On Pinning Blame and Human Nature

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Last Thursday, while I was participating in a Bible Study, one of the other participants suggested that people had to have a mental illness or problem of some sort to commit crimes like the shooting rampage at a mosque in Québec City. That bothers me because it sounds too much like the chronically normal who pin blame for evil deeds on people who live with mental illnesses as if so-called normal people would be incapable of doing anything remotely nasty, which is baloney.

People do that to dissociate themselves from evil and portray those who commit vile crimes as monsters, but in reality, Nazi camp guards were no more monstrous than you or I. They were husbands, brothers, sons, fathers or sisters, mothers, etc. When they weren’t, working nobody would have known what they were doing for a living because they seemed so ordinary.

They were ordinary humans. If they had been demons, they could not have repented of their crimes after the war and converted to Christianity, because such an option would have been out of their reach. Demons are fallen angels and only humans can become Christians.

People try to pin the blame for egregious deeds onto people with mental illnesses or anyone with whom they can’t relate as humans, because this blaming distances them psychologically and emotionally from evil. They can indulge in the delusion that they themselves are good people. As long as they are not confronted with the reality of their own proclivity for evil, they don’t have to acknowledge it, let alone address it.

The psychologist Jordan B. Peterson said in at least one of his lectures that many soldiers who come back from serving in Iraq or Afghanistan (or other places) develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in part because they do things while on duty that shock them. They are shocked because they didn’t know they had it in them to commit atrocities in a given situation. When the opportunity presented itself, the soldiers did things they were inwardly, if not openly, ashamed of, and because they had not been prepared for having to acknowledge their own wickedness, they developed PTSD.

Now this is only part of the explanation. Not all the trauma that triggers PTSD can be laid at that door, but it can’t be dismissed out of hand either. It might be a good starting point for a conversation leading to conversion with someone suffering from that illness in the right context. But one must not assume it will work in every situation involving someone living with PTSD. But those people need to be told there is hope for them, and they can be forgiven, but it could take years for them to reach that spot.

It is too easy for people to pin the blame for sordid crimes on individuals they consider to be inhuman or subhuman, so they don’t have to address their own sinfulness.  Nobody wants to touch the evil of Nazism or serial killers with a ten-foot pole, but it would be quite a stretch to assert that all S.S. concentration camp guards were mentally ill.

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Thank you Michelle we really need your perspective on these matters. Certainly our Reformed theology points to the depravity of all people and how easy we can be coaxed into evil (the Nazis as an example). It is too easy for us to scapegoat people with mental illness and as the Bell Lets Talk initiative shows, a lot of this is coming to light in the public square and there is much more awareness. Unfortunately there are still a lack of services and treatment in the area of mental health, long wait times for programs such as DBT and other challenges in our health care system on the Canada side. My other comment is that I think we have to start to look at mental illness more as mental health. Just like physical health we are all on a spectrum - some more healthy, some less. I meet few individuals who are 100% healthy mentally from what I can tell. Some practice mental fitness through therapy or medication and that should be encouraged. I wonder if it would decrease stigma if we thought more about a spectrum that we are all on rather than a black and white division between the mentally ill and the mentally well. We all experience the brokenness of this world in different ways and look forward and live forward to the telos of Jesus's coming again.

 

"I wonder if it would decrease stigma if we thought more about a spectrum that we are all on rather than a black and white division between the mentally ill and the mentally well. We all experience the brokenness of this world in different ways and look forward and live forward to the telos of Jesus's coming again."

I like this, Greg.

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  It would probably not hurt because even among people living with mental illnesses there are varying degrees of severity.  For example, some people who have schizophrenia are able to work full time and juggle family life as well while others cannot function alone, and I'm somewhere in between.  But I wouldn't want this spectrum thing to be an excuse for trivializing what people with severe forms of mental illnesses endure as I discussed in my blog titled,"On Chronically Normal People."

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Greg and Willemiena, Yes! Sometimes when I've spoken to groups, I challenge the common use of the word "normal", as a contrast to "disability" or "mental illness." I like to quote Whoopi Goldberg who is reported to have said, "'Normal' is just a cycle on a washing machine." No one is "normal" or "whole" or "independent", but all are broken and in need of support and care and encouragement from fellow human beings. And we live in hope and new life for the present time and for eternity through Jesus Christ (John 10:10).