Last month, Father Isaac Achi was burned alive in his rectory by militants in Kafin-Koro, Nigeria. Another priest there, Father Collins Omeh, was shot in the back but escaped. Before Achi insisted that Omeh flee, the two priests heard each other’s confessions. Upon the possibility of imminent death, both wanted to be assured of God’s mercy, knowing themselves to be sinners. Christianity has at its core the humble belief that humans are weak and in need of the sacramental grace only God can provide.
Watching the video footage of the police beating of Tyre Nichols after an apparently baseless traffic stop in Memphis, it goes without saying that the officers appear devoid of humility and every other virtue there is. Nichols later died in the hospital from his wounds.
Weep for the Depravity on Full Display
Princeton professor Robert P. George recently gave a lecture reflecting on the necessity of civic virtue, which, quite obviously, requires the existence of virtue itself. During a Q&A after the talk, George reflected on the loss of a sense of shame he sees even in his own students. Not so long ago, someone who cheated on a test would usually feel bad about it, and certainly wouldn’t boast about it. These days are different.
In his talk, George mentioned Founding Father James Madison, who wrote: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.” Madison worried that the American system of self-government relies on a too-optimistic view that citizens’ better angels will win out.
I do not much like to dwell on the depravity of men so much as focus on the possibilities for goodness. But when you watch that video footage of the police beating Tyre Nichols, there is the depravity Madison writes about on full display. How can we help but to weep? For Nichols and for his grieving family. And for our country, too — for our young people and for our families, such that they are.
The Problem Lies in the Human Soul
During his talk, George said that a people lacking in virtue will trade liberty for comfort, for having problems solved. Every time something clearly evil happens in our country, there is always this reflex to fix it. As if one swift act or one piece of legislation could ever do such a thing. But the problem lies in human souls, which no legislation can touch.
The only answer to such barbarity as we saw on the streets of Memphis is virtue. We must remind ourselves of why the Declaration of Independence heralds the right to life. We’ve become so used to violence. We’ve become so used to either ignoring or using people. Our daily lives can be transactional at best, depraved at worst. It’s all related.
Are we all capable of the kind of inhumanity on display in Memphis? Without virtue, we are. Acknowledging that requires the kind of humility those priests displayed in Nigeria. And therein lies the key to our future, if we have any hope of remembering and rebuilding our identity as citizens in a nation that doesn’t work without virtue.
Kathryn Jean Lopez