People They Ain't No Good
Dachau, My Lai...and now Abu Ghraib. Each foul human action, suggests Christian writer Mike Riddell, points to that struggle at the very heart of what it means to be human. We are like flawed diamonds, made in God’s image – yet each is capable of ultimate betrayal.
The gulf between Christian tradition and contemporary culture is nowhere so evident as in the associations carried by the word ‘sin’. This humble three-letter word,which at one time in human history was enough to bring a shadow of fear across the hearts of even the rich and powerful, has been diluted to the point of ridicule. It now turns up in menu descriptions, where a dessert might be identified as ‘sinfully sweet’. In popular jargon, the word ‘wicked’ means ‘good’.
Religious language has been colonised, and perhaps it is a lost cause to seek to reclaim it. But what we cannot do, without losing our hold on the legacy of faith, is relinquish our understanding of a concept which, our Scripture tells, Jesus died for. The reality indicated by ‘sin’ is as much a feature of human experience as ever it was, and we ignore it at our peril. We can play fast and loose with the terminology, but the struggle which it points to lies at the very heart of what it means to be human.
Recently America has been shocked by events in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The United States forces, sent forth as agents of light and liberation, have instead been revealed as sadistic torturers. The human face of humiliation has been Private Lynndie England, a young church-going woman now famous for her sexual intimidation of Iraqi prisoners. Locals from her hometown describe her as a ‘very sweet girl’ and find it difficult to believe that she could be guilty of the abuse she is accused of.
If we don’t find some way of understanding what forces are at work in events such as these, we remain condemned to re-enacting My Lai or Dachau for each successive generation. Sin – and I continue to use the word for want of any better – is neither irrelevant nor inactive in a world come of age. Increasingly, apparently secular commentators are forced to cast about for some sort of terminology to describe behaviour which is clearly beyond the boundaries of ‘inappropriate’.
Unfortunately, the church and post-modern society have both contributed to a notion of sin which is not substantial enough to carry the weight of history. Somehow along the way, we have adopted a consensus that sin refers to ‘acts of wrongdoing’. This focus on individual transgression trivialises sin, making of it something private and petty.
The Catholic practice of listing ‘sins’ for the purpose of confession has probably not helped in this regard. Instances of misbehaviour or immorality are not insignificant; but neither are they sufficient on their own to explain the dark currents which spawn them.
It is by plumbing the depths of the much neglected concept of Original Sin that we come closer to understanding. This is a theological insight which has little to do with an historical event, but much to do with a sharp perception of human life. To put it in more contemporary words, singer/songwriter Nick Cave has a soul-rending song which proclaims ‘People they ain’t no good’. It is not so much a writing off of the value of existence, as an echo of the realisation that all of us are deeply flawed in some way. There is something skewed at the core which undergirds our grief and tragedy.
The church, in its heavy-handed way, occasionally feels obliged to convince the world of its sin. This usually results in moralising crusades which attempt to point out to the unwashed masses the errors of their ways. This approach conveys two equally misguided messages. One is the none too subtle ‘We’re better than you are’. And the other is that if people would only stop doing wrong things and start doing right things, they would be better people. Neither of these observations, it seems to me, has much to do with the gospel.
The church can hardly claim the moral high ground given current public awareness of clergy abuse and other religious shortcomings. The days of hiding behind a façade of sanctity have gone for good. And the behaviour of Lynndie England is not the result of bad potty training or lack of knowledge of the ten commandments. There is something amiss at the foundational level in human nature, and it is a contagion we all participate in. That is the recognition which the doctrine of Original Sin seeks, often clumsily, to convey.
At the risk of generalisation, I don’t believe that most people need convincing that their lives are broken in some way. As Nick Cave has it, ‘People just ain’t no good / I think that’s well understood’. There are always the few whose self-confidence is unassailable, but the majority of people feel deeply their faults and compromises. We might put on a good show for the sake of others, but when we’re forced into silence or solitude, there is no escape from the tawdry deceit and envy which makes us less than we could be.
