Like most other people, I guess, I’ve been astonished by the looting and violence that has broken out in New Orleans, following the devastation and flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.
The storm has blown away whatever it is that we mean by ‘law and order’.
What does this mean? Are we weak, or are we wicked, that that we need external powers and the threat of legal punishment, to keep us from doing wrong?
This surely is a challenge to the positive and hopeful idea of human beings, ‘human nature’ we used to call it, that has shaped so much of my thinking and teaching.
Are the Calvinists right, after all? Are human beings depraved, ‘utterly depraved’?
Whatever happened to the ‘image of God’ in human beings?
I reject any suggestion that the people who engage in the violence and looting are somehow worse than the rest of us. I find it quite easy to accept that people would steal food and so on, when they are so desperate. But I find it hard to imagine those more violent and exploitative acts, perhaps especially the crimes of rape and the shootings.
Yet that’s the point: this is an unimaginable situaiton, and we can’t just appy our normal expectations.
Many writers have explored the question of what happens when human beings are thrown into a situation where the normal social structures and guidelines are absent. The twentieth century began with the novel, ‘The Coral Island’, which imagined that in a such a situaiton, people would create a heaven on earth. Unfettered by social constraints, humanity would flourish.
After two world wars, a new perspective emerged, in ‘Lord of the Flies’. Here, a group of boys who survive a plane crash, now left on an island to fend for themeselves, create a violent and oppressive hell.
What lies within? Are we inherently villains, needing external contraints at least to limit our tendency to violence and self-destruction, or are we better understood as victims of the suffering, deprivation and perhaps misguided ideas which overtake us?
I have to admit that many of us in the western, progressive approaches to faith have had a rather weak understanding of what is traditionally called sin. My late colleague Athol Gill used to say this to us, at Whitley College. ‘You have a weak doctrine of sin. You need to consider the structural sin, the social and systemic forms of sin, not just the individual forms of sin.’
Through the last two decades, the ‘left’ side of politics has imagined that if people are given sufficient education and the resources to develop their own interests and objectives in life, all will flourish.
This is patently wrong. Some will, but some will not. But more than that, even the systems that are developed to care for people, to educate and serve the well-being of the community falter. They become self-centred, or even oppressive.
So are we basically evil, needing to be kept within a much tighter reign?
There is so much in our present society based upon the assumption that ‘other people’, out there somewhere, are wicked, not to be trusted, they must be regulated, even at the cost of the very rights and freedoms which supposedly we are determined to defend.
This view of human beings is, in my judgment, no more accurate, no more valid, and certainly no more ‘Christian’, than the unduly optimistic one. For one thing, it seems always to project the evil onto other people, as if we, the inside group, are always pure and good. New Orleans proves that is just not so.
What we need is a view of humans as people who are at all times ‘in process’, and therefore always able to move towards their positive potential for good, for love and justice and true community, but also always capable of moving in the opposite directions.
I do not accept that humans are ‘totally depraved’, but I do accept that we are capable of deadly deeds and irrational violence, including towards ourselves. We are also, so easily, capable of selfish ways which we dress up as goodness and care of others. Our sin is not always crude. Often it is clever, and especially when it masquerades as community service or religious devotion.
The Christian faith affirms the idea of human-kind made in the image of God.
This for me is not some feature of our individual selves, such as our capacity for reason (as the line of Augustine suggested). Nor is it some mysterious spiritual capacity which we once had, but have now lost.
The image of God in human kind is our constant potential for living, acting and relating to one another, in the kind of community which reflects the divine community.
The image of God is our destiny, our calling, to live in this way. It is not some much something we have lost as something we are yet to fulfill.
But we can be on the way.