The Moment of Certainty

Years ago I taught Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to high school seniors. The central theme of the book is the alienation of the main character, Raskolnikov, from society. The isolated young man sees himself as superior to all other people and cannot relate to anyone. A loner, he considers other people only as tools to be used. Seeing himself as a Superman, a person who is extraordinary and above the moral rules that govern the rest of humanity, he is driven to an act that will clearly distinguish him from those who are bound by the law and will prove his superiority: the gruesome murder of an old woman. He describes the moment before he kills her: “I saw clear as daylight how strange it is that not a single person living in this mad world has had the daring to go straight for it all and send it flying to the devil! I…I wanted to have the daring…and I killed her.”

Scholars who study extremism note the same process that moves a person torn by internal conflict to a calming sense of clarity that can sometimes be fatal for others and themselves. When everything that is confusing – even contradictory – is suddenly clear, there is a rush of energy and certainty that often literally flings a person into disastrous action.

The moment the conflict is resolved there is an explosive force of purest logic for the one who has struggled. It all makes sense and the course is clear. No more holding back. No more confusion or hesitation. I suspect that deadly clarity is what the young white man driving four hours to Buffalo to kill innocent black people experienced last week. A flash of insight, daring and certainty without doubtful thoughts about the consequences for others or himself. The inconsistencies of life had been settled for him.

We sometimes equate Old Testament figures with violent fundamentalism and figures who eliminate moral conflict in similar ways. There are certainly instances of that but there are also examples of just the opposite. There are those few who are called to live not only with uncertainty but also agonizing questions about God and his purposes that are never reconciled. The answer is not in the back of the book. There is no single verse that unravels the knot.

I’m thinking of the prophet Samuel when the people pleaded for a king. God told him it was an evil choice and Samuel knew it to be wrong as well. Yet God did not say, “Talk them out of it.” Instead his response was more like, “You and I know this is wrong – it is worse than merely wrong – it is evil. However, in spite of our anger we are going to anoint what we know to be wrong. Not just grudgingly choose the best of a bad lot but to anoint a chosen king. We are going to put ourselves at risk in their wicked and foolish demand.”

How could God contradict himself that way? If it was wrong then he should either punish them for it or tell them they were on their own now. Surely, he cannot anoint a king and ask Samuel to be complicit in it.

I know Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled in the same way. As a devout pacifist he joined the plot on Hitler’s life: “Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God – the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”

For some the only way to make sense of life is forcibly resolving the conflict and taking innocent people with him. More and more conflicted young, alienated, white men are making this choice. Others opt for numbing the turmoil by ignoring the conflict completely. For a few, God has called them to risk everything they believe to be true and fling themselves out not from a sense of daring or superiority but like Samuel and Abraham in absolute faith no matter how irrational or contradictory it seems.

There are conflicts and inconsistencies – even paradoxes – in life that we cannot resolve. In fact, there is some danger to ourselves and others when we force the world to “make sense” or to come to a purely logical conclusion. That is the distorting nature of extremism. It offers us cheap relief from obedience to a God who is not always who we desire him to be.

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