It is in this universal experience that our reflection on sin might usefully begin. People of faith should never despise nor think themselves above the struggles of humanity. James K. Baxter lamented ‘the gulf between the battlements of the Church Militant and the stony ground below, where men struggle often with the same basic problems under different names’. It is those same problems under different names which call for a renewed under- standing of sin.
sin calls us to the searching of our own hearts rather than blaming or demonising others
We live in a shattered community. Life has become so difficult and isolated that people seek relief in a variety of ways, and addictions sometimes seem the only flower blooming in the urban jungle. Relationships have ceased to be places of refuge and trust; torn apart by infidelity, emotional cruelty, selfishness and exhaustion. Children are sexualised and exploited. Leaders at all levels of society lie and manipulate to perpetuate their own hold on power. Cultures, religions and peoples are divided, with violence the frequent consequence. The poor are ignored or blamed, the earth ravaged. And prisoners tortured by good Christian folk.
The force of the concept of sin is to locate the cause of such turmoil in internal rather than external forces. Certainly outside forces have a bearing on the shape of our lives, but the genesis of much of our suffering lies within us. Sin calls us to responsibility; to the searching of our own hearts rather than blaming or demonising of others. To use the word ‘sin’ is to acknowledge that we have been made for more than this. Without some understanding of the nobility of human life, of the inextinguishable image of God, of the possibility of love – sin has no meaning.
Some years ago I made a pilgrimage to Dachau concentration camp. It was a compelling and disturbing experience. The thing which unsettled me most was not the crematoria or the pictures of horrific medical experiments. It was a letter written by a doctor conducting such experiments, to the wife of the camp commandant.
With impeccable politeness, he thanked her for the meal he had enjoyed with her family, and expressed the hope that the children had liked the chocolates he brought. The proximity of civility and evil rocked me. As I paused in the chapel to reflect, I did not blame the German people. Rather I considered the atrocities which lie dormant within me.
Sin is universal not only in that we are all participate in it, but also in that we are capable of and caught up in the effects of what any one of us might do. That, I believe, is the sting in the tail of sin, and the reason that many of us resist the notion. We prefer that it be acts of wrongdoing, and only our own wrongdoing at that. By focusing on personal sin, we try to limit our complicity. At least then there is the sense of control, and the self-understanding that while we’re not good, there are many worse than us. Sin becomes something manageable; unpleasant but tolerable, akin to tax.
The Christian tradition we live out of has a somewhat less genial notion of sin. It regards sin as a force which threatens physical, communal and spiritual life, often mortally. Furthermore, the gospel treats this black tide in the affairs of humanity as something beyond our own remedy. The individual can no more quench the flow of sin than Canute could command the incoming sea. In fact, perversely, the more we seek to resist through our own efforts, the more deeply we suppress our capacity for wrongdoing, and the more powerfully destructive it becomes when it inevitably bubbles to the surface.
This is the underbelly of moralism, which treats human behaviour as something which can be successfully modified through education or commitment to values. Puritans and behavioural psychologists alike share the belief that people can be made good through their own efforts, with a little reinforcement from those who know best. History reveals that this is not only mistaken, but highly dangerous. There is no more viciously cruel society than one which believes itself to be right and good. The United States of America might be a case study in this regard.
Is the alcoholic or gambler a worse sinner than the circumspect accountant or pious teacher? Overlooking the clear folly of grading sin or the people who enact it, the answer is paradoxical. Those most overtly hobbled by life’s circumstances may in fact be more psychologically and spiritually healthy than their disapproving neighbours. This strange reversal, which we might call the scandal of the gospel, is because those at the bottom of the social scale often have less opportunity to conceal their own failings from themselves. They have no illusions about their ability to redeem themselves.
At the heart of Christian faith is the simple acknowledgement that human life is broken in a way which is beyond our own capacity to fix. We come to the point of confession, which is a place of recognition that despite our best efforts, despite our good intentions, despite our commitment to do what is right and good; still we find ourselves unable to live as we want to live. And at that place of understanding, we cry out for help from beyond ourselves, searching for the name of God. It is here that healing becomes possible, because we have come to the edge of the chasm.
