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Today the first two funerals of the children and adults killed in Connecticut last Friday remind our nation and a watching world of the horrors perpetrated by a lone gunman, Adam Lanza. May God grant his peace and sustaining presence to the grieving families, friends, and community.

Law enforcement hunts for Lanza’s motives, hoping to identify people likely to commit such a crime and help them before they act. But how would one identify people who might commit atrocities?

Our society keeps looking to realm of psychology for answers to this question, but the issues are too complex to look to only one discipline. After the shooting in Aurora Colorado, I suggested that we need to talk about a new category of illness: moral illness. Just as psychologists have established criteria for diagnosing mental illness, we need criteria to identify when someone has slid so far down the path of moral unhealth that he would be called morally ill and in need of treatment. This approach would look for insights from various disciplines including theology.

There’s the rub. Few people want to consider that we are talking about not only a psychological issue but also a spiritual issue. But someone did, and I believe his insights need to be looked at freshly in light of the increasing frequency of these massacres.

In his 1983 book, People of the Lie, the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, suggests that certain people have departed so far from social mores that they are “evil.” Frankly, I don’t like Peck’s term, because the truth is that evil cuts through every human heart. G. K. Chesterton once noted that "Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved," (Orthodoxy, chap. 2)

With that caveat aside, Peck lists specific characteristics of “evil” people (according to today’s Wikipedia):

  • Is consistently self-deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt and maintaining a self-image of perfection
  • Deceives others as a consequence of their own self-deception
  • Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets (scapegoats) while being apparently normal with everyone else
  • Commonly hates with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self-deception as much as deception of others
  • Abuses political (emotional) power ("the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion")
  • Maintains a high level of respectability, and lies incessantly in order to do so
  • Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency (of destructiveness)
  • Is unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim (scapegoat)
  • Has a covert intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury

Prophetically, Peck said that evil people typically project evil on innocent victims, often children. Unfortunately, he also says that these people are extremely hard to identify. Nevertheless, if we want to do something, then keeping these characteristics in mind could help police, social workers, school psychologists, and others to be alert to individuals who display these characteristics. Once identified, they could receive treatment which could reduce the risk of their taking violent action against others.

Previously, I argued that we need to talk about moral illness so that we don’t scapegoat people with mental illness whenever atrocities like this occur. But if Peck is right, we need a national discussion about moral illness also to reduce the likelihood that such a massacre will happen again, because the attempts we have made so far are leading nowhere.

What criteria should we use to identify moral illness?


Another dimension of this discussion that occurs to me is that Christians in North America may have lost our radical understanding of evil.  We don't have very good emotional or theological tools to deal with real evil.   We identify it in all sort of other ways, and we really do fail to see / discern what is just plain real evil.  When it strikes us in the face, we are numb or paralyzed.  

I admire your willingness to address the current events from this angle. Peck used a language of psychology that is uncomfortable for many (as he integrates acknowledgement of “soul’ while dealing with illness of the ‘mind’), but it seems to be gaining traction after the events in Conneticut and the recent years.

What was Peck’s strength in adopting much of the language he uses is a downfall for many in the community of psycological health professionals – Peck was an admitted and practiced Christian. I believe that, to diagnose and treat “evil” without the blessing of the Holy Spirit is to practice moral medicine from your own grave. Honestly, according to Peck’s list (from Wikipedia), I am closer to being an “evil” person than I would like be (with adverbs like “consistently” and “commonly” my only saving grace). I have engaged in these behaviors at some time. Some more than once, and some more continually than I like to admit. Mark, you’re right that we’re getting nowhere in our current evaluations. However, will the professionals we pay to diagnose our society have the sensitivity of the Spirit to admit their own “evil” (be it in Paul’s “flesh” or Peck’s “mind”)? I pray they do.

As to Karl’s comment, I don’t believe we have simply lost an understanding of “evil.” We have silently embraced ways to ignore the conviction of the Spirit as he reveals the ideas and attitudes we must be dying to each sunrise as we take up our cross in persuit of Christ. I believe Paul calls it “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” [Romans 1.18]

Mark, I apologize for coming late to the discussion on your earlier post, “Mental Illness or Moral Illness?” For anyone hitting this post first, go see what’s been written over here, as well as comments ( ). You’ve accurately addressed the pitfalls of defining a consensus on “evil” from a health professional position. Good work, Mark. Thanks.

