Sometimes I wonder if four people who have so little in common in how they have lived their lives can all be said to be of the same species. And yet, that is what we have here. Four examples of human beings. My question is this…how does that happen? Perhaps for some of you, this is not an important question. But to me, it might be the biggest of them all. I obviously want to understand how someone becomes like Archbishop Tutu as opposed to Dick Cheney because I want more Tutus and less Cheneys. If we can begin to understand how that happens, maybe we can start to fix things, at least for the future.
Of course, some would call it fate or the will of God. I don’t buy that. The other way of looking at it involves the nature vs nurture debate. As is our normal habit, we tend to see these things as polarities, ie, its either genetics or environment. If it’s all genetics, we’re back to fate and the whole question is a moot point. But if environment plays a role, then we have something to work with.
I remember when this question hit me full force. I was working part-time in a children’s home in Los Angeles. It was a place where they “housed” children who had been abandoned or terribly abused by their parents and then failed in foster placements. There were cottages filled with 4-12 year old children in that situation. It was the toughest work I’ve ever done. These kids were a mess and it didn’t take much to see where many of them were headed. As I looked at them I knew that some of them would be our “evil ones” of the future. And yet, they were in that position through no fault of their own. They were there because all of the adults in their lives had failed them. I was in seminary at the time and wrestling with this was part of what caused me to question my whole understanding of good and evil in the world.
One of the reasons I think this issue is important is because, at times, I fear that we can buy into the meme that those like Cheney and Rice are just evil and therefore dismiss their humanity. I think this is dangerous ground to be walking on. I know its a challenge to find the humanity in people like them, but I have to believe its there. And I agree with Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he says:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
I doubt there has ever been a more powerful portrayal of the meeting of good and evil than the book and movie “Dead Man Walking” based on the relationships of Sister Helen Prejean with men on death row.
Sister Helen Prejean is trying to tell us that even in the most vile and evil people exists a human being – and she works relentlessly to find it. To me, her story is one of the most profound statements on the human condition that has ever been told.
I don’t have the answers to my questions. But I do think that what we consider humane is developed through a process that includes both how we are treated and how we choose to react to that treatment. It involves a calling out of the humane through the process of an interconnecting weave of “meetings” between ourselves and the world around us. I sometimes fear that the whole fabric of that weave is breaking down for far too many. But there is a healing that is available in the reconnecting of that weave. Maybe someday we’ll understand more about that process.