There’s this great scene in Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond where Leo DiCaprio’s character (Danny Archer) is speaking with a Sierra Leonian schoolteacher (Benjamin) who asks him about human nature.
“Tell me Mr. Archer,” Benjamin says, “in your long career as a journalist…what has been your experience? Are people mostly good or mostly bad?”
I’m often asked this same question, usually as some sort of litmus test, by both my Christian and secular humanist friends.
Are people good or are they bad?
Imagine you’re in Mr. Archer’s position. Or mine.
Maybe your daughter asks you the same question. What do you say?
Are people mostly good or mostly bad?
Two quick answers come to mind.
When I learned how to “share the Gospel” with pamphlets (God has a wonderful plan for your life) I knew “the right answer” to this question was that people are bad – there is no one righteous.
On the other hand, some of my more activist, social justice-y Christian friends have always insisted it’s as simple as people are good – humans are made just a little lower than the angels, creatures crowned for glory and honor.
But both arguments fall apart within seconds.
It doesn’t take much more than one incredible experience of love from a non-Christian for someone to call B.S. on the whole “man-is-incapable-of-any-good-apart-from-believing-in-God” malarkey.
Conversely, teaching that people are only and essentially good is a blatant lie – you don’t have to page too far back into human history (or too deep into your own heart, I’d wager) to glimpse the terrifying scope of human darkness there.
And that’s why I love Archer’s answer here.
He eases back against a fencepost and pulls at his shirt.
“People are people,” he says.
And he launches into a story.
I’ve taken these words – people are people – to mean that there is not just ONE pithy answer that can sum up the entirety of human nature.
I asked this same question about human nature on my Facebook and Twitter today. The comments went back and forth for a bit but I was impressed with one friend who was spot on in calling me out for asking such a bad question in the first place: “people are too complicated to be polarized into those two things.“
The way he answered that question, it’s just what this guy Jesus was so apt to do.
Deconstructing the question,
turning closed-ended demands and verbal traps into opportunities
to get at the question behind the question.
Like when he taught us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,
or that whoever is without sin should be the one to cast the first stone.
You notice that, reading the earliest accounts of his ministry,
people come to Jesus with all sorts of questions
but he rarely if ever gives them the answers they were expecting.
That’s because he was smart enough to recognize that the assumptions behind the questions were faulty themselves.
And so instead of giving Side A or Side B’s canned answer, he’d surprise everybody by launching into a parable about a rich man and a poor man or a king who was throwing a party for the whole village or a father who had two sons and somewhere in the middle of it all we realize that the question itself may or may not have been answered but maybe that wasn’t the point in the first place.
It’s incredible, really.
That instead of simply siding with the dominant thoughts of the political and religious parties of his day, Jesus would often eschew both the liberal and the conservative traditions, superseding the Pharisees and the Sadducees (and the Galileans and the Herodians and the Essenes) to…
…tell a story.
One that would redefine the entire conversation.
Because some questions don’t have black or white answers,
some questions require a story to be told,
a massive story that spans thousands of years and hundreds of pages
a story that oozes history and mysticism and old-fashioned skepticism,
seasoned with experience and tradition and reason.
A story that takes its time to get to the question behind the question,
to the truth that humans are more complicated
than great and evil or black and white,
that we’re this beautiful paradox
of good and bad and messy and clean.
I saw this meme the other day, “Scooby-Doo taught us that the real monsters are humans.”
But what this quote leaves out is that, by the grace of God, we humans can also work to become the heroes of the story.
Yes the monsters are people.
But so are the magicians,
the mystery-machine gang,
the Sons and Daughters of the Living God.
Light and darkness, it’s like we’ve got both of them inside of us.
Each of our heroes has a dark side. And I know it’s crazy to think about, but each of the monsters we hear about on television has probably– at some point – done something scandalously good with their lives.
Humans are this holy mess,
both sacred and profane.
People, in the end, are people.
Perhaps we can reconcile these two teachings,
that humanity boasts both goodness and badness,
by acknowledging that we ourselves are blood diamonds.
We’re conflict minerals.
and our lives
are painted with corruption,
The impact and the stain of sin on this world literally makes it hard to breathe sometimes.
But humans – oh, we’re oh-s0-brilliant as well.
We are coveted creatures, created with care, shining cities on a hill.
They’re full of life
Shining like the diamonds we were made to be.
My point is this:
without this wider story to frame the conversation
(that we’re implicated, convicted, and deathly sick but also impeccable, infinite, priceless diamonds)
we miss the point of the question,
and the question behind the question.
You know, what I think people are really asking when they ask whether humans are good or bad is this: “just what type of world are we living in, anyway? One with meaning, purpose, and love? An existential blotch on the radar? Or a bleak, empty realm of death and decay?”
And as always,
to answer that question,
somebody needs to tell a story.
Sometimes I like to imagine how Jesus would have answered Benjamin’s question, sitting there in the jungle with a cigarette in his mouth and a jug of rice wine sitting on his lap…
“Tell me, Jesus,” Benjamin says, “in your long career as a rabbi…what has been your experience? Are people mostly good or mostly bad?”
I think he’d take a second to think, staring off into the distance. Then he’d inhale, take a swig, wipe his mouth with the back of his wrist, and begin:
“see, it all started with these two people and a piece of fruit…”