Watching the World Burn

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

So said Alfred Pennyworth, butler to Bruce Wayne, the Batman. Pennyworth was right.

When people began to protest against statues erected to honor men who fought for the Confederacy, reasonable people across the political spectrum agreed that a national conversation about such monuments was long overdue. When protests then turned to vandalism, some people lamented that vigilantes had taken the law into their own hands, while others felt that vigilantism is—sometimes—justified, especially in the face of long-standing offenses. But the destruction of statues and monuments has now become largely indiscriminate.

On June 10th rioters in Philadelphia defaced a monument to Matthias Baldwin, an abolitionist who fought to end slavery prior to the Civil War. On June 19th rioters in San Francisco destroyed a statue of Ulysses Grant, whose battlefield prowess drove the final nail into the coffin of the Confederacy, and who, as President, helped to destroy the Ku Klux Klan. Just last night, rioters in Madison, Wisconsin tore down a statue of Hans Christian Seg, an anti-slavery activist, who died during the Civil War fighting for the Union. To top it all off, the same mob that tore down Seg’s statue also assaulted and beat up a 60-year-old, gay, Democratic, progressive state senator who was supporting the protest.

This is no longer about racism or the Confederacy. It’s about watching the world burn.

But it should not surprise Christians. It is in the heart of fallen men to love wickedness, and to usurp a peaceful protest to incite violence, to twist a good cause into an evil act, and to employ the cover of night to loot and to destroy. Even as Proverbs 21:10 teaches, “The soul of the wicked desires evil; his neighbor finds no mercy in his eyes.”

When men want to watch the world burn, any attempt at rational argument about the relative merits of a given statue proves fruitless. The answer to mindless, indiscriminate destruction is not to argue politely in favor of keeping some statues free from scorching. You cannot engage in a rational conversation with irrational men.

What then is the answer? Rather than wringing our hands, rather than lamenting the loss of a “kinder, gentler” age, and rather than looking for political figures to fix what is most fundamentally a spiritual problem, Christians must proclaim the truth, declaring that evil committed in the guise of a protest against racism does not fool the LORD. Wickedness done in the name of reform is wickedness still. Every protestor—every human—is accountable for his actions before a Holy God, and those who are using peaceful protests in order to wreak havoc will incur wrath. Judgment is coming, and it belongs to the Church to warn everyone who will listen that the only escape is found in Christ. Christians must proclaim Christ. Jesus alone subdues the hearts of men, making servants of rebels, and saints of sinners. The Church must extend far and wide Christ’s invitation to mercy and forgiveness, and his promise of coming judgment.

Some men do just want to watch the world burn, and no legislation or political leader or social movement will change that. No wringing of hands will put an end to it. No polite conversation will curb it. People act from their hearts, and Jesus alone changes those.

Those who repent, turn from their burning, and embrace Christ will soon find a purpose much greater than watching the world burn, while those who reject him will eventually get more of a fire than they ever bargained for.

Principled Silence?

“Silence is consent.”

Maybe you’ve read such things on social media lately. Maybe you’ve expressed such sentiments yourself. And if you value expressing your moral outrage via social media, then do so, and know that I support you. But please don’t disparage the character of those who choose not to make their feelings, thoughts, and opinions public via Facebook or Instagram. A form of virtual peer-pressure seems to be consuming social media these days, suggesting that if you don’t publicly proclaim your anti-racism, then it proves you’re a closet racist. Such suggestions are absurd, but the pressure remains.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but do I really need to post on social media that I believe that murder is wicked? Should I do so each and every time a person is murdered? If that were the case, I would do little else each day, for people die unjustly every moment of every day. Am I really required publicly to express moral outrage on Facebook each time a politician lies on television? If so, my days would be spent doing little else, for politicians lie with almost every breath. Must I change my profile picture each time sin occurs in the world or one human being mistreats, denigrates, or abuses another? If so, I would never rest from the work of protesting on Facebook. No doubt murder, lying, racism, and other evils should promote grief, sorrow, and even outrage in every heart, but must I be constrained to make sure everybody knows just how outraged I am every time I’m outraged? When outrage becomes a mere status update, it also becomes empty.

