Orthodox America

No Man Sins Alone  

The nation was aghast as headlines revealed the news that Susan Smith had murdered her two young boys. In the days and articles that followed, on talk shows, in factory cafeterias and around dinner tables, people were asking: How could a young mother do such a thing?  Was she a victim of past abuse?  Did she suffer from some mental disorder?  She must have been out of her mind!

Atrocious crimes are committed on America's streets every day.  We have become all but inured to the grisly details of drive-by shootings, gang violence, rapes, terrorism. Why did the Susan Smith case elicit such shock, such disbelief?  Was it because she was, in fact, so normal?  Here was no psychopath, no Jeffrey Dahmer, no drug-addict.  Susan Smith did not abuse her children; by all accounts she loved them. What possessed her to deliberately send them to their deaths at the bottom of a lake?

The question prompted even the ultra-secularist New York Times Magazine (June 4, 1995) to feature a cover article probing the "mystery of evil." In its discussion of the Susan Smith case, the Times made light of Newt Gingrich's opinion that the "formal cause" behind Susan Smith's act was the amoral social ethic promoted by the counter-culture liberalism of the 60's. The Times  unfairly suggested that Gingrich blamed society for the murder of the two boys, casting Susan Smith as a "victim" and thereby absolving her of responsibility for her evil deed.  In the Times' interpretation of the Speaker's remark, "It wasn't Susan Smith who pushed the Mazda into the lake; it was George McGovern."  It is a deliberate exaggeration, but there is more than a grain of truth in it.

Are we not all, to some degree, affected by our time, our culture?  And does it not tell us, Don't let anything or anyone get in your way of having a good life, a good time; of fulfilling your 'self'? Is not this the message so loudly trumpeted by the proponents of abortion; the proponents of euthanasia, of gay rights?  Only a matter of months separated Susan Smith's youngest boy from the thousands of babies aborted each year for the same reason-inconvenience. It is a matter, we are told, of freedom of choice. And Susan Smith made her choice. Abetted by society, she smothered her conscience, overcome by a selfish desire for a boyfriend who did not want the children.

We may have recoiled in horror upon learning of Susan Smith's crime, but we should ask ourselves: Are we really so different from this young woman? We are surrounded by the same culture, we are exposed to the same message. Are we immune to its effects?  Are we not likewise driven to sin by selfishness, by egotism, by self-love?  Self-love, writes St. Theodoros the Ascetic, banishes remembrance of God from the soul and "begets unimaginable evils."  St. Maximos the Confessor calls self-love "the mother of the passions." Society, by contrast, says, Go ahead, indulge yourself; it's OK to have an affair; it's OK to live together before you are married; it's OK to have an abortion; it's OK to be gay; it's OK to defy authority. And there are many other types of sinful behavior that society openly condones. This only helps us to justify all sorts of crimes against our conscience. They may not be as "gross"as the crime Susan Smith committed, but they are crimes nevertheless.

Living in an amoral, post-Christian society, it is difficult to keep our consciences from becoming warped. This is dangerous, for when the conscience is dull, we become insensitive to sin and lose the opportunity for soul-saving repentance.  Having little to say during Confession is seldom a good sign.  St. John Climacus writes, "We must carefully consider whether our conscience has ceased to accuse us, not as a result of purity but because it is immersed in evil. A sign of deliverance from our falls is the continual reckoning of ourselves as debtors."  A keen conscience is an indication of good spiritual health. "The man who is getting closer to God," says Abba Dorotheos, "looks on himself more and more as a sinner." Nor should we dismiss small sins as unimportant. The Psalmist expresses this very graphically: Blessed is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock (Ps. 137:9). In the interpretation of the Holy Fathers, this means taking evil thoughts while they are still in their infancy, and dashing them against the rock, which is Christ.  Failure to do so can have grave consequences: in the case of Susan Smith, the distance was not so great between selfish desire-and murder.

There is still another level on which we should consider the case of Susan Smith.  There is a saying among the Holy Fathers: "No man sins alone." Professor I.M. Andreyev, in his Orthodox Moral Theology (Appendix A, translated in Orthodox Life, No. 2, 1993), relates a newspaper account of a 29-year old mother who savagely beat to death her two-year old son.  In explaining how such evil was possible, Andreyev writes,

  "Since we are all sinners, we create evil and our evil becomes a part of the world's treasury of evil.  This evil coalesces into a huge energy of evil which seeks vessels of graceless bodies to put itself into, and when it finds them, it will be incarnated in them and they will do great acts of evil. /.../ Let each one of us consider himself...  What were you doing on the evening when this unbelievable but very real act was carried out? Indeed, perhaps it was your  sin, your depravity, your malice that provided the last drop of evil necessary for this child-killer's vessel of evil to overflow? This is how we must understand these matters if we are to call ourselves real Christians."

We must ask ourselves: Have we contributed, do we contribute to the amorality of our society?  Are we not thereby distant accomplices in the murder of Susan Smith's children-and many other evils of our time?  Here is ample reason for repentance.

Is there any way we can protect ourselves from assimilating the prevailing amoral consciousness, from absorbing the spirit of the world?  We cannot seal ourselves off from society, but we can minimize its influence by entering more fully into the world of Orthodox Christianity, into the life of the Church; by nourishing our souls with the lives of saints; by diligently examining our consciences and preparing for Confession; by making the effort to become more conscious Orthodox Christians; by reflecting more frequently on death and eternity.  There are no new answers here. We all know what needs to be done if we desire salvation.  Let us put our hands to the plow. 


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