The Internet Monk
A Webjournal edited by Michael Spencer
Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil
When Monsters Murder Children, the New Age has No Answers Worth Hearing
by Michael Spencer
I watched about an hour of the funeral of little Samantha Runnion, the angelic almost-six-year-old who was murdered last week in California. For those of us with children and who work with children, this sort of thing is mentally intolerable. The thoughts that a monster like Alenjandro Avila could walk right into a neighborhood, take this child, rape and murder her for his own sexual satisfaction make your mind recoil in disgust and helplessness. The knowledge that our adversarial judicial system failed to convict him of a previous incident, apparently because the defense effectively undermined the testimonies of the two victims, makes the murder even more senseless and heinous. Looking at that little casket, seeing the pictures and hearing the grieving mother--it was nightmarish.
I've done some difficult funerals, and I know what an overwhelming thing it is to stand up as the representative of God and say something that doesn't sound ridiculous or even offensive. I remember a funeral in a small town where I lived that involved the drowning deaths of two small children. The community was in shock, and the minister stood up and said God needed two little angels so he picked these two. If you could have sued preachers for malpractice, this guy would have been finished.
So I don't want to minimize the difficulty of putting together a service under this horrendous circumstance, or the difficulty of being the minister in that funeral. Don't take anything I am going to say as a criticism of this family that has lost something that would push me to the point of insanity. Their choice of what they wanted the world to hear was entirely their own, and it was their way of honoring the life of their daughter and giving the world a glimpse of their loss. The ministers did what I would have done: the best they could in drawing some sanity from their own faith traditions.
The service was held at the the Crystal Cathedral, and the primary speaker was a woman who was minister at the Church of Religious Science. I listened to almost her entire talk. Later, I looked up the Church of Religious Science on the net, and discovered that its history and beliefs place it in what orthodox Christians call the "mind cults." These are groups that came into existence around the turn of the last century, and have in common a kind of unitarian, new age approach to spirituality and a strong belief that the mental and the spiritual are one and the same. Highly individualistic and totally devoid of orthodox Christian truth, these groups are very appealing to those who want progressive, undogmatic spiritualities that tell the individual that his own thoughts, feelings and experiences are God, and that positive thinking can control life's circumstances.
Often such groups as the CRS clothe themselves in some Christian trappings, at least enough to be recognized as a church. CRS uses many Christian terms and ideas, but much like Unity or your average Oprah show, the content is purely Eastern and New Age. As a student of comparative religion, this is most interesting to me because the New Age worldview represented by CRS has a thoroughly Eastern view of evil; an answer that, in my opinion, is wholly inadequate to realities like the kidnapping, rape and asphyxiation of a five-year-old child.
The minister speaking at the funeral of Samantha Runnion talked a lot about children and how wonderful they are. She talked about the love we have for children and the "light" they bring into the world. She said that we do not understand why terrible things happen to children, but that we can be assured that Samantha's life had meaning because she was loved, she gave love and continued to give love in bringing millions of people together to think about loving and caring for their own children. She said the world was a better place because of Samantha, and that we were all better because she lived. She frequently said that Samantha was safe in "the arms of love." In the time that I listened, there was no reference to God at all. In fact, the name of God was avoided, even in prayer. Lots of advice on how to think about Samantha, and not think about what happened.
There are many things here that a Christian or any person would potentially agree with, I am sure. But I was deeply struck by the absence of any acknowledgement of the evil of what had happened. There was an awareness that such events are painful, and that we wish they did not happen, and that we do not understand them. But the Eastern/New Age spiritual worldview could not say "This was evil. This was sinful. This was an affront to a Holy God. The person who did this deserves justice and hell." There was a conscious avoidance of such categories.
This is not surprising if you know the Eastern belief system's overall approach to evil. In a worldview that says all is Karma, or that all suffering is caused by desire or that our life's destiny is determined by the choices we make, the atrocity of Samantha Runnion's murder is an uncomfortable piece of reality that does not easily fit into their view of truth. Did Samantha bring this on herself, as some New Agers teach? Can we simply say Avila is a case of too much wrong desire? Will Samantha be repaid for her suffering in her next life? Are all these actions--the murder and the compassion--all just aspects of "God" since God is the universe?
In his book, Long Journey Home, Os Guinness makes the excellent point that a worldview's response to the issue of genuine evil is a "gut" issue, and it is a place where Christianity has a strong and satisfying apologetic that must be contrasted with the competition. A Christian response to the Samantha Runnion tragedy would be different than the pale, Hallmarkish platitudes of the New Age.
The murder was evil. Avila is evil. His actions break the laws of Almighty God and every one of us, no matter what our beliefs, has an internal sense of the outrage against the law of God that has been perpetrated. This isn't part of God or his universe, this is an affront to God and a crime in the universe.
Samantha was made in the image of God. She belonged to God and her murder--even if it somehow fits into God's sovereign plan to allow evil that grace might triumph--is wrong in every possible way. While we rejoice in the good that God can bring out of evil, we do not rush past evil to see good. We stop and take a long, gut-wrenching look at the handiwork of evil. This is prima facia evidence that human beings are in rebellion against God and that there is a tremendous power of evil loose in the world.
We should be angry and shocked. While good may come of it and compassion has come out of it, justice itself screams to be satisfied and God recognizes this. While it is not our place to call a lynch mob, it is our place to insist on justice--swift, certain and sure. To honor God and Samantha, and to expose the evil of this action, justice must be done and it is the job of the civil authorities to carry it out, and of all good people to call for justice and approve of it.
Avila should be executed, and we should be unhappy if he is not. We hope he repents and accepts God's forgiveness for his crime, but he should still die as a measurement of the evil he perpetrated. This action deserves hell as its sentence, and only if the infinite Son of God removes that hell and places it on himself does Avila have any hope.
In the aftermath, we should remember the life of this little girl, and we should grieve, and we should love our children more and make our communities safer, particularly by doing the right thing when we serve on the jury trying a child sexual abuser. Whenever we think of Samantha, we should rejoice that God invites little children to safely dwell in his care. We should be continually outraged and moved by the evil that we have seen, and we should be happy for those in heaven where there are no tears, pains, or griefs.
To some extent, we are living in the twilight of the Christian centuries in the west, but we are still a long way distant from the time the New Age response to the death of Samantha Runnion satisfies the average person. I am sure many people sitting in the Crystal Cathedral listening to such a message as I heard were saying to themselves, "Is that all?" I would have paid money to hear what Al Martin would have said given 15 minutes of that service.
We know, or at least we know for the time being, that an ultimate sense of good and evil is necessary for life to be coherent. We simply cannot say that everything is good. Christians do not believe Romans 8:28 says all things are good. We believe that God can take horrendous, horrid evil, and weave it into a tapestry that is ultimately good and for His praise. But we don't look at the murder of a child and say "That's good." Yet the New Age worldview, in its failure to talk about the evil of evil, winds up speaking only of good, and that is not enough.
Not enough for Alenjandro Avila's evil act, and not enough for those of us who must live with it.