So I’ve chosen not to spend too much time posting on social media just how consistently sin perverts and destroys that which God created to be good, or how much it grieves me to see people destroy one another. Instead, as a Christian minister, I have dedicated my life to serving others, to teaching anybody who will listen that all human beings are created in the image of God and possess inherent value and dignity. I implore people every day to forgive each other, to refuse to retaliate, and to treat each person as you would have them treat you. I teach them to glorify Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace, by demonstrating—not just talking about, but actually demonstrating in the way I live my life—quiet and faithful love for my neighbor, submission to and prayer for the civil magistrate, and honor for all persons, regardless of color or ethnicity or political affiliation.

In short, not all talk is cheap, but much of it certainly is, and virtue signaling on social media is a poor substitute for practicing actual virtue. A Facebook post is inherently cheap, for it costs me nothing, but the actual work of being a good neighbor is hard, and it is unspectacular. It takes place not in moments of public protest, but in the small, unseen moments of kindness and dignity and respect that remain unknown and uncelebrated, but which form the fabric of a life well-lived and of friendships that transcend categories of racial division.

Some people who post their moral outrage on social media work to combine that public expression of grief with genuine acts of virtue. And if that describes you, then I applaud you. Others, however, use their social media platforms in order to signal a virtue that their lives in fact lack, for they’re more interested in being perceived as virtuous than in cultivating virtuous conduct itself.

Some people may think that my silence is consent, but I think that my actions speak louder than their words.

The power of “and”

“And” is a powerful word.

In order to understand why, Americans need to read Hebrews 11. But since many won’t, Christians in America should strive to demonstrate Hebrews 11 in our speech and in our use of social media.

Hebrews 11 is the “by faith” chapter. It explains and celebrates the ways in which many people in the Old Testament walked through the world “by faith.” These heroes of the faith show contemporary believers what faith looks like, how it acts, and the ways in which faith responds to trials, hardships, deprivations, unfulfilled longings, and hope deferred.

Among the men and women listed stand Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, and David. Each is described as living “by faith” and is presented as a commendable example of the kind of faith described in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

These men and women are, in fact, commendable. They did, in truth, exercise biblical faith during trying times and in diverse circumstances. Each modeled true faith.

And . . .

“And” is a potent word. It serves to connect things that otherwise might be held apart. It is sunny outside, and it is cold. “And” brings a fuller picture of truth than either statement alone could offer. It is not either sunny or cold. It is sunny and cold.

“And” is powerful.

Abraham modeled true faith, and he repeatedly lied, jeopardizing the life of his wife on more than one occasion. Sarah modeled true faith, and she laughed in disbelief when the LORD revealed to her that she would bear a son in her old age. Jacob modeled true faith, and he deceived his father, defrauded his brother, and swindled his uncle. Moses modeled true faith, and he murdered an Egyptian man, burying his body in the sand. Rahab modeled true faith, and she made her living as a prostitute before serving the LORD. Gideon modeled true faith, and he named his son “my father is king” even though God, not Gideon, was the King of Israel. Samson modeled true faith, and he broke the vows to God he had taken as a Nazarite. David modeled true faith, and he committed adultery with Bathsheba, thereafter arranging for the untimely death of her husband.

And. Each of these people both modeled true faith and committed great sins.

Our nation seems incapable of “and.” The notion that I can be in favor of lovingly protecting the lives of my neighbors and in favor of a robust economy at the same time seems lost on many people. But I like sunshine and I like a summer shower that relieves the heat. I trust God for provision and I work hard at my job. I think pepperoni and black olives belong on pizza. But not pineapple—that’s just an abomination. In any case, you get the point.

So Christian, when you speak and engage on social media, think about Hebrews 11. Christians should refuse to say, “Abraham was only sinful, not faithful.” We should likewise refuse to say, “Abraham was only faithful, not sinful.” Both are lies, because both neglect “and.” In the same way, our public discourse should include lots of “and,” as we refuse to lie or to pit one truth against another truth. I want to love my neighbor by not infecting him, and I want to love my neighbor by making sure he has a job. And.

In a world that has forgotten about “and,” you, Christian, remember to use its power, and use it often.

Is “righteous indignation” righteous?

Righteous indignation. You’ve felt it.

It’s that burning anger that arises within you when a driver flies past you, crossing a double yellow line in a school zone, driving 30MPH over the speed limit, risking the lives of children.

But how do you know that your indignation is actually righteous? We all become indignant. Each of us occasionally mounts our moral high horse, glancing down our nose at those whom we categorize as wicked, chastising the moral evils we see in others. I’ve done it. So have you. But what if your moral high horse isn’t so moral? Would you even know it?

