Demonic Possession and Mass Murder: Cures in a Pill or a Prayer?

In recent news we've heard a lot about whether the suspected Aurora shooter, James Holmes, is really insane, possibly faking insanity or truly evil but sane. We are eager to hear about the motivations and possible illnesses that befell Sandy Hook school shooter, Adam Lanza. We need to know why anyone would do these horrific things. As human figuring goes, if we can figure out why, maybe we can help prevent it from happening to our loved ones or any innocent people ever again.

We owe that improvement effort to those who perished and to those we want to protect.

It is a good question, and one that weighs heavily on many. I remember growing up slightly involved in the affairs of a nearby state psychiatric facility where my father worked for nearly thirty years in the hospital's administration. The range of what we call "insanity" was seemingly wider every time I tried to grasp it. Insane, I learned, is not one thing, sometimes not a permanent thing and sometimes a thing that morphs and evolves. Mental illness is such a sad and complex set of things.

Before I try to weigh in with my own opinions on the defense issue of these recent killers in the U.S., the ones with high-powered assault rifles, l want to take us back one, two and three thousand years. In those times in ancient Jewish and then later in Judeo-Christian circles would it have mattered these killers were insane or evil?

Judaism slowly progressed over thousands of years to the general position that murder was still clearly wrong, but capital punishment was a matter best left to God. By the year 30 C.E. the death penalty was for the most part abandoned, but for thousands of years prior, Judaism's teachings would have called for the death sentence for a murderer. A group of rabbis would have required pretty decent proof of the crime, and would have had to assemble a Sanhedrin, a panel of 23 judges, to decide the matter.

Ordinary crimes could have been decided by a Beit Din, a panel of three judges, but capital punishment required all 23.

Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher and scholar, later added his own level of insight to the murder punishment matter. "It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death."

Still using much restraint, Israel has only put to death one person, Adolf Eichmann in 1961.

Christianity today holds much broader views, from some Eastern Orthodox calls for total mercy to some Bible thumping, gun-tooting yahoos screaming for lethal injection, others even exacting revenge in the name of the Lord.

While Jesus himself may have been a model for humanity in forgiveness, His followers vary quite a bit on this. As it does many times, the Bible, even Jesus' own messages are recorded in ways that contradict each other, leaving room for a wide range of interpretations. Militant Christians may lean on Romans 13:3-4 to justify capital punishment: "or he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn't bear the sword in vain; for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil" (The Pacific Bible).

Many moderate and mainstream Christians lean on the famous "turn the other check" teachings to demand some level of judicial forgiveness and compassion, while others like to reflect on Leviticus, which lists many offenses that demand the criminal be put to death. These included crimes from incest, improper acts with animals to being a ghost medium. These criminals would have been stoned to death without question.

Today, what many of us know as the Sixth Commandment, although it is taught as the Fifth Commandment in both the Lutheran and Catholic churches, is "Thou Shalt Not Kill," is not uniformly translated. Some take it to mean kill, as in even if by accident, others take it to mean murder, as in intentional killing.

Some find it curious, though, that just after Moses received these important instructions from God, not to kill or murder, however defined, that he decided to immediately kill approximately 3,000 non-believers of his message. Exodus 32 is a pretty good read in crimes of passion.

Moses didn't have an AK-15. He didn't need one. With his power and with his words alone he instructed these people to be killed. Perhaps Moses illuminates the fact that guns are not always the problem, sometimes people are.

We don't hear many people wondering if Moses was insane or evil, but we would have to agree he was enraged. Actually, we don't hear much about Moses' tirade at all. Would Moses have been punishable by death and why wasn't he?

As we struggle to understand all the horrific gun violence in our country and all the tragic killings of innocent individuals and groups recently, we hear a lot about guns being the root of the problem or mental illness being the core problem, but not a peep about demons being the problem.

Are they gone?

I'm not a big demon believer so I don't particularly mind this, but it is a marked departure from thinking of the past -- particularly in the Judeo-Christian community.

For many hundreds, possibly thousands of years, religious causes of crimes were emerging. Demon possession was gaining traction as a "cause" of insanity and religious cures were sought instead of medical or judicial ones.

For many years the fix was not in the form of a pill, it was in the form of a prayer.

One book that explores ancient demon possession as a Jewish phenomenon, crisis and event in ancient cultures is out on the subject.

And in the end of August, J. Bryan Lowder wrote and interesting article on whether there were and are demons in Judaism.

For many of God's faithful, it makes for a more complete debate in some way, to bring the religious causes and punishments into view.

There is an interesting interview on Ancient Faith Radio -- a radio show dedicated to bringing ancient faith into the modern world -- in which some Sisters of the St. Barbara Monastery describe the difference between how they can categorize demon possessed people and the insane ones. There is a podcast you can listen to as well as the transcription.

We know by the many counts in the New Testament that by 2,000 years ago demons were considered a big problem. Still today, many believe in seeking out religious remedies for all kinds of things many of us only know as mental illness.

While many cultures and religions contain some concept of demonic possession, their portrayals vary. The ancient Sumerians, for example, believed that all diseases of the body and mind were caused by "sickness demons" called gidim and they had priests who practiced exorcisms to rid people of these demons.

And with the flu now at epidemic levels, we also don't hear about any exorcisms to rid us of germs, just recommendations for a trip to a CVS to get flu shot.

In many other ages and cultures and over many years likely no defense would have spared a killer's life, but perhaps the reputation of the killer's family could be spared if the person had been determined to have been temporarily insane due to demons taking over. As we mourn the innocent victims and grieve for their loved ones, we also have to feel so badly for the families of these killers today, with the horrible shame of the crimes forever attached to their names.

We hear it said that the devil is in the details -- in this case maybe the demon is in the grey. Is it simply too hard to place in one bucket regular sane people who conform to respect for the law, in another bucket those with complete disregard or inability to grasp the law and then a third for those about whom we cannot be sure?

Knowing the little bit I do about mental illness, it seems that any person who could carry out such an atrocity as the Aurora shooting, the Sandy Hook shooting or any shooting spree on innocent people must surely be mentally ill to some degree, all could have benefitted from help to some degree, but even the best doctors and most powerful drugs can't help everyone.

In our American way of thinking the situation through, we contemplate whether the person is capable of standing trial. Was he aware of his actions? Is he able to aid in his own defense? Come on, who buys a movie ticket 12 days in advance and orders all kinds of advanced weaponry and meticulously booby-traps his residence without managing to blow himself up in the process without a working, capable brain, albeit badly warped?

But from a religious point of view, was the person possessed by some kind of demons? Should we be compassionate and merciful or demanding of swift punishment?

God only knows.