Some Observations on Doing Bad Things

homerOkay, forget the theological jargon. Here are a few observations about doing bad things that most people should be able to agree with:

1) Everyone makes mistakes throughout their life. Some seem more prone to this than others. Some of these mistakes are harmless, others cause relatively mild harm.

2) Everyone does something bad at some point in their life—something truly harmful, whether intentionally or otherwise. Most people do several of these bad things in their lifetime. Some seem to do them frequently.

3) Some people—thankfully very few—do something really bad at some point in their life. One might even call this “evil”—we’re talking intentionally malicious with great damage done.

These three observations are true whether you’re talking about Christians or Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists or atheists or any other religion or non-religion. They are true whether you’re talking about North Americans or South Americans or Africans or Asians or Europeans or any other region. They are true whether you’re talking about refugees or immigrants or settlers or indigenous people or citizens or any other land-status. They are true whether you’re talking about people of European or African or Asian descent or any other ethnic category. They are true whether you’re talking about men or women, gay or straight, or any other orientation or gender. They are true whether you’re talking about rich or poor or middle-class or any economic status.

These things are true of humans—all humans, everywhere.

This might seem so obvious as to be trivial. But if these things are true, then they have some significant implications.

Yes, some refugees will do bad things. At some point a refugee will even do a truly evil thing. But so do native-born citizens—probably at a higher rate, actually, since these aren’t “vetted” at all.

Yes, some Muslims will do bad things, even a very few will do thoroughly evil things. But so will Christians, and atheists, and even peace-loving Buddhists. We Christians, in fact, have our own set of favourite bad things—self-righteousness being arguably top of the list.

Yes, some African Americans or Indigenous Canadians will do bad things. Sometimes one will even do an evil thing. But so do white Americans and Canadians—in fact, white folks commit certain crimes at far higher rates.

Yes, some gay people will do bad things, even occasionally a truly evil thing. But so do straight men and women—men in particular, as most violent crimes are committed by men, by far.

Yes, some poor people will do bad things. Every once in a while one will even do an evil thing. But so do the rich and the middle-class—and they have the resources to hide it or to evade the punishment.

Most importantly, if we all make mistakes, if we all sometimes do bad things, even occasionally evil things—if this is a human problem, not a problem confined to any particular religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, or class—then we should be able to look deep into the disorder of our own hearts, and find empathy and compassion and forgiveness and a desire for the other’s wholeness and wellbeing, regardless of what they have done. We should also be able to come together as human beings and find better ways to nurture the good among us while reducing the bad.

Are we up for the challenge? Each of us? All of us together?

(By the way, Christians, this is Sin and Salvation 101. We should be leading the way in empathy and compassion and forgiveness and seeking the wellbeing of others and nurturing the good among us. Faith, hope, and love, you know?)

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5 thoughts on “Some Observations on Doing Bad Things

  1. Thanks for this, Michael. I appreciate the way you’ve laid this out and I absolutely agree with your conclusion:

    “Most importantly, if we all make mistakes, if we all sometimes do bad things, even occasionally evil things—if this is a human problem, not a problem confined to any particular religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, or class—then we should be able to look deep into the disorder of our own hearts, and find empathy and compassion and forgiveness and a desire for the other’s wholeness and wellbeing, regardless of what they have done. We should also be able to come together as human beings and find better ways to nurture the good among us while reducing the bad.”

    I wonder, though, if taken to its logical end, it seems to lead to the conclusion that worldview has little or no effect on human behaviour. If we say that every human group, no matter their economic or social standing, no matter their religious beliefs, no matter their values or ethical convictions, exhibits precisely the same behaviours (some will do bad things… a few will do evil things), do we lose the capacity to say that ideas and convictions matter and make a difference in the world? Do we lose the possibility of observing that if a community of people nurture and are socialized into a particularly toxic idea over long periods of time, that it leads to objectively more bad things being done in the world? Do we lose the hope that if a community of people nurture and are socialized into a particularly beautiful idea over long periods of time that it would lead to objectively more good things being done in the world?

    I’m mostly just thinking out loud here. Maybe this is just a laboured lament that our Christian convictions don’t lead to better empirical results :). Thanks for your reflections here.

