news is that no matter how darkly sin has stained our lives, deep down our souls will seek God. The heavenly news is that no matter how deeply we have been injured by sin, God will seek us! Find God and accept his love and you shall be healed. Spread the heavenly news!
My challenge to you this post is to help our world be healed!
Before I end this post, as promised, I must give some special thanks to the man who taught me the phrase moral injury and advised on this post. Thad Crouch assisted training for The U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). The School of the Americas is a national disgrace. At the SOA American soldiers trained death squads to hunt down “communists” in Latin America. The recently declared Catholic Martyr Oscar Romero was one of many who died at the hands of SOA graduates. When Thad Crouch discovered what he was really a part of, he suffered his own deep moral injury.
But Thad did not resist God’s restoring grace. God has turned Thad into a powerful pro-life advocate. Today Thad is the leader of the Pro-life Ministry at Saint Ignatius in Austin and is working to both extend & bring David’s Heart Ministry to Central Texas. David’s Heart is a pioneer ministry of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, devoted to serving those who have suffered moral injury from their time in the military.
If this describes you or a loved one, please reach out to Thad at RespectLife@St-Ignatius.org or the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Thad also advocates strongly for conscientious objection and peace. Please help Thad stand up for these important parts of Catholic Social Teaching.