Are we weak or wicked? Or what?

4 Sep

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.

2 thoughts on “Are we weak or wicked? Or what?

  1. My initial reaction (and it’s still my reaction) to the reports of looting and violence echoes what Athol said – but I would go further and say that the looting and violence is often at least mitigated and assisted by the systemic injustices imposed on the people (particularly the poor) of New Orleans.
    Why is it that in a First World country, supposedly the richest and most technologically advanced in the world, relief efforts could be so poor, in some cases taking up to 5 days to reach survivors? New Orleans has 30% of its population living under the poverty line; most of those who remained did so because they simply could not afford to evacuate. When this storm was heading for N.O., what did the government do to evacuate people? Nothing. Despite repeated pleas, the Bush administration reduced the Army Corp of Engineers budget for New Orleans for the third year in a row, money that could have been used to prevent or at least lessen the breach. Rescue efforts have been slow or non-existent because most of the country’s troops are in Iraq.
    In other words, the extent of this disaster was not merely due to Hurricane Katrina; it was hugely due to systemic and structural mistakes, mistakes that cannot be divorced from their cultural context of race and poverty.
    In fact, I believe that the reports of looting and violence are actually a large part of that systemic injustice that continues to be perpetrated on the poor and the oppressed in countries like the US and Australia. The media, for example, wields an enormous amount of power over the way we see the world. Every protest reported on the news focuses consistently on the (usually tiny) violent minority – instead of saying “300 people protested peacefully” and ignoring the violent minority, reports will invariably ignore the peacefully majority to focus on how “5 people were arrested after violent skirmishes with police”. This injustice is at least as systemic and structural and evil as the violence itself, because it not only damages the credibility of those who are trying to work for justice, but it also causes the majority of people to polarize themselves from such efforts, which only ensures the perpetuation of unjust structures.
    In the same way, media reports of this disaster have focussed on the looting and violence rather than on the ineptitude (or worse) of a government that should have and could have done more to prevent it. That strikes me as treating (no, demonizing) the symptoms of an unjust system, rather than finding a cure.
    None of this, of course, excuses the looting, rapes or violence. It is wrong at a very basic level. But it certainly at the very least puts it in perspective, and in some cases, makes such behaviour a little more understandable, and maybe even mitigates it somewhat.

  2. Frank, there is a bucket load of difference between the Reformed doctrine of ‘Total Depravity’ and the idea that human beings are ‘totally depraved’. The former simply acknowledges the truth that every part of our makeup has been effected by the Fall and so is less than what it (was?) will be. The horror of sin is precisely because it is celebrated by those created in the image of God, i.e. by those who are also offering love and care in the very places where the lootings etc. are going on, i.e in the avenues of fear. A great challenge to the stereotypical (and distorted) view of total depravity can be found in Boer’s book, ‘An Ember Still Glowing: Humankind in the Image of God’ (Eerdmans). The comparison between New Orlean’s and Lord of the Flies is scary… precisely because it is so true. Thanks for encouraging us to think more deeply. Jason

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