I only have to read scripture to know that people are walking contradictions and that some of us are breathing civil wars. Beyond that I simply have to look within to know that while what the Bible says seems very plain, what I see and feel within is absolutely beyond debate. And my experience with people confirms these two sources.
I don’t say that we are all equally conflicted. I believe I know people that across the board are much more mature than I am. Yes, I suspect that on the whole they are more finely balanced and permeated to a greater degree with virtue than I am or ever have been. I would suppose if I were judged by my moral failures and weakness in some specific areas of my life that I would come very close to the bottom of the moral ladder. This is a great sadness to me for there is a part of me that longs for moral grandeur, there’s a deep desire in me to be like the God in whose image I have been and am being created. [I mustn’t give you the impression that people should be assessed on the basis of so many virtues over against so many vices—that would be wrong-headed, but I think you know what I mean by the above.]
I wish to make the point that however difficult it is for us to believe it, people are not just one thing. That should be—should it not?—a matter beyond dispute. Only the Christ was “just one thing”.
I’ve known many people up close and personal who were faced with a choice between right and wrong and chose the wrong. But it has occurred to me that in many of those cases I was blessed in not being faced with the situation they were faced with; blessed with not having to make the choice between good and evil for I’m not at all certain that I would have stood where they fell.
Some poor souls are daily faced with the pressure to do evil while others of us (God be praised and thanked!) live in our morally cosy little routines. Surrounded by godly friends, provided with more than adequate material and social resources and having been shaped by strong and warm people and structures we are sheltered from many of the storms that beat ceaselessly around the heads of millions. Yes, surely there is profound reason to be grateful for our conditions but do they not underscore the moral disadvantage of the masses?
Is it surprising that so many are morally weak and fragmented? Given the social and cultural structures that promote the worst aspects of hedonism and greed and self-centredness, should we be surprised that masses fear neither God nor man? And if this is what they fight against from the moment they draw breath do we do well to feel nothing but revulsion and a desire to isolate or exterminate?
In a powerful television drama one of the characters is morally and mentally ill. He has killed repeatedly but due to the limits in the human judicial system he was not convicted. He attached himself to a lawyer, who, understandably, was afraid of him and wanted nothing to do with him. But the man felt the influence of this lawyer changing him for the better. He gets a job and purposes to live in goodness, free from the evils he had engaged in but the lawyer—again perfectly understandably—feels compelled to undermine his agenda. He’s devastated by what he feels is betrayal and comes to say to her, “As you know, I have never denied being evil. One of the reasons I came to you initially—I saw you as my guardian out of evil and you in fact became that. I was beginning to turn my life around. I rediscovered hope and goodness and I credit much of that to your influence. But you walked away from me like I was some crazy, which I am at many levels. But my feelings for you…my friendship for you was sane and real and legitimate and good. It represents the part of me that wasn’t ill or evil—it was good.”
This expresses well what I want to say. I don’t say that there can’t be exceptions. I don’t say that there are not people, who like Mephistopheles says in that other classic drama, “Evil be thou my good/ good be thou my evil.” But I do say that such exceptions aside that there is not one of us that is “one thing”. I do say that down somewhere in the mysterious depths of a human heart, along with its evil there can be the vestiges of good longed for, the residue of good purposes that died for lack of inner strength and outside help.
In the old movie Angels with Dirty Faces we have the hard-bitten and brutal gangster (played by Jimmy Cagney) going to the electric chair for multiple murders. He’s arrogant, unrepentant and unafraid. For the sake of some boys who worship him as their hero the priest begs him to pretend he’s afraid to die. Cagney goes to the chair kicking and screaming and begging for mercy—for the sake of the kids and because his friend asked him to do it.
Should we dismiss this as bleeding-heart drivel, nauseatingly sentimental and false to life? I think not. Hanging on a tree the young Lord of creation saw his enemies with their glittering eyes and heard their hoarse mocking and said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Maybe it takes a purer and stronger heart than most of us have to speak this way under such circumstances. There’s little doubt in my mind that the bulk of us when faced with someone we judge to be a threat have no wish to dwell on his or her virtues. The only thing that counts is their vice.
But when we gather in an assembly we’re not slow to sing Rescue the Perishing. One of the stanzas has this neglected truth. “Down in the human heart/Crushed by the Tempter/Feelings like buried that grace can restore/Touched by a loving hand/Wakened by kindness/Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.” This sounds well in four-part harmony and feels good during times of peace and tranquillity. But let me assume that for the most of us (certainly in the West) that actually doing something costly about such a truth is a real stretch, especially as the expression of our living out that truth on a daily basis. Maybe executing such conviction is beyond us—though it’s possible for some that we know or have heard of. But I would suppose that before we can bear unbearable sorrow and fight unbeatable foes we need to truly think the unthinkable.
Ah well, then, so no one should be held accountable for wrongs done? I don’t believe that. Even the Christ held accountable those he loved and pitied. But maybe we can quit pretending that we hold that all sin should be punished. We don’t think all ours should be punished. Maybe we can chastise with less relish and more sensitivity. Maybe we can pity as well as punish. Maybe we can temper our speech when condemning the sins of others and perhaps we can renounce (if only to ourselves) the sense of moral superiority we feel. Should we ever judge? Of course we should! But surely not from a position of power, as though butter wouldn’t melt in our own mouths. And should we ignore great evil because there is in the transgressor something of real worth? Oh, I’m certain we should not. I’m also certain of this, we should not ignore the something of real worth in him or her because there is great evil. And I’m certain we should take full measure of our own evil that lurks down among our virtues.
Wasn’t it Schweitzer who told us that two boys were wrestling in a school playground? It was a long and hard tussle but finally the bigger boy (Schweitzer) triumphed. The skinnier kid, panting, said something like. “You wouldn’t have beaten me if I had been getting soup twice a day like you.” Hmmm, I wonder…