Recently by Ellen Finnigan: Why Your Kid Can't Write
Last semester, I taught my seventh grade students about narrative structure. They wrote original short stories, which I was reading right around the time of the Newtown shooting. I couldn’t help but see some connections between our class discussions, talk about guns and violence in the media, and their finished work.
“Drama,” I had told them, “comes from conflict, and conflict comes from having two opposing forces: a protagonist and an antagonist.” I had explained to them the four parts of a plot—exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. (One student would snicker every time I said the word “climax.” Like I said, they are in seventh grade. I started using a different word.)
“Almost every story that has ever been written, since the beginning of time,” I told them, “involves one of four main conflicts: man versus man; man versus society; man versus nature; or man versus self.” We spent six weeks talking about these concepts, during which time they were penning their short stories. “At the peak, the protagonist will either triumph or be defeated. He will get what he wants or he won’t, and the protagonist will be changed, somehow, as a result of his experiences.” As I read their stories, I noticed a trend. The characters in their stories varied, as did the settings, obviously, but the climax was always the same: The protagonist and the antagonist would find themselves in a physical fight. In the boys’ stories, this involved a karate match, a shoot-out, or a war. The protagonist would win by being physically stronger or quicker, mentally craftier, or more skilled with a weapon, and the climactic scene would be a blow-by-blow account of the various stealth “moves” that led to victory: Mr. X shot at Mr. Y from behind a dumpster. As Mr. Y dove behind a car, he shot at a crane hanging above Mr. X’s head. The wire on the crane snapped, releasing a bundle of iron bars, which fell, crushing Mr. X to death. The girls’ stories were less violent and didn’t involve any guns, but they did involve physical altercations nonetheless: The man chased me down the hallway. I ran into the living room and grabbed the ceramic vase. When he came around the corner, I broke it over his head, and he fell to the ground, unconscious. In every instance, the bad guy, at the climax, presented an immediate, physical threat, and the protagonist prevailed through the use of violence. Perhaps I should have explained that having the protagonist vanquish the antagonist through brute force is the quickest way to turn a budding piece of literature into a cartoon. I should have explained that this kind of plot usually only works with visual mediums, such as film or video games, specifically action flicks. But then again, they are in seventh grade. A child’s mind is not capable, I suppose, of conceiving of a more complicated kind of conflict, more insidious manifestations of evil, or a less arbitrary and more dependable means of achieving victory. It is questionable to me whether most of us ever “outgrow” this way of thinking. As the media has brought the issue of violence to the fore in the wake of Sandy Hook, I have been interested in the debates about gun control, as well as the “conspiracy theories” surrounding the event, more so the reaction to those conspiracy theories. (I put quotation marks around the term, because, while there are some outlandish theories floating around, most of the time the time the term “conspiracy theorist” is used to slander people who are merely asking questions that mainstream journalists have been content to ignore, or who simply have a higher bar than “the media said so” or “the government said so” when it comes to accepting something as truth.) I was listening to some kind of “expert” being interviewed by Anderson Cooper and the “expert” had this to say (I paraphrase): “Conspiracy theorists can’t conceive of true evil existing in the world. They can’t allow themselves to believe that a person could slaughter innocent children for no good reason, that a person could really be that evil. Conspiracy theories grow out of an effort to explain evil, because without a sensible explanation, evil has to be grappled with on its own terms.” But it seems to me that just the opposite is true. Most people are actually much more comfortable with the idea of evil when it can be securely pegged to some mustache-twirling villain, the Joker, the Sadist, or the Psychopath: Osama bin Laden, Adam Lanza, Timothy McVeigh, Lee Harvey Oswald. It seems to me that we get evil as a bad guy—an outlier in society, random, inexplicable, and concentrated in a single person (or in an easily identifiable “axis”). What is harder to grapple with is evil that is diffuse, cooperative, common, and systematic. This is the kind of evil that killed Jesus (otherwise the story of the Crucifixion would center on “bad guy” Pontius Pilate), and frankly, this is the kind of evil that “conspiracy theorists” find it difficult to rule out as a possibility. Those who maintain that this kind of evil exists are often shouted down by the crowd. In her famous analysis of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a midlevel bureaucrat in the Nazi regime, Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” to describe what she observed and concluded when trying to answer the question: How could this have happened? She caused major controversy by suggested that evil of such unimaginable scope and proportions as the Holocaust could ever be in any way “banal.” In his preeminent work on the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFK, Catholic