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When the ideal of perfectibility fails

March 17, 2015

[An important modification was made to this post when I realized that an important point hadn’t been made about the possibility of change now according to Christian teaching.]

A friend posted a link to a report about a fracas between Ashley Judd and some crude and mean-spirited ignoramuses online. Judd made a comment about possible dirty playing in a basketball game, and the “geniuses” took to Twitter and told her just what they thought. Or what they borrowed from public restroom stalls. The issue raised wasn’t just sexism but bullying (the story can be found here).

Here is my penny-and-a-half’s worth that I posted on the matter (touched up just a tad):

Treating people badly is wrong, but it isn’t going to stop. That doesn’t mean we don’t work against it, but just that we respond wisely and realistically. We can’t brush it aside by saying someone else has it worse. But neither can we cry every time somebody is mean to us.

I’m still surprised at the attitude about bullying these days. Is it worse than when I was a kid in the ’60s and ’70s? I don’t know how one would know. But I wonder, acknowledging that bullying can be severe and intervention can be necessary, whether this is another manifestation of the current belief that life ought to be without hardship, that we deserve and should be able to expect an antiseptic existence.

This isn’t to excuse abuse. It’s to say that while working to end abuse, one may have to develop a thick skin.

(This I followed up with a link to a video with Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue.” That song often comes to mind in these discussions. It’s hard not to think that, in some cases, thicker skin is the solution.)

But this isn’t about how people on the receiving end should act or a brief against (and certainly not for) bullying. What I’m concerned about is the near panic people feel when people sin. “Oh my Lord! Someone said something mean on Twitter!” The shock and dismay over something like bullying isn’t quite on the same level as the understandable grief and anger people feel over the latest ISIS attack, but it isn’t far from it.

Okay, I’m overstating a bit. But it is startling to see how, on the one hand, certain traditional moral beliefs are trashed with nary a wave goodbye, while, on the other, people are ready to lower the boom on other things without any sense of wisdom or measure. Although Americans are quick to fall back on moral relativism when challenged by someone who doesn’t like what they do, we are still highly moralistic people. There are a few social crimes left on the book, and by golly we aren’t going to tolerate them.

Two things are lost in all this: a biblical understanding of the fallen nature of humankind, and wisdom. We know from Scripture that everyone is fallen and everyone is going to sin. G. K. Chesterton famously wrote that “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (Orthodoxy). We also know that goodness should be sought and can be attained. Noble monsters, Pascal called us. Capable of great good and great evil. Change can take place, the sin in us can be overcome because of a central part of the gospel of Jesus, namely, that the Spirit of God takes up residence in us and slowly effects change in our lives. “He breaks the power of cancelled sin,” the old hymn goes.

In modern times, however, we aren’t fallen; we are just tainted somehow by society (never mind the interesting question of how a society made up of good people goes bad). Because we are basically good, all we need is education developed according to reason informed by science–in this case, the human sciences. This is the good news of modernity. Just educate people according to the latest psychological and sociological opinions and pedagogical techniques and they’ll do fine. When they don’t, however, panic sets in and we aren’t sure what to make of it. Don’t they know better? In response to such shocking failures, we throw the book at offenders; if not the book of law, then the book of social opprobrium and ostracism (or maybe both). And after a little while, maybe after they have admitted their failures and demonstrated that they now embrace the requisite social expectations, they are admitted back to society, the larger group assured that they have been properly educated and reformed (some say this is why some penitentiaries are now called correctional institutions).

The loss of the knowledge of the fallenness of humankind explains, at least in part, why we are shocked when people break our major rules (minor offenses can be excused if they are especially titillating and make for juicy scandal; here the look of shock is accompanied by a wink). The loss of wisdom is seen in our overboard responses to infractions. Zero tolerance rules are cases in point. For some things, there is no forgiveness; any sense of measured response is absent. The perfectibility of man was a goal of modernism. When perfection fails, then maybe the system is to blame. If the system seems to be functioning according to the book, then the individual is up the proverbial creek. In extreme situations, just the suspicion of rule breaking is met with a harsh response.

I’m sorry people said crude and demeaning things to Ms Judd. I wish they wouldn’t. Education can go a certain distance in reforming people, but we shouldn’t be shocked by sin. It will be here until Jesus comes again even as the Spirit of God brings about change in those who’ve been redeemed. In the meantime, while working to bring about change in society, we may just need to put on that thicker skin, or, in some cases, absent ourselves from the situation. And in all cases, while teaching love and respect, we should also proclaim the availability of the forgiveness of sins and redemption in Jesus.

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