An arresting long interview was held on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC this morning (for those not in the NYC area, this is by far the most popular, most respected deep-analysis radio broadcast in our region). The interviewee was David Woods, a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior military correspondent for Huffington Post. He has become interested in what has been called “moral injury,” which is not the same thing as “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). It’s complicated (you can follow the discussion on Huff Po and Brian’s WNYC website) but the jist of it is that moral injury suffered in the theater of war leaves a person with a disabling inability to figure out the lines between right and wrong, particularly in regard to themselves. It’s encapsulated in the quotation from a young veteran: “I’m a good person but I’ve done bad things.” People who suffer from this have a great deal of difficulty relocating themselves in relation to their formerly held values.
During the entire discussion all I could think about was Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, chapters 5-8 in particular. A person raised with this biblical understanding of human being would be free (relatively free, anyway, human nature being what it is) from anxiety about being a “good person.” “Even our righteous deeds are like filthy rags,” says Isaiah (64:6). If we are biblical people, we know ourselves as those who are in bondage to Sin and Death and as incapable of being “good people.” In a very important sense, there is no such thing as a “good person.” We are all “Adam,” as Romans 5 teaches, incapable of pure goodness because of our captivity to the Power of Sin. All of us are a bundle of contradictions (“I do not understand my own actions. The good I would do is not what I do; I do the very thing I hate”– Romans 7:15).
Shall we then cheerfully continue in sin that grace may abound? Absolutely not! (Romans 6:1-2) Through baptism we have died with Christ and become new creatures by his action in us through the Spirit (6:3-23). We are being shaped by Christ and are enabled to participate in his life. That does not mean that we can rest on our laurels, but it does mean that we can trust the Spirit of Christ to be at work “in all our doings begun, continued, and ended in Thee” and quit worrying about how we are performing on a scale of goodness and badness. When we do “bad things,” we will agonize about them, as we should, and yet at the same time we are comforted by knowing that the God who raises the dead will make it right not only for ourselves but for those whom we have hurt. Paul calls this making-right “justification,” or, better, “rectification.”
So is there such a thing as a “bad person”? Maybe. There do seem to have been certain exceptional people in history who do not seem to have been human beings at all, so solely bent on evil they were. Hitler is not the only one; Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others come to mind. They seem to have had no conscience at all. But these anomalies we must leave to the judgment of God. The overwhelming majority of so-called “bad people” have human traits like all the rest of us. Even some serial killers can be shown to have human traits (Jeffrey Dahmer is a conspicuous example). The most important thing to understand as a Christian is that we are freed from being tied up in knots worrying about whether we are “good people” or not. God is “already preparing good works for us to walk in” (Ephesians 2:10).
It is a serious problem within the church that so few people have grown up thinking this way, because it is no longer taught as it used to be. Both on the conservative right and the liberal left, there are various tests we administer to one another to see if we measure up, and we are failures even before we begin. The soldier who has lost his moral compass is trying to fit himself into a category of this sort, and he also is doomed to fail in this endeavor. The really good news lifts us clear of all this moral computation. The good news is that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of Sin and Death” (Romans 8:1-2).