When you look at yourself, you see a bundle of contradictions, wrong in ways you don’t see, flawed and often failing, and yet you want people to consider you in all your complexity, not put you into a box of “good” or “bad.” So treat others the same way.
I remember as a fourth grader looking in my NIV Adventure Bible at a chart that listed all the kings of Israel and Judah. It included the dates of each king’s reign and a sentence on their accomplishments. On the right-hand side, each king was rated “good,” “bad,” “mostly good,” or “mostly bad.” Someone like King Asa, for example, would have been in the “mostly good” category. Curious, I’d go back and read the biblical account to learn more about Asa, to see why he was mostly good, and that’s when I’d learn how his relationship with the Lord suffered near the end of his life.
These days, unfortunately, many in our society seem to be reverting to fourth-grade categorizations for just about everyone, and often doing so with the zeal of a crusader for a righteous cause.
As our society becomes increasingly post-Christian, it’s no surprise to see the vanishing of a Christian view of humanity—an understanding that allows for complexity, even expects it.
Instead, we give in to the impulse to divide everyone into categories of “bad” or “good,” and then treat them accordingly.
The result? Fewer and fewer people, even in the church (and we ought to know better!), who are able to distinguish what’s good and bad in the same person, or truth and falsehood in particular causes.
It’s easy to flatten our neighbors, past and present, into rigid categories, without care and consideration, nuance or grace, and thus betray a Christian anthropology. Here’s how we do it.
1. Make everyone and everything “all or nothing.”
Every society must decide what virtues should be represented through monuments we erect and names we engrave on buildings. When I lived in Romania, street names changed on occasion, as people reassessed the appropriateness of showing honor to certain individuals in the past.
Unfortunately, much discussion in recent years about historical figures flattens everyone into that all-or-nothing trap. Suddenly, a statue of Winston Churchill in London is threatened because, regardless of his chivalry and heroism in helping to save Western civilization from the threat of Nazism, some of his racial attitudes and subsequent actions were abominable. Abraham Lincoln comes under fire because at various points his commitment to the Union outstripped his abolitionist sensibilities and he never became a champion for Black equality.
Similar impulses show up in religious discussions. Some progressive Christians refuse to learn from any pastor or theologian—no matter how personally devout, biblically rooted, or theologically beneficial—who don’t line up exactly with the latest theological position or political proposal. Meanwhile, some conservative Christians do the same, dismissing any book or boycotting any conference featuring a well-respected, biblical preacher, because they disagree with the way the pastor has handled questions about racial justice in the past.
I’m reminded of a quote from one of my seminary professors who recommended several books from a theologian from another tradition. When a student complained that the theologian was in the “bad” category, the professor said, “I agree with you that he’s fallible and there are problems with some of his views, and yet he is so very helpful in other areas that to not read him is to impoverish yourselves.”