The conscience is a funny thing. Your conscience is your faculty of discerning moral evil. It accuses you when you’ve done wrong. It acquits you when you’ve done right. Your conscience produces righteous indignation when the driver flies you by because it believes that such behavior is wrong. But is your conscience infallible? Sadly, it isn’t.

Your conscience acts like a filter. It lets through thoughts, words, and behaviors that it believes to be good, true, and right, and it prohibits that which it believes to be evil, false, and wicked. But it only acts according to what it knows.

If you were raised in a home in which “doo-doo” was considered a bad word, your conscience will accuse you if you say it. It will also accuse others, believing them to be immoral in their use of words. You might even experience “righteous indignation” at what you perceive to be their crass speech. But if you grew up on a farm, and “shit” was simply the word that you and everybody else you knew—including the leaders at your church—used to describe animal waste, then you wouldn’t think twice about saying it. Your conscience would not accuse you or others.

Individual conscience therefore differs from person to person. What causes righteous indignation in one person may be perfectly acceptable to another. Who’s right?

If there is no God, then none of us ever has the right to exercise righteous indignation. You can only sit back and sigh, frustrated that the man who flies by you in the school zone has a conscience that is—in your opinion—like a colander whose holes are too big. It might work well to strain out big, bow-tie pasta, but its useless for straining small macaroni. But if there is no God, then there is no moral standard, and therefore no way other than personal conscience to determine evil. Then the man in the car isn’t really a jerk, and he’s not really wrong. He simply has a conscience that allows him to do something your conscience would reject. And who’s to say that you’re right and he’s wrong? When there is no moral standard, it’s awfully hard to find a moral high horse to mount.

But blessedly God is, and he alone determines right from wrong. The more you subject your conscience to the Word of God, the more it will function properly. The Bible shapes your conscience, like forming colander along biblical lines, cutting the holes precisely the right size in just the right number, such that your conscience more and more aligns with the character of God himself. The Scripture provides an unchanging moral standard by which to calibrate your conscience.

Proverbs 8:12 says, “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.” If you fear the LORD, righteous indignation will sometimes rise within your breast, and it ought to. For evil is real, and those who love the LORD hate it.

But before you mount your moral high horse, make sure it’s a biblical horse.

Asking the Better Question

“Why is this pandemic happening?” Maybe you’ve asked this question. Maybe you’ve heard a number of people trying to answer. Me too.

Recently I read an article in which the author asserted that the present pandemic represents a judgment from God against the sins of the world. I also read a different article in which the author asserted that the present pandemic does not represent a judgment from God against the sins of the world. Both authors profess Christ. What is the average Christian to make of such stuff?

The Scripture helps us in a number of ways. First, it tells us that plagues and pestilences will continue to be a part of life until Jesus returns to renew the Creation. In Luke 21:11, as Jesus spoke to his disciples about the time between his first coming and second coming, he said: “There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences.” Christians ought therefore to be wary of anyone who identifies a particular disease as a particular judgment from God against a particular sin, for diseases are a part of the fallen world in which we live, and they will remain so until the return of Christ.

The Scripture cautions us, moreover, by revealing that we are not privy to God’s thoughts. We know about God exactly and only what he has chosen to reveal to us, and in his revelation of himself he has said in no uncertain terms: “[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). To speculate about God’s reasons for his providential actions is to pry into something he has not chosen to reveal. Even as Moses declared in Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Moses taught that you don’t need to speculate about what God has not revealed, but rather to obey what he has.

To assert, “This virus judges that sin,” is therefore unwise and unbiblical. God interprets his own providences in Scripture, and without his divine interpretation of any given event, man ought not to guess what God is thinking or to assign motives to his actions. You could easily find yourself to be lying about God.

But we can and should warn. Christians should see tragedies, natural disasters, and even pandemics, not only as an opportunity to express compassion, and to offer physical and emotional aid to those who suffer, but also to call men and women to repentance and faith in Christ. You may be thinking: “But isn’t that harsh? Isn’t using human suffering as an opportunity to tell people to repent callous?” No, because that is precisely what Jesus did.

In Luke 13 Jesus used a natural disaster—an earthquake that caused a tower to fall—in order to call men and women to repent. Jesus asked, “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” And he answered, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

That doesn’t sound very compassionate, does it? Certainly Jesus protected those whom the tower crushed from character assassination. He made clear that the tower did not fall on them specifically as a punishment for their sin. Those who died were not morally worse than those who lived. But Jesus did use their tragic deaths in a way that we may find uncomfortable—to encourage others to repent. We tend to define compassion as care for a person’s physical and emotional needs, but Jesus’ compassion is more searching than ours. He loved grieving people enough to offend them by warning them that if they died in their sin a tragedy would befall them greater than that which befell those crushed under the tower. Jesus saw this very real human tragedy not merely as a chance to offer physical and emotional care, but also to offer a deeper, spiritual compassion—to exhort each of us to address our sin before a Holy God and be reconciled to him.