Confession has fallen from favour in our culture, as few are willing to admit they have anything to confess. Psychotherapist Scott Peck, whose People of the Lie remains one of the most chilling and insightful assessments of personal and political evil, regards this age as dominated by narcissism. I would add to that assessment the quality of hubris: the arrogant pride and misplaced confidence which prevents people from seeing or acknowledging their own faults. Already in the heyday of Greek culture there was an understanding of how hubris inevitably contained the seeds of tragedy. We seem to have lost that insight.
The opposite trait, and one in short supply in these days, is that of humility. This quality is not necessarily a product of religion, and is often found more easily in those who claim no belief. But it is certainly the starting point for Christian faith. Humility is the realistic assessment of the human condition, and one’s own participation in it. It allows people to acknowledge fault without despair. In Jungian terms, it enables the courage required for the facing of one’s own shadow. The inner darkness which we reference as sin has never been diminished through turning our backs upon it.
humility allows people to acknowledge fault without despair
Humility is best understood through such cognate terms as humus, humour and humanity. It speaks of earthiness, delight and belonging. True humility is not to be confused with those forelock-tugging and life-denying forms of Christianity which regard people as inherently bad. There is within Calvinism (and some forms of Catholicism) a view of humanity as profoundly corrupt; something to be despised. It creates suspicion of oneself and others, and looks on the world as something to be feared and withdrawn from. Humility, by contrast, opens us to life and people.
Denial is the furnace of sin. Those who imagine themselves to be free from sin are in the most danger of incubating it. Self-deceit allows our generation to think ourselves free from the primitive notion of sin with all its negative limitations. As sophisticated and liberated people, we have outgrown dependence of every kind. The evidence, however, suggests a different picture. Sober acknowledgement of our status as creatures (implying a Creator), rejected along with the submissiveness it seems to imply, has given way to a multitude of more subtle and destructive dependencies.
Repeated dishonesty runs the danger of transforming sin into evil. Scott Peck, who has treated a range of disturbed people, both military and civilian, tells the story of parents who presented their young son with a gun for his Christmas present; the same gun with which his older brother had earlier shot and killed himself. Struggling to understand such diabolical inhumanity, Peck suggests that ‘the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it’. He argues that continued self-deceit runs the risk of crossing the threshold between sin and evil.
The failure to acknowledge our personal shadow may trigger the emergence of the cultural shadow, which frequently results in genocide. Sin, and the willingness to confess our participation in it, is not merely a private religious issue. It shapes politics and history in demonstrable ways. Strangely enough, a strong cultural religion may breed evil rather than keeping it at bay.
There is a credible argument that centuries of Christendom created the Crusades and witch hunts, that Lutheranism contributed to the rise of Nazism in Germany, and that evangelicalism in America can be linked to current events in Iraq. Religion becomes bad when it encourages false pride in piety, thereby forcing sin underground. The torture at Abu Ghraib may be mystifying to many patriotic Americans, but it is entirely consistent with the contemporary neglect of sin. Lynndie England is not an aberration in an otherwise exemplary culture, but rather the personification of a current which flows through the whole of America’s military.
And more to the point, she is also representative of the very Western democracy which we as New Zealanders participate in. Tempting as it might be to demonise her, we would do better to see reflected in her actions the same sadistic aggression and xenophobia which resides in our own hearts. That is not to excuse her, or to suggest she should go unpunished, but rather to recognise our own complicity.
This is not a comfortable proposition, and many will bridle against it. We want to draw a line in the sand which separates us from the worst in human nature. We wish to appear decent and reasonable people, free from the taint of sin.
An honest commitment to the way of Christ will not allow us to deceive ourselves. This is the brutal truth of the Christian understanding of sin: we are all responsible for what each of us is capable of. We can apply as many cosmetics to the corpse as we wish. It will remain lifeless, and sooner or later it will stink.
If that were the end of the story, it would be a very miserable tale indeed. Fortunately for us, it is the beginning. The confession of sin and our helplessness in the face of it opens us to God and each other. It brings the humility which is fertile ground for grace.
For the story of humanity which we hold to is not the tragedy of sin. It is the wonder of grace. Amazing grace, which allows us to be fully alive. That is a gift worthy of its own space.
Mike Riddell is a New Zealand author and playwright. Mike wrote a novel which explores the nature of evil, Masks and Shadows (Flamingo 2000)