writer James Douglass borrows a term from Thomas Merton, “The Unspeakable,” to refer to a kind of evil which is far more common in our world than the psychopath who wants to kill kindergartners, but which we are so very ill-equipped to deal with, so ill-equipped, in fact, that we cannot allow ourselves to think of it, let alone speak of it. As Christian adults, I believe we must ask ourselves, honestly: First, how limited is our conception of evil? Second, what are the means by which we believe it can be conquered? If you believe that evil exists primarily in the form of mustache-twirling villains, then you probably believe that hitting that bad guy over the head with a vase, or injecting him with poison in a government prison, or dropping a bomb on his people, or catching him and hanging him, or taking him out with a drone strike, or shooting him and “throwing him in the ocean” is sufficient, adequate, and practical in overcoming it. In that case, maybe the government will give you a medal or your local parish will applaud you on Veteran’s Day. If you believe that evil is more often diffuse, cooperative, common, and systematic, then you will also believe that evil is more difficult to conquer. In his address at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy said:
“Whatever killed Martin Luther King did not first make its appearance on April 4, 1968. Whatever it is that sent that bullet speeding toward this balcony twenty-five years ago has a past that stretches back to the infancy of time. Soon after the first rays of the first sunrise appear over the horizon of history, there is homicide. In Book One of the Bible, Cain kills Abel. Homicide is the first sin outside of Paradise. In the beginning there is death by the hand of another. Whatever killed Abel, killed Martin Luther King, Jr. Whatever killed Martin Luther King, Jr., killed Jesus Christ. And, whatever killed Jesus Christ, is what killed every person who has ever been shot, stabbed, poisoned, gassed, or burnt to death by a fellow human being. From what demented dimension of the universe, from what polluted place in the soul comes the willingness to destroy another?” It is important, he says, to ask what, not who, killed Martin Luther King, Jr. In his sermon “The Answer to a Perplexing Question” (Why could we not cast him out? —Matthew, 17:19), about man’s persistent efforts to remove evil from the earth, Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Man has pursued two paths to eliminate evil and thereby save the world. The first calls upon man to remove evil through his own power and ingenuity in the strange conviction that by thinking, inventing, and governing, he will at last conquer the nagging forces of evil.” I couldn’t help but think of this when reading Barack Obama’s 23 Executive Orders. “The second idea for removing evil from the world,” he says, “stipulates that if man waits submissively upon the Lord, in his own good time, God alone will redeem the world.” I will think of this in the future every time we “pray for peace” in church, and then pass the basket for the collection for the Catholic Military Chaplaincy Office. Pray for peace, but in the meantime, prepare for and engage, indefinitely, in war. In our national narrative about Martin Luther King, Jr., his story is often cast as a “man versus society” conflict, but the truly amazing thing about him was that he, himself, did not see it that way. He understood that there is only one true conflict in our lives, because there is only one true enemy: the Evil One himself. Our efforts to prevail over him make for the central drama of our lives. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that there is only one way to conquer the Evil One. He proposed a third way of ridding evil from the world. It was the way of Jesus Christ and it can be summed up as follows: nonviolent love of friends and enemies. Evil must be resisted, absolutely, but it must be resisted nonviolently.
It is quite sad, I think, that if I tried to teach this to my students, all of whom are from devout Catholic families, all of whom go to church on Sundays, they would look at me as if I had three heads. I can hear it now: “But if my protagonist doesn’t shoot back, then the antagonist will win!” We are all confused, not just the seventh graders, because our Church does not teach us His Way, at least not actively. I have been going to Catholic Church for thirty-four years, and I have never once heard a homily about nonviolence, or even violence, Just War, or killing in general. I know where the Church stands on abortion, premarital sex, contraception, and a million other things, but on this issue of violence: silence. I would say there is something fishy about that, but you would call me a conspiracy theorist. Martin Luther King, Jr. triumphed through nonviolent resistance to evil, and we should all be changed as a result of his experiences. I urge you, today, to spend some time getting to know this incredible human being and learning more about the Gospel message of nonviolence. I recommend the following to get started: Books Strength to Love Audio Behold the Lamb Video MLK Speech on Nonviolence MLK/Malcom X Debate RFK’s Speech After the Assassination of MLK Peace be with you.
Reprinted from altcatholicah.com with permission of the author.
Ellen Finnigan [send her mail] graduated from the University of Montana with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She currently runs an online writing workshop and teaches Literature and Rhetoric at a Catholic hybrid school in Atlanta. Visit her at scribblesworkshop.com.