Are you still speculating about God’s providence? Or are you doing what Jesus commands? You may never know the reasons behind God’s actions, or why COVID-19 arrived when it did or for what purpose, but in the end what you do know is far better. You know your Heavenly Father’s character, for he has revealed it at the cross of Christ. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ’s death demonstrates God’s love toward sinners like you and me, and holds out the promise of salvation to all who will believe. While many are rightly seeking temporary physical safety from COVID-19, they are sadly neglecting the eternal physical and spiritual safety from sin and its consequences that the Lord is offering. But he is offering still. How will you respond?

“Why is this pandemic happening?” Maybe the better question is, “How should I respond to this pandemic?”

Because while providence is mysterious, salvation is not.

Strange Days . . .

These are strange days indeed.

When have the citizens of any nation ever believed it to be the responsibility of their government to prevent them from contracting an airborne virus? Somewhere along the way a paradigm shift took place in America, and we’re seeing the fruit of that shift today.

Communicable diseases and bacterial infections, along with the deaths they cause, comprised a familiar feature of American life not so long ago. Typhus, typhoid, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, polio, and cholera exacted their cost yearly, and generations of Americans lived and labored under the pall of disease. Death never stood far from our forbearers, and the risk of contracting a life-threatening illness loomed over everyday social interactions.

Basic sanitation, clean water, and the emergence of vaccines and antibiotics radically reduced or eliminated many common diseases of generations past, and our life expectancy has blossomed as a result, stretching from 36 years in 1800 to 47 in 1900 to 75 in 2000 to 78 today.

Whereas improved hygiene, sanitation, and waste management helped to eradicate diseases like typhus, typhoid, and cholera, and while mosquito control helped to end seasonal malaria and yellow fever epidemics, the widespread availability of penicillin beginning in 1945 and the polio vaccine in 1955 helped to usher in an era in which death from disease and infection rapidly waned. Vaccines multiplied, medicine advanced, and America forgot.

The last yellow fever outbreak in the United States occurred in 1905. Malaria is unheard of. Cholera is a third world disease. Only the WWII generation remembers suffering through scarlet fever, mumps, measles, and rubella, while only the eldest of the Baby Boomers can recall a childhood with polio. Smallpox has been eradicated worldwide for over forty years, and virtually no American child for twenty years has endured the itchy misery of chicken pox.

Americans now expect to live largely disease free. That expectation is barely seventy years old, but it saturates the air we breathe, and we have become an entitled people—entitled to health, entitled to freedom from disease, entitled to a long life, so much so that we now expect Uncle Sam to prevent us from contracting an airborne cold virus.

COVID-19 has exposed this paradigm shift.

The rise of AIDS in the early 1980s threatened our entitlement, but pharmaceutical salvation came quickly and our superiority over disease resumed. But then came SARS, MERS, Zika, and the reemergence of measles and pertussis. Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are multiplying, as are deaths from hospital infections. And now, COVID-19 has paralyzed the globe. Our mastery over nature seems less complete than it did even a decade ago.

The future will not get easier.

As strong as American entitlement to personal health has become, something older, stronger, and deeper undergirds American culture—individualism. Fierce, independent, vigorous individualism, bursting forth in every manner of self-expression and personal freedom, runs in American blood. But for generations, the ethic of Christianity tempered and shaped the average American’s use of the individual freedom he or she enjoyed, imbuing individualism with altruism, self-sacrifice, morality, and self-control. But the wane of Christianity in America has largely coincided with the rise of health-entitlement. As a result, the individualism that thrives in American culture today runs free from all fetters, having abandoned the moral and ethical constraints of prior generations. As the 21st century progresses, as new diseases emerge while old diseases reappear, as the global community becomes more global, and as individual actions increasingly affect community wellbeing, American entitlement to health and American individualism will increasingly collide, compete for dominance, and spark deep social divisions.

Already those who privilege freedom and those who privilege health stand at loggerheads. Some parents demand the personal freedom not to vaccinate their children. Others demand the vaccination of all children in the name of public health. Some students assert their right to enjoy spring break during the midst of a pandemic. Others demand that those same students forego spring break for the sake of public health.

