I grew up in the mentality that there was a clear line between Christian and non-Christian. Essentially, Christian=good, non-Christian=bad. These adjectives applied to all kinds of things: Movies, music, books, organizations, and yes… people.
When non-Christians seemed to do good things, then, we were met with this strange dilemma: How could someone who didn’t know Jesus be good? I would imagine people who do not identify as Christians would be somewhat bewildered that we even asked that question, especially given the Christians they know. I am certainly embarrassed to say we thought about ourselves and other people that way.
I am also embarrassed to say it was not that many years ago that I began to overcome this kind of simplistic thinking. It started when someone in a Bible study presented that same question: How do we reconcile the world’s fallenness with the fact that unbelievers can be kind and giving people?
Another participant in the study pointed out: All people are made in God’s image. The theological term for “in God’s image,” Imago Dei, is usually interpreted in a symbolic sense, meaning that humans carry within them God’s qualities, including a great capacity for good. All humans.
At the same time, all people are fallen, and have a great capacity for selfishness and evil. All humans.
It actually shouldn’t be surprising, then, that we see goodness all around us, whether in ourselves, other Christians, or other people.
It also shouldn’t be surprising that we see evil all around us, whether in other people, other Christians, or ourselves.
I realize there are many examples of people in history about whom we would say, “Surely these people were completely evil.” And yes, there are many people who perpetrated incredibly evil acts. But I find it difficult to say even those people had no trace of good within them.
For example, probably almost no one would applaud the actions of Westboro Baptist Church. The infamous organization is most well-known for its protests at high-profile funerals (members of the military, victims of mass shootings, etc.). Essentially, they protest because they believe all death and destruction is brought on by God as punishment for what they see as the United States’s immorality (with an emphasis on homosexuality). Journalist Jeff Chu established a relationship with Westboro members as a way of researching for his autobiographical book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America. He marveled at the way the group would scream hateful things at hurting people, but in private conversation, seemed to be genuinely caring people. They even had lunch with him when they came to protest in New York. At the National Book Festival in 2013, Chu described the way this experience challenged him:
“The thing about grace is that it can’t have preconditions. If it has strings attached, it is fundamentally not grace. And that was one of the hard lessons for me to learn at Westboro. Those 40 members, those 80 people who sit in those pews and take in this teaching are no more and no less in need of grace than we are. They don’t deserve it any more, they don’t deserve it any less; as horrible as their signs may be. And I was really convicted when I was at Westboro that I had to extend grace to them, regardless of whether they would ever, ever, ever extend it to me.”
On the other side of the spectrum, those we believe definitely, truly good also have strains of sin within them. Pope Francis, who has been praised and admired for his heart for service, recently surprised observers at Confession by kneeling to confess his own sins. He sent a powerful message that even he, one of the most influential and revered religious leaders in the world, had wrongdoing of which to confess and repent.
When we start to believe we are better or “more good” than others, we need to remember that we are all fractured images. We have the same potential for good and the same potential for evil. On this earth, there are no clear lines dividing the “good” people and the “bad” people. It’s harder to live in that reality than to make black-and-white categories. But the reality is so much better, because that’s where grace and compassion exist.