My Fellow Sinners
Good People Do Bad Things
I have had the privilege to lose two friendships to political spats this year. Neither had anything to do with actual policy or philosophy — both unfortunately boiled down to problems in communication that, on measurement, caused me to decide that keeping the peace would be most efficient were we both to simply part ways.
One of these partings did carry some philosophical collateral, however. This came in the form of a brief treatise on the nature of evil. It was my late mate’s contention that a certain type of politician whose mistake went beyond the realm of mere misguidedness and into the realm of intention (despite knowledge of their error) was therefore “evil.” (The idea being that the willful decision, having in my friend’s estimation deleterious consequences, was therefore in some sense malicious.) Motivated both by my desire to resist his crass smears (which included very salty language) and to call him out for practicing his own hypocritical maliciousness, I jabbed him with an argument I don’t in all honesty stand behind, but which I don’t mind repeating: “I don’t know how you can even speak of ‘evil’ when you don’t believe in God. I’m not certain what there would be for the evil to oppose.”
As I suggested, I don’t stand behind this as a bulletproof theological argument of any sort, but the point wasn’t to establish a stance on theodicy. In hindsight, as far as my own perception is concerned, it was more to establish the fact that this person often judges with seemingly little concern about being judged himself (although you might suspect correctly that he uses this very judicious language when describing himself — a primary source of his own suffering).
And while I’m certainly aware that such an intolerant position on my own part is exemplary of my own issues with relationships (due to my own ill behaviors past and present), it is that very self-awareness about the issue that prompted this entry.
I have of late been viewing many sermons by the popular Bishop Robert Barron, and in addition to learning a great many things about the history and philosophy of the Christian faith through these homilies, I’ve also made note of quite a few useful phrases of his. One such rhetorical flourish is when, pressing a particularly complex and uncomfortable truth, he establishes pathos by appealing to us as “My Fellow Sinners.” This reminder that, though he is an authority in contrast to we the laity, he is also one of us in the simple fact that “no one is perfect.” (Indeed, one of my favorite admonitions of Christ is in the famed speech when he tells a crowd of misogynists “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”)
This is one of the most attractive aspects of Christianity to me. (Not implying that it doesn’t exist in other faiths — it certainly does.) And while my statement about evil might not have been airtight philosophically, there is some question as to whether the materialist can fully get behind this concept. For if one does indeed think that they are correct and others are not, and that there is no ultimate truth which can connect us to eternal harmony, one really can take whatever social rules are favored by the current ruling class, and vindicate oneself and one’s team in punishing the offending others to whatever extent the group sees fit.
But if we all admit prima facie that not only are we all imperfect, but that imperfect people can still go on to do good things, we can despise one another while still begrudgingly practicing basic charity and compassion, under the rubric that each of us has an essential dignity which deserves to be respected. Or not. But if not, how will we ever get along?