Living in the suburbs of NYC and traveling into and around the city frequently, this is a challenging premise.
So, let me start with an example: waving someone into a line of traffic – doesn’t it make you feel good? Pleasant conversations with strangers (aka turning the default scowl into a smile); offering to help someone with a heavy bag.These things resonate with our core sense of what is right. Few are immune. Why?
I admit this is a “re-post” to some extent of a book – Made for Goodness – by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho. Why, they ask, does much of news reporting focus on bad news? Because bad is an aberration, they suggest, from the way things should be.
The problem of evil. Usually, this goes with “how could a loving God allow evil?” Because, says Tutu, he gave us free will and is consistent.
Where do people go wrong? I am shocked to hear reports of ISIS sympathizers celebrating the beheading of James Foley; shocked to hear of people changing their cover photos to that of a decapitated head resting on a body; shocked to hear that such barbaric acts are held up as examples of an emerging power – brand building.
How can inherently good people do such things? Because the wrong path is just as easy to take as the right one. All it requires is a decision, followed by another decision and another. Thoughtful training and conditioning by others who have taken the same path.
There has been a lot of media discussion of why and how Americans and Europeans have become drawn to a radicalized version of Islam – the West controls everything; the West is decadent; disenfranchised individuals are drawn to an organization offering a clear sense of community; some people like the idea of getting trained using guns and bombs.
Another theme has been that we are failing to advance a compelling alternative narrative. Established religions in the West are not obviously signing up new adherents. Those elements of traditional religions that are growing – let’s say, broadly, the more fundamentalist end of the spectrum – are espousing values that mainstream society has a hard time accepting – creationism being, perhaps, one example.
A more nuanced set of moral and ethical values may not be as easy to articulate as a simple black and white narrative that advocates some clear mandates to action. “I am the way the truth and the light” sounds more compelling than “I am one of several ways that might work to get you to the destination you need to reach – I encourage you to choose.”
Personally, I believe the former but I don’t confuse faith with omniscience and acknowledge there may be other ways. I admit also that Christianity does not allow this relativistic view: either Christ is lying, crazy or He is who He says He is.
So, if Christianity advocates a one path worldview and other religions do also, where do we go from here and how does this relate to the subject of this post?
Beheading those who disagree with us – ISIS today; Christianity at various dark points in its history – is unambiguously NOT the way. As a reasoning person of faith, I am always left feeling uncomfortable with the vehement “one path” assertion, not so much because of the message itself but more because of the manner in which, so often, it is “enforced”: by guilt, compulsion, deception or denigration of the views of those who dissent.
If I believe in “original sin”, how can I say that people are inherently good? The (Christian) doctrinal answer would be that we were created to be good and we made a huge mistake. Our road, since then, has been to get back to where we were intended to be: Christ is the way etc.
The less doctrinal answer would be to reflect on some of the scenarios at the beginning of this post. We resonate with doing good; we connect and flourish with positive energy; we recoil at awfulness in our lives and the lives of others; revenge is a bittersweet emotion that that mixes satisfaction with a residue of disconnectedness and doesn’t heal like forgiveness.
We have to trust these experiences in our lives and conclude that, err though we do and often on large scale, that is not our destiny. In advocating a set of values consistent with good outcomes that endure, we should discuss and advocate, maybe even proselytize, but always remember that people should not be compelled in the ‘right’ direction.
Holman Hunt’s famous painting, “The Light of the World” shows Christ knocking on a long unopened, overgrown with weeds door. The handle to the door is pointedly on the inside, allegorically representing that the closed mind can only be opened from the inside.
It is ironic how often our discourse denies to others the freewill given to us all.