On Disability Concerns Facebook page, one person asked how talking about mental illness stigmatizes it. I responded to her that open discussions about mental illness do not stigmatize, but the media tend to associate mental illness with crimes and atrocities, that stigmatizes. This article by Nirvi Shah in Education Week, Conn. School Shootings Unleashed Attack on Disabilities, Too, articulates this point much better than I can.

Our battle is not against flesh and blood... it's against the enemy, and the Church is the one that is not fulfilling the calling to be on our knees on behalf of those around us, we will be held accountable for our prayerlessness (there are statistics that give us insight on the low level of prayer in the church)...

we have to stop trying to point to society and our ills and think we can fix this with man's ways, because there is something deeper and darker driving this violence...  we have to pray for those who have come in agreement with the enemy through their choices... for God to reveal (including prophetically) these hurting people/lost souls, to bring light alongside of them, so they can escape the dark pit they are in...

Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, the only True Counselor, through listening and healing prayer is a key, so we can point people to Jesus, His love and mercy and bring healing...  our "rational" reasoning and intellect is not enough, God gave us the authority and power to do so much more, through His Holy Spirit, let's start walking in it more fully... Your will be done LORD, on earth as it is in heaven...  

to Mark

Dear Mark:  Thanks for your comments and ideas!  As a psychotherapist treating adult victims of child sexual abuse (and as a recovered survivor of that kind of abuse) I can certainly testify to the existence of people motivated by evil.  The behavior you describe (from Peck) sounds like narcissism run amok.  It is not all that difficult to identify narcissistic people, and those with full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorders.  Getting them into therapy and into a willingness to participate in healing is often extremely difficult for exactly the reasons you mention -- they have convinced themselves that they are right, they are "normal," that they are entitled to behaving in ways that make them feel good at someone else's expense.  Even so, I agree with you completely that to talk about "evil" or even narcissistic behavior without the moral, spiritual component leaves a hole in the discussion.  And when you get someone who has set out to play god, you certainly are talking about the spiritual realm.  Thanks again for your thoughtful introduction to this conversation.  Yonah Klem, Ed.D., L.C.P.C.

In all our discussion about Adam Lanza's unspeakable crime, we should not forget that 40 years ago this nation legally established the right of a certain class of people to kill a certain class of people.   It should not suprise us that this radical, fundamental decision has influenced the way many of our citizens view human life at whatever stage of development.  The fact that this man, just out of his teens, decided to destroy very young children is really not all that strange.    So long as the decision made four decades ago continues to contribute to our definition of human life, we must expect that more people will make the horrendous decision Mr. Lanza made.   And, hard as it is to state, so long as that decision stands, there will always be a measure of hypocrisy in the anguished mourning that naturally follows events  like that which happened in Newtown.


I just read another fine article on this subject by the director of a county community mental health agency: A call to fund mental health treatment. The author, Michael Brashears, argues BOTH that a history of mental illness is not a predictor of violent behavior AND that communities that fund treatment programs for people dealing with mental illnesses show that they consider these individuals to be valued and contributing members of their communities.


  While reading the other comments I was reminded that the word from which we get words like psychology, psychiatry etc. is [psyche].  Please forgive me for not putting it in International Phonetic Alphabet ; I don,t have the characters on hand.  Psychiatry and psychology claim to treat the mind, but the medications also treat the soul to some extent since antipsychotics and antidepressants control the symptoms that make mentally ill people often miserable enough to consider suicide, when they don't actually take measures to end their own lives.  Since depression was my dominant  negative symptom, finding a medication that alleviated that emotional problem helped me to move on from self-obsession to being able to help others AND to want to.  I wish you luck in trying to diagnose moral illness in a society that has pretty much lost its own moral compass to begin with.  I disagree with Rev. Nederhood that abortion is the cause of people choosing to kill children.  In my opinion, it is merely a symptom among others.

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