American culture offers no solution to this impasse. But Christ does.

Jesus teaches personal freedom tempered by a deep personal responsibility to love and protect our neighbors. Jesus supports public efforts to eliminate diseases and the suffering they inflict on our fellow man, but he also teaches that the man who escapes disease today will nevertheless stand before his Creator tomorrow, for death will find us all. Jesus offers eternal health in the face of temporary health that is sure to wane. Jesus promises eternal freedom—not freedom to sin, but freedom from sin—the freedom of the sons of God, full of the responsibility to glorify God.

Ultimately, freedom and safety only coexist in Jesus Christ, and if America wants both it must first have him.

“Distancing” Double-Talk

Some double-talk is too hypocritical not to mention.

St. Patrick’s Day revelers. College spring breakers. Any person in any public group of any size. What do they have in common? All have been shamed and excoriated on social media for refusing to comply with “social distancing” guidelines.

One young man lashed out via Facebook at a photo of college students on a Florida beach, writing that these were “the worst kind of humans,” while another agreed, saying to the students in the photo, “You’re killing people!”

“Idiots,” “dumbsh*ts,” and “*ssholes” are just of few of the more vulgar insults I’ve read recently as people virtue signal their support for “distancing.” The less-than-delightful meme, “Stay the F*ck Home!” has also been making its rounds.

The implication seems clear: Socially responsible human beings do not brazenly risk other’s lives.

But at least in my social media sphere some of the most vocal shamers of those who violate “distancing” rules are at the same time vocal supporters of abortion. Evidently, Joe McIrish is directly responsible for making sure that no grandmother gets COVID-19, but an abortion advocate is not responsible to protect the unborn. Mary from State U is supposed to set aside her freedoms for the safety of others, but the abortion advocate won’t set aside hers for her own baby. What happened to socially responsible human beings not brazenly risking others lives?

After all, abortion does not simply risk life. It destroys it.

Personally, I’m happy to participate in “social distancing.” I believe that love for neighbor compels me to seek the welfare of others, even if that means setting aside some of my “rights” for a time.

But if you’re in favor of slaughtering 2,500 babies each day, every day, which is the butcher’s bill of abortion in America, then please don’t lecture anyone on hand washing, “social-distancing,” or the need to protect the vulnerable.

Because you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth.

A Guaranteed Inheritance

Some things cannot be taken away.

In the last two weeks, each of us has learned that a pandemic can take away many more things than we’d prefer to give. It can take away your favorite restaurant. It can take away your gym. It can take away your school. It can take away airline flights, vacation plans, wedding ceremonies, and an eager 12-year-old’s epic Nerf gun backyard Rambo birthday party. It can take away March Madness, the NHL, and the Master’s. It can take away your job, your paycheck, and your economic security. It can take your friend, your neighbor, your grandmother.

But it cannot take your inheritance.

Even as Paul teaches in Galatians 4:4-7, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

Did you catch that? You who trust in Christ possess, and are possessed by, his Holy Spirit, for you are adopted sons and daughters of God, and if sons and daughters then heirs of your Father’s estate. And what does your Father possess? All things. What will you inherit? All things. A renewed and perfected Creation awaits you, a land flowing with milk and honey, in which neither disease nor age nor injury nor death stalk the living. This inheritance is guaranteed to your faith, for by his death Christ has purchased it for you. It is bought and paid for. No pandemic can take it from you. It is secure, for he who holds it for you is God Almighty.

Not even death can take this inheritance. So hold your head high, Christian, and be not afraid. To live is Christ. Yes, and to die surely is gain.

For some things cannot be taken away.

Boot Camp, COVID-19, and Busyness

I am often way too busy, and so are you.

COVID-19 has interrupted the busyness, imposing upon most of us some form of “social distancing,” isolation, or even full quarantine. None of us is happy about it, save for the most ardent introverts. But an empty schedule and a slower pace of life offer blessings, especially for Christians.

For three years I served as a chaplain aboard Parris Island, SC where Marine Corps boot camp takes place. Recruits face a radical life change when they arrive on the island. No cell phone. No laptop. No iPad. No television, Netflix, or Amazon Prime. No communication with the outside world, except for snail mail. And no talk with other recruits. At all. For weeks.

Young men and women whose lives toggled from one entertainment to the next, and who had never before known a day without digital technology at their fingertips, suddenly find themselves alone with their thoughts and feelings for the first time. Rather than simply turning to the next entertainment to alleviate painful emotions, personal shortcomings, or family struggles, recruits must face them. The quiet suffocates them.

