Recently, I went with a friend to see the movie, “Sound of Freedom.” For those who don’t know about the film — perhaps because much of the mainstream media has ignored its success — it highlights the memoirs of former Special Agent Tim Ballard, who encounters the child sex trafficking trade, quits his job, and dedicates his life to defeating this sinister reality and rescuing kids entrapped within it.
As I walked out of the theater, I was angry; it was the same type of anger that emerged often as a police officer when confronted with such evil. To be sure, I was never faced with the likes of child trafficking as a detective or an officer. But I was confronted, more than once, with cases that rivaled that level of evil, and the film thrust me back into that arena and the influence those cases had on my faith life.
Most people, over the course of their lives, don’t have to deal with such menacing things, thankfully. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And when we do encounter them, the ways in which we manage them can mean the difference between our triumph or downfall.
There are a few quotes that strike me regarding the balancing act of recognizing evil without becoming part of it. The first is from Archbishop Charles Chaput, the retired archbishop of Philadelphia: “Evil talks a lot about tolerance when evil becomes weak … Evil cannot co-exist peacefully with goodness because it insists on being seen as right.” The second quote, from St. Augustine, is not necessarily a contrast to the first: “God judges it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil exists.”
As a detective, my wife could always tell when I had a rough day at work. It was usually accompanied by a phone call home, asking her: “How are the girls? Give them a big hug for me.” She usually knew it was because I encountered something bad and wanted to be the antithesis of it for my family.
As a high school moral theology teacher, one of the lessons I assign my students involves case studies from homicides I’ve encountered while I was a police officer. We study these cases through the lens of faith rather than forensics, and I ask them to find virtues and deadly sins amidst the characters within. Perhaps the bigger reason I expose them to this is to unravel the idea that theology is only about comfort or utopia. And to show them we can’t stop at the bad, but must forge toward the good. It’s there if we but look.
Human beings are capable of perpetrating unimaginable evils on each other. But our culture is often remiss in stopping there, because we are also capable of perpetrating incredible good. It all depends on Who reigns in our hearts. When we see evil, we can either let it defeat us, or we can allow it to energize us into the heroes we seek to become.
My wife and I decided, early in our marriage, that we needed to find ways to counter the suffering with which I was faced on the job. We tried to get involved in our church. Our kids’ young lives were centered on the sacraments and the activities surrounding our parish life. Seeing such good in others reminded me that what I encountered on duty didn’t reflect the norm, but the exception. That didn’t mean it was always easy.
I often quip about the dichotomy I saw between some of our police friends, and our church friends — both sets of great people. Many of our police friends’ views were simple: Everyone lies, everyone cheats, trust no one. Unfortunately, many of our church friends’ views suffered from the same simplicity: Everyone is honest, everyone tells the truth, and evil is little more than misunderstanding. Neither of these perspectives was something I felt entirely comfortable in.
Often, people who are forced to deal with evil regularly lose themselves in that evil. They become part of it because they can see no redemption. And so often, people who are steeped in faith — surrounded by good, honest, hard-working people — fail to see evil, and in fact, often put up blinders to it because it’s so difficult to look at.
We are called to something different — as are our kids and our students. Jesus tells us that love can conquer evil. The question then becomes, "What is love?" Is it tolerance? Perhaps sometimes it is. But often, it’s something just a bit more. It’s the idea that we stand up for truth, teach it pastorally, and rather than ignoring evil, we confront it without allowing it to change us.
As St. Basil the Great once wrote: “Human beings are animals … who have received the vocation to become God.” We see the animal in evil, but must rise above it to “become” more than that. When we find ourselves tarnished by the evil we fight, let us not remain there. Rather, let us continue looking to the One who makes us clean, that we may carry out our vocations with the highest dignity.
Paul Stuligross is a retired police officer. He currently teaches theology at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Novi.