    1. Hi, Ryan. Great comment and questions – much appreciated. I’ve had similar ideas banging around in my head for some time, mostly in an “exclusive claims of Christianity vs. universal experience of humanity” sort of vein.

      I guess my initial reaction is to say that that last paragraph you’ve highlighted from my post is the Christian worldview, which gets worked out in the life of those who come together in their seeking to follow Jesus as crucified Messiah and risen Lord, i.e. “Christians,” “Church.” I’m just not concerned to say that this is uniquely or exclusively Christian. I’m much more concerned to seek to nurture those sorts of things wherever they may be found, whether Christ is explicitly named or not. For me, that is in fact where Christ is, the Spirit of Christ, who blows where it pleases in the world.

      Put another way: yes, I believe that it is vital for there to be intentional communities of Jesus-followers in the world who cultivate the sort of worldview and virtues and practices that are reflected in my post; but I’m increasingly believing that as soon as we see that basic worldview and these virtues and practices as exclusively “Christian,” we’re missing the mark.

      Let me try one more: I believe that Jesus most clearly and fully embodies the sort of “way of life” that I’m describing in the post, and so, yes, the more people who gather together to intentionally follow the way of Jesus, the better. But if we really believe that Jesus is our “true human” exemplar, the one who shows the true “image of God” for us for all humanity, then this is not the exclusive purview of those who call themselves “Christian.”

      I’m not really sure that this even gives a direct answer to your question. Maybe it’s just more “thinking out loud” on my own end. 🙂 Thanks again for the comment.

      1. Yes, I share your instincts to seek common ground and shared humanity, Mike. And yet I can’t help but wonder if we’re losing something if we don’t somehow attempt to be honest that there is something utterly unique about Jesus and his way, and that this ought to make a difference in the world.

        I was reminded of this during a coffee conversation with a Muslim doctor last week. We were talking about the need to learn how to to live together with difference and about the resources that our respective traditions offered toward this end. We talked about how our traditions both have much to repent of historically, how Christians and Muslims have behaved badly at times, etc. But then she said something I didn’t expect: “Yeah, but you Christians are so lucky to have Jesus at the origin of your faith. Muhammad participated in violence but Jesus never did. No matter how badly Christians behave, you can always point back to Jesus as your example.” It was very interesting to have an “outsider” point this out to me and remind me that at our best Christians have something pretty unique and necessary to offer the world.

      2. Ryan, I’m pretty sure we’re on the same page, or at least well inside the same ballpark. Maybe I can try to be clearer.

        I believe Jesus is unique. I believe Jesus is the unique revelation of God, uniquely embodying God in the world. I believe that Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection offers us the clearest and fullest picture of God and God’s will for humanity that there is. I believe that the way of Jesus is the way to true life – justice, peace, and joy – both for us as individuals and for us collectively as a human race.

        This is why I am a Christian and not a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu. This is also why I seek to proclaim the message of Jesus and live out the way of Jesus in such a way that others are compelled to follow Jesus also, and follow Jesus ever more faithfully. (Whether I succeed at this is another matter…)

        However, I am not convinced that the way of Jesus is unique or exclusive to Jesus. The particular elements of Jesus’ message and example such as “love your neighbour” or the Golden Rule or nonviolent resistance are reflected in many ways throughout various religious and non-religious traditions. These are simply the best instincts of humanity, reflected most completely in Jesus but not exclusively in Jesus.

        All this means that I can and will gladly point people to Jesus and say, “Come, let’s follow Jesus together, because this is the way of life for all.” I believe following Jesus together in a community of Jesus-followers is the best way to nurture this “way that leads to life.” But this way of thinking also allows me to say a glad “Yes!” when I see elements of the way of Jesus reflected beyond the Christian tradition.

        Maybe that’s clearer? It’s clearer in my own head, anyway. 🙂

      3. Yes, well said, Michael. I particularly like this:

        “All this means that I can and will gladly point people to Jesus and say, “Come, let’s follow Jesus together, because this is the way of life for all.” I believe following Jesus together in a community of Jesus-followers is the best way to nurture this “way that leads to life.” But this way of thinking also allows me to say a glad “Yes!” when I see elements of the way of Jesus reflected beyond the Christian tradition.”

        I appreciate your patience in expanding on and exploring this further with me.

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