A story about Patrick Drum, a man serving life in prison for having murdered two child molesters as part of a self-styled vigilante campaign. Excerpt:

Drum’s childhood in Port Angeles and, briefly, in Northern California was far from idyllic. His parents, both drug addicts, had him about one year after their two other sons were put into foster care, and divorced soon thereafter. His father, violent and only sporadically mentally present due to his drug and alcohol use, remarried. As a kid, Drum remembers stealing his father’s toluene—a solvent that Drum’s mother had abused while Drum was in utero—sparking an addiction that he would struggle with throughout the rest of his life.

Drum learned quickly that adults, particularly men, could not be trusted. His brother, Isaac, told police that his father was volatile, but Drum later revealed more about the violence in the household. He recalls his father spitting tobacco in his face for doing something wrong, and also strangling him unconscious in front of friends. He remembers what it was like to have adults watch as he writhed on the floor, doing nothing to save him. The memories of seeing the sexual abuse are hazy, but Drum can still recall the night when he was 6 years old and walked into the living room. He remembers that his father was sitting on the couch in a night robe. And he remembers seeing a teenage girl, dressed in a long nightgown, straddling his father and, even then, knowing what he was seeing was wrong. Drum’s father was later convicted of statutory rape.

Drum spent time in the care of other family members and, when he was 10 or 11, was staying with one of his uncles. Drum decided to go for a walk around town by himself. He was coming of age and was enjoying the freedom to do things independently. But, while he was out, a man in his 30s saw him and asked if Drum would like to go drinking. When Drum accepted, the man went to a nearby liquor store and bought two big bottles of whiskey.

The pair went into the woods and, by the time things started to get out of hand, Drum was too drunk to run away or even really know what was happening. The man forced Drum to perform oral sex and then forced oral sex on him. Drum didn’t know where the man went afterward, only that he left. He managed to find his way out of the woods and to the bus line that would take him near his uncle’s home. Drunk and unable to walk, he crawled on hands and knees toward the home. Someone in a car saw him and took him the rest of the way.

Drum never spoke of what happened that day. He told a few close friends that he had been molested as a child, but nothing more. After the assault, Drum became very protective of others, mostly women and children, almost to a fault.

Let me make it perfectly clear: what Drum did was deeply wrong, and he belongs in jail. Full stop.

That said, this story made me reflect on the connection between belief in God and our moral actions. As longtime readers will know, nothing sets me off like hearing stories about children abused, sexually and otherwise. I was not abused as a child, but there was a time in my life — I was 14 — when I was held down in a hotel room by a group of popular teenagers who threatened to sexually abuse me. Two adults who were chaperones on that vacation literally stepped over me, begging them to help, to walk out of the room. That was an educative moment. I learned in an intimate and traumatic way that authority will throw people they find expendable to the wolves. For me, the Catholic child abuse situation was one long series of emotional triggers. From the Atlantic story:

These cases are shocking for anyone but, for someone who was sexually abused as a child, hearing about these stories can trigger serious, psychological reactions. “It is very common that hearing about a child being victimized or hearing about a molester living in the neighborhood would trigger a lot of the old feelings and perhaps memories about what happened to the victim,” said Dr. Carolyn Knight, professor of social work at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County and the author of Working with Adult Survivors of Childhood Trauma. Some who have experienced abuse in childhood, particularly men, are prone to turning these emotions outward, sometimes violently. “Physically targeting child molesters is probably very, very rare and unusual,” Knight said. “But the dynamic is not uncommon.”

To be sure, I have never been remotely tempted to harm a child abuser. But I have not only been tempted to sympathize with those who have harmed child abusers, I have publicly done so. Back in 2002, with the cascade of clerical abuse stories coming down, Dontee Stokes, with whom Father Maurice Blackwell had had sex a decade earlier (the priest admitted to this), when Stokes was a minor, shot and seriously wounded Fr. Blackwell.  Of course the Archdiocese of Baltimore had known about Fr. Blackwell’s behavior, and had reassigned him. Dontee Stokes couldn’t take it anymore. He confessed to shooting Fr. Blackwell.

I recall reacting to news of this crime by blogging support for Dontee Stokes. I shortly thereafter regretted that emotional outburst, and said so publicly. Vigilantism is wrong; I had been wrong to voice support for it, and wrong to have supported it even in my heart. I took that to confession.

The thing is, I didn’t feel guilty for taking pleasure in Fr. Blackwell getting comeuppance. I knew I was guilty of a sin, and that I should work to bring my feelings in line with what I knew was right. In fact, thinking of it right now, I don’t feel sorry for Fr. Blackwell, and I don’t feel sorry for the victims of Patrick Drum. But I know that my emotions are a poor guide to right and wrong in these cases, and that they must be refused.

