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blood diamonds

blood diamond

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?”

this scene's really stuck with me.

this scene’s really stuck with me.

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.

vamos a la playa picture by Jenny Finnerman

I still have to tell this one story about the beach I was at last weekend – picture by Jenny Finnerman.  click for a better view 🙂

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.

It’s funny.

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 breathtaking.

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.”

It’s true.

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 musicians,
the mystery-machine gang,
the healers,
the miracle-workers,
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.

Our economy,
our politics,
our churches,
and our lives
are painted with corruption,
and pain.

Soaked with the blood of our brothers and sisters.

The impact and the stain of sin on this world literally makes it hard to breathe sometimes.

But humans – oh, we’re oh-so-brilliant as well.

We are coveted creatures, created with care, shining cities on a hill.

Our homes,
our synagogues,
our courtrooms,
our children.

They’re full of life
and hope
and wonder
and potential
and joy.

Shining like the diamonds we were made to be.


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 in 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:

“you see, it all started with these two people and a piece of fruit…”

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. You miss represented reformed, Calvinist teaching on human depravity in the beginning. It is not “people can do no good apart from believing in God”. Instead, it is “people can do no good apart from the grace of God”

    May 24, 2013
    • Some Christians love the parts of the Bible that say everyone is evil, that no one ever does a lick of good, and other Christians are admittedly guilty of dismissing these verses in the name of avoiding anything that would otherwise force cognitive dissonance.

      My point here was that if we teach our children that the only people who are capable of doing anything Good and Loving and Godly are Christians, we’re setting our kids up for failure. We’ve lost them as soon as they step out into the real world and see an instance of *genuine* self-sacrifice or goodness coming from a Buddhist or an atheist or an agnostic or a heretic.

      One of my residents back in Illini Tower, he grew up old-school Catholic and now he’s a fairly militant atheist. I love the conversations we have because he is so intellectually compelling, but he tells me he left the faith in the first place because he smelled the bullshit the second he saw a single act of kindness from a nonbeliever and he was taught we are rotten, through and through.

      People are not incapable of good without belief in (or by the grace of?) God except by the merit of a mathematical abstraction:

      God = good. Without God = without good. Man without God = man without good.

      May 24, 2013
  2. Nate C #

    The doctrine that you referenced in the beginning is actually “people can do no good apart from the GRACE of God”.

    May 24, 2013
    • It sounds like you’re talking about the idea of prevenient grace, the power by which God makes heavenly goodness manifest by infusing His life force unknowingly into those who don’t call themselves believers.

      In Mere Christianity, apologist C.S. Lewis would call such folks “anonymous Christians.”

      May 24, 2013
  3. Ryan –
    finally got around to reading this. i really liked this piece. especially about answering the questions behind the question. did you purposefully pose the question in an ambiguous manner on facebook?

    really good insights. i would disagree with your characterization that humans have the same potential for good and evil. and that we are fixed, static, unchangeable.

    you can say we develop goodness, or we discover the goodness within us… but either way i believe we are designed to become “more good”. and we do that through overcoming ignorance.

    take an example, violence and war. someone on your facebook mentioned the movie “The Purge”. I don’t think something like this would ever occur if people came to an understanding of the realities of violence, overcoming their ignorance of its consequences.

    this was on reddit. take a look at this:
    what is your immediate emotional response? to help, to empathize. its by design. its our true human nature.

    and this passage from allan wallace:
    Imagine walking along a sidewalk with your arms full of groceries, and someone roughly bumps into you so that you fall and your groceries are strewn over the ground. As you rise up from the puddle of broken eggs and tomato juice, you are ready to shout out, “You idiot! What’s wrong with you? Are you blind?” But just before you can catch your breath to speak, you see that the person who bumped you is actually blind. He, too, is sprawled in the spilled groceries, and your anger vanishes in an instant, to be replaced by sympathetic concern: “Are you hurt? Can I help you up?”
    Our situation is like that. When we clearly realize that the source of disharmony and misery in the world is ignorance, we can open the door of wisdom and compassion. Then we are in a position to heal ourselves and others.

    May 28, 2013
    • John,

      apologies for my delayed response. your thoughts here are very, very interesting. I will have to message you on Facebook to consider this conversation. If the above story is to be taken as true, and I believe it IS true for the experience of the wide majority of people (or at least, it seems like it would be true), there is a lot to say about humans being essentially “good.” Then again, that dichotomizes the discussion in the same way I am attempting to avoid with this post. But very interesting thoughts. thank you so much for sharing, I will have to pass them on to my friends.

      August 1, 2013

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