Most people don’t set out to be the bad guy. Most people don’t commit acts of evil for the sake of evil. Throughout my college and graduate school years, as I studied philosopher-theologians like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, they helped me begin to understand that we, as human beings, are all motivated by our own perceived good. In other words, everyone acts to their own benefit; to their own good. Even those whose actions we would say are the most vile, like those of the Third Reich, or the Khmer Rouge, or ISIS, did not perpetrate evil for the sake of evil – it was, instead, for what they perceived to be good – for the sake of self-preservation, for the sake of power to further the (righteous) cause of the nation/party/ideology, and to eliminate perceived threats to their way of life. And yet, we can look at the actions of these three examples and say in clear and certain terms that the acts they committed were atrocities – immoral, unethical, repugnant, evil.
See, that’s the thing about sin. That’s the thing about our sin. It blinds us. It distorts our understanding of true Good and instead replaces it with our own self-perceived good. St. Augustine defined sin as incurvatus in se, which means we are so curved in on ourselves that we see ourselves before anything else – before God, and before others. Our first instinct is to feed our own desires. This can manifest itself in many ways. It can manifest in the ways we often think of when we hear the word “sin.” It can be evident in the ways we (read: I) act in gluttonous ways, gorging myself on food that just tastes too good, even when I know it is detrimental to my health. It can be evident in dysfunctional sexual relationships. It can be evident in excessive drinking, in gossiping, in lying. But sin can also be evident in our desire for self-preservation. Sin can be evident when I erect boundaries around myself and what I consider to be mine.
A couple of years ago I watched a movie called “Conspiracy,” which dramatized the Wannsee Conference of 1942, where Third Reich officials came together to strategize on how to deal with the “Jewish problem” as put forth by Hitler. What made the movie so chilling was the way in which the men who were gathered discussed and strategized in such a business-like way over this “problem.” As they shared in refreshments and conversation, they moved closer and closer to the “final solution,” which was the wholesale extermination of the Jewish population. For the officers present and participating in this meeting, they believed that they were working for the betterment of Germany – for the preservation of the German people. They so strongly believed that they were working for what they saw as the good of their people and their country that they were able to completely dehumanize a whole people group. “Better to eliminate the threat and protect our own,” they said. History has told us of the atrocities that followed.
“Better to eliminate the threat and protect our own” is something we see repeated over and over in our society today. We see it when we categorize people as “us” and “them.” We see it in “America first,” in our policies around border crossing, in the backlash American Muslims have experienced, and in the way we systemically continue to treat people of color. Most people don’t set out to be the bad guy. Most people don’t commit acts of evil for the sake of evil. Most people act for their own benefit or protection. This makes sense in a world mirred in sin. But, for people who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, for those who call upon his name, repent of their sin, and entrust themselves to his transforming grace, there is no longer any excuse. If, for St. Augustine, sin is being curved in on one’s self, then salvation, freedom in Christ, is the process of becoming uncurved – of having our spine straightened out – so we no longer look first to our own desires and interests.
Now that I have a child, I understand better than I ever have about wanting to protect something with everything that I have. I understand better than ever the desire to build up a wall of protection around him so that nothing bad will happen to him. I understand better than ever the power of fear and what that could lead me to do in the name of protecting me and mine. But I also understand that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). As a Christian, I am called, through the power and grace of God, to grow in love – love of God and love of neighbor. As a Christian parent, I am also called to teach my son what this means, and that means showing him. That means welcoming the stranger, caring for the vulnerable, working for justice. It means putting aside my own self-interests, my own perceived goods, for the sake of the Good of God. It means offering compassion and mercy for those in need. It means foresaking worldly powers, refusing to worship worldly regimes, and recognizing that unjust laws are no laws at all.
Mister Rogers says it well: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
The Christian story is one that shows us that God continually breaks down the boundaries that we erect. It shows us that the stranger, the outcast, the hurting, the least of these, are the ones who are brought from the edges into the center of God’s kingdom. The Christian story is one that shows us that love, not fear, is the most powerful force, and that Christ came not to be served or to claim power, but to serve and to give himself away for the sake of us, when we were still “other.” When we choose to follow Christ, the breaker of walls, we can no longer say, “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” I pray that what I perceive as good will come into alignment with what God deems as Good. May we all see with the eyes of God, love with the heart of Jesus, and move with the power of the Holy Spirit.