If I weren’t a believing Christian, I don’t know that I would have the strength to accomplish this. Stories like this set my heart on fire with anger. If I didn’t believe in a God of justice, and a God who commands us to refuse rage and vigilantism, it would be hard for me to resist it. I confess that I am powerless before it. Again, I have never been remotely tempted to an act of violence against a child abuser, but it is an ever-present temptation to endorse, if only in my heart, those who do. Ideally, I would reject these emotions for the highest possible reasons; sometimes, I get there. But mostly it’s a matter of knowing that God is just, and if I were to participate however tangentially (that is, with emotional assent) to acts of vigilante violence against sex offenders, I would be guilty of sin, and God would hold me accountable for that.

That’s my particular problem. For others, the trigger could be episodes of racial bigotry, or any number of things that touch on buried trauma. It’s important to make an abstract, rational case for the importance of the law, and for refusing vigilantism. But for many of us, whether because of past trauma or the strength of our convictions, fear of the Lord is more important in staying our hand, literally or, as in my case and most cases, metaphorically. I am just that primitive, deep down, and if you think you are not, you are lying to yourself. A capacity to render ordered justice is near the heart of what separates civilization from barbarism. No matter how civilized we are, very few if any of us really exorcise the barbarian within. History is undeniable on this point. All of us — even those who are strong believers in God — are capable of doing, or agreeing with, horrible deeds under the right circumstances.

A 1999 story from The New York Times Magazine, about the curse of the culture of vengeance in Albania, brought home to me the radical liberation of the ethic of Jesus Christ. The author talks about the deep dedication to blood feuds among Albanians, rooted in the kanun, or traditional, unwritten code. Excerpt:

At its core, the kanun is all about defending one’s honor, since ”a man who is dishonored is considered dead.” While lesser offenses to one’s honor can be settled through apologies or gift-giving, higher offenses mandate the taking of blood.

By the dictates of the kanun, a murder is the ultimate affront to a family’s honor, the family existing in a limbo state of disgrace, essentially ”owned” by the killer, until they ”take their blood back” — and the most respectable way to do that is to kill the killer. Of course, once this is done, it means the other family is in disgrace and needs to take its blood back.

If it sounds like a recipe for slaughter, it gets worse. Since the kanun of Leke Dukagjini was not written down until the beginning of this century, its precepts were passed down orally — which meant they mutated. In the original edicts, for example, only the actual murderer was targeted in a ”blood,” or a kanun-sanctioned vendetta, but those parameters gradually expanded over time to include all his male relatives. In some villages, certain crimes were judged so heinous that they mandated a 2-for-1 or even 3-for-1 payback. A result was bloods that ranged over entire regions and for generations — the longest reportedly lasted 240 years — and left scores dead. They also had a devastating economic impact. Since a home could never be invaded in order to carry out a blood, the males of an entire extended family on the wrong side of a feud could spend years ”locked” inside their houses or kulas.

Granted, this is an extreme example, but you see the point. The idea that you should forgive, that forgiving releases you and society both from the prison of vengeance, is radical — and profoundly liberating. That’s what Mr. Ives’ Christmas is about. As the Oscar Hijuelos novel illustrates, this is by no means easy. In fact, it’s excruciating. It can be the project of decades. The thing to observe about the Ives character is that even when he is powerless to forgive his son’s murderer, he refuses many opportunities to assassinate the murderer offered him by vigilantes. Ives is a Catholic. He may be imprisoned by grief and hatred towards a criminal who deserves his anger, but Ives knows deep down that vigilantism is wrong. It’s just wrong, and he will not have any part of it. This saving refusal of vengeance is inextricable from his Catholic faith — and for reasons I won’t get into here (read the novel!), it very nearly costs him that faith.

I am not going to say that only religious believers can find the strength to refuse violence against those they deem guilty of heinous crimes, and having gotten away with them in some sense. Plainly many people who profess religious belief yield to these passions all the time (the Albanians, for example, are almost certainly either Christian or Muslim), and there are surely examples of men and women of no particular religious belief who found, and find, the inner resources to resist. What I know is my own heart, and my own weakness. I know that God is watching me, and that I will be held divinely accountable for my own thoughts and actions. And I believe, because the man I revere as God has said so, that I am commanded to forgive, which entails the forswearing of vengeance, even in my heart.

This is hard. It might be the hardest thing for me. But what choice is there? If I didn’t believe in Jesus Christ, I would make justice my idol, and there would be blood — if not from my hand, then from hands like Patrick Drum’s, hands I would bless with my silent consent.