Some people are very quick to point the finger of blame at other people. It is difficult to watch or hear the news without someone pointing the finger at others. Generally speaking, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. This is a generosity of spirit that gives people space to demonstrated that the whispers about them are not true.
In the news stories that surrounded the Lucy Letby trial, one of the consultants on the ward where Letby worked was meeting with his colleagues to assess the common factors between a run of unexplained deaths of babies on the neonatal unit of the Countess of Chester Hospital. One of the main common factors was that Letby had been on duty for all of them. One of the consultants responded:
“It can’t be Lucy - not nice Lucy.”
Most pictures of Letby show her smiling. Yet the trial uncovered the unpalatable truth that she was a smiling assassin, who assumed God-like prerogatives of giving and taking life. Taking life appears to have given the young nurse a strange sense of control and discordant joy.
A four-letter word that was heard throughout the trial, particularly by the trial judge in his summary of the trial, was the word: evil. The only way to sufficiently categorise and describe Letby’s actions was to reach for a word which has deep moral and spiritual overtones.
To fully understand the capacity of human beings to do what is wrong we do need moral terms and categories. To call someone evil is a recognition that that there are moral lines over which human beings should not cross. Some acts are wrong; they are expressions of evil not the pursuit of good.
Preachers need this language and these categories if they are to speak meaningfully of good and evil, right and wrong. Yet this theme needs to be handled with care.
Putting certain people in a box called “evil,” can tend to make us feel a bit better about ourselves. They are evil and we are decent citizens. Certain crimes are universally deplored.
Yet preachers also want to say with the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:23:
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Preachers must be aware of the dangers here. Our sermons might say that: “All sin is sin in God’s sight.” As someone put it: “The prostitute might stand in a ditch and we on a mountain but neither of us can touch the stars!” We must not let ourselves off the hook by comparing ourselves with others. We are all sinners.
Is there a way of highlighting heinous evil, while recognising that: “Here but for the grace of God go I.” When we look into the face of evil, we see a smiling young woman, a person who is so like us.
The downward path of evil is not inevitable. It is reached by a staircase of choices.
The first murderous act in human history was proceeded by an encounter between Cain and God.
‘Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”’ (Genesis 4:6-7)
Evil is here depicting as a wild animal crouching at the door longing to devour.
Evil grows and develops when we say “No” to God and “Yes” to evil. Evil shrinks back when we learn to say “No” to evil and “Yes to God.”