And then something amazing happens. They grow. Many recruits come to Christ, most come to a new peace in themselves, and all come to understand the poverty of living moment-to-moment in a fog of digital distraction.

The Scripture has taught the value of seclusion, quiet, and stillness for millennia. Even as Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” But it’s hard to be still when you’re constantly distracted, entertained, and scheduled to the hilt. Busyness intrudes.

Not unlike boot camp, COVID-19 has imposed on many of us a measure of solitude to which we are unaccustomed. It has enforced a slower pace of life. And while we, unlike Marine Corps recruits, continue to have access to countless digital distractions, I want to encourage you not to use them. Rather than seeking solace in Netflix, reengage with your family. Talk with your spouse. Write a letter to your nephew. Read the Bible, and a good book as well. Complete a puzzle. Take a nap. Play a board game. In short, slow down. Be still before the Lord, and be present with your family.

Sometimes we talk about “the calm before the storm”—that eerie moment of silence before storm winds crash into the trees. But maybe we ought to talk about the storm before the calm—the storm of busyness, distraction, entertainment, and work that so often consumes us, but which has suddenly, and maybe blessedly, given way to stillness.

COVID-19 may have forced you to be still, but I hope you use it, and increasingly choose it over all-consuming busyness.

Blaming Neverland

I recall as a child watching with innocent joy the film, Peter Pan. Nearly all movies require “suspension of disbelief”—that marvelous choice to dive into a make-believe world, to ignore plot holes, to accept the impossible, and simply to be entertained—but Peter Pan requires it in spades. Eternally a boy, Peter moves between an alternate world and this one. He flies, he fights Neverland pirates in floating galleons, and he leads a motley gang of pre-pubescent swashbucklers, all of whom adore a pixie-dust covered fairy named Tinker Bell. It is a wonderful movie, but only if you’re willing to “suspend disbelief.”

But even as a child I knew when to return to reality. Although I enjoyed the movie, I never sprinkled dust on my head and attempted to fly out of a second story window. A movie is a movie. Gravity is gravity.

It might be odd, then, if I were to allow Peter Pan so to influence my thinking that I attempted a pixie-dust fueled flight from my rooftop. But it would be odder still if in response to my broken bones society rose up, condemning the film for having planted anti-gravity ideas in my mind. It would be odd for the simple reason that the overwhelming majority of all the people who ever have watched Peter Pan have not jumped from rooftops or balconies or second story windows. That tends strongly to suggest that the fault would lie with me rather than the film.

But in America today, if a young man commits a public crime, the press, politicians, and rank and file citizens alike join in suggesting that he broke the law because he first watched a film that depicted criminal violence, or because he indulges in racist chat groups, or because the President said something derogatory about immigrants, or because he lives in poverty. A never-ending list of supposed “causes” could be added, and as these “causes” mount the responsibility of the criminal himself fades. Now, don’t get me wrong. I tend to think that films that glorify criminal violence are foolish. Racist websites offer both bad ideas and often, bad grammar. Our President, much to his shame, rarely speaks without saying something derogatory about somebody. And although poverty and crime often unite in the press, the vast majority of poor people are honest, hard-working, law-abiding folk. But with increasing frequency, the common American narrative describes a criminal’s action as the fault of the media he consumes or the groups with which he affiliates or his socio-economic status. As a result, individual responsibility dies. Never mind that millions of people watch films that glorify criminal violence, but commit no crime. All of us have been exposed to racism online, in print, in the media, and in person, and yet most of us love our neighbors of every color and nationality and religious persuasion. Millions daily listen to the inane and often derogatory comments of politicians of both parties, but manifest no violent behavior on account of it. Neither poverty nor wealth makes a man a criminal. These supposed “causes” of criminality don’t cause much of anything except annoyance and frustration in the vast majority of people exposed to them.

The truth that our society seems slowly to be forgetting is that a man is more than the information he receives, the media he consumes, the groups to which he belongs, or the quantity of money he makes. He is a morally accountable agent. And some morally accountable agents choose to respond to this world or their frustrations or their neighbor’s opinions criminally. Not because they must, but because they choose to do so.

No society would condemn Peter Pan for the folly of a man who failed to leave pixie dust behind when he left the theater. But America seems determined to blame cultural and political and socio-economic scapegoats rather than to embrace the simple truth that some people do wicked things. And the reason for their crimes resides in their mirror.