As I attempt to keep my ear somewhat close to the ground regarding currents of popular culture, I’ve been pondering what appears to be the emergence of a standard anthropological taxonomy: the populace can be sorted into “good persons” and “bad persons.” As an inflection of this basic schema, it seems generally accepted that a good person can sometimes do bad things, presumably to a certain degree, without being deprived of essential good person status. There seems to be less of a consensus over the degree to which good things done by a bad person mitigate his or her bad person status.
Dickens suggests an optimistic and seasonally appropriate view: Ebenezer Scrooge, a bad person if there ever was one, is ushered into the company of good persons as a result of his acts of kindness. He is redeemed. Then again, I recently saw a Dear Abby column wherein Abby responds to an advice-seeker looking for vindication of her behavior toward her own sister with, “Let me be clear: You are a bad person.” Somewhat similarly, Hitler was reportedly kind to his dog, but that doesn’t seem to earn him any credits toward becoming merely a good person who did some bad things. He stands as the epitome of a bad person, despite his canine kindnesses.
But why don’t we explore a couple other examples?
Exhibit A: in one of the parishes I served some years ago, I learned (even before I arrived) about a predecessor who, it was averred, sexually abused several teenage boys during the time of his ministry in that community. I subsequently had personal contact with a parent of one of these boys, and I heard a sufficient number of secondhand accounts, that I was persuaded at least to the “preponderance of evidence” standard, if not beyond “a reasonable doubt,” of the truth of the allegations. The behavior of this priest (who was eventually disciplined) caused palpable long-term harm to his victims. Is he, by that measure, a bad person? Perhaps the answer to that question seems self-evident. But, during my time in that parish, I took part in the activities of the local ministerial association. After one of our breakfast meetings, an elderly, retired pastor from an evangelical denomination pulled me aside and wanted me to know of the extraordinarily helpful ministry that one of my predecessors had provided to him and his wife many years earlier while she was undergoing a life-threatening health crisis. My predecessor (several times removed, I hasten to add) was the only cleric in town who regularly visited them in the hospital and who prayed with them and for them unceasingly. They hold his very name in deep reverence. To them, he is manifestly a good person. They were unaware, of course, that the faithful pastor and the sexual predator were one and the same. And, to this day, among long-time members of that parish, there is a core of firm “deniers.”
So, is “Father X” a bad person? A good person who did bad things? It’s complicated, is it not? Whichever it is, the fact remains: the same person was responsible for both the sexual abuse and the exemplary pastoral care. It would be too simplistic to say that either one cancels the other out. They are both “facts on the ground,” and the exemplary ministry cannot be denied any more plausibly than the sexual abuse. For some similar contradictions, see this earlier post on Bishop Paul Moore.
Exhibit B: Bill Cosby. For nearly half a century, most Americans have known him as a gifted entertainer of both adults and children and as an articulate advocate both on behalf of and to the African American community that is his own. As Cliff Huxtable, he became “America’s Dad.” Now, in the last month or so and well into the eighth decade of his life, we are reeling from increasingly undeniable evidence that he was (is?) a callous sexual predator and abuser of women. For most of the time Bill Cosby has been in the public eye, he has been deemed a good person. As the more recent narrative has emerged, many have moved him in their minds: first, to “good person who did some bad things” status and then into “bad person who did some good things” status. Do I hear any bids for a simple, unqualified bad person? Whatever. The mega-gifted entertainer and the mega-vicious sexual predator are one and the same. Certainly a challenge to amateur anthropologists of the popular narrative, but their only choice is to … just deal with it.
We probably all have an anecdote or two that could muddy the waters even further. Mine, if I were at liberty to share them, would involve a couple of fairly well-known and highly-regarded Christian leaders, people who would, with little or no dissent, be accorded good person status, perhaps even “super-good person” status, but who are blemished in my own estimation because of behavior about which I have knowledge that is not generally available. The behavior is probably not of the sort that would send them packing into the dubious company of bad persons, but it would qualify for at least an asterisk on their good personhood.
Scripture indicates that God is no “respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), from which we might infer that he is also no respecter of the labels that some humans apply to others. Whatever labels others apply to us (or we apply to ourselves) are irrelevant to our standing before God. None of us are either good persons or bad persons. All of us are persons who do both good things and bad things. All of us are flawed persons. The official term for this, of course, is “sinful” persons. Whether we are serial murderers or are just occasionally snippy with a co-worker, we stand in desperate need of redemption. And redemption, it turns out, is a maddeningly messy process. The good in us and the bad in us are so intertwined that they are often merely two aspects of the same thing. God has to find a way to exploit the “bad” and turn it to the purpose of redemption. Grace is therefore found in some of the strangest and most unsavory places. None are more aware of this than the baptized faithful, for we know we are works in progress. We are, in the theological taxonomy of Martin Luther, simul justus et peccator, simultaneously justified and sinful.
This analysis will often not sit well with those who demand something clean and simple: definite bad persons who merit unalloyed opprobrium and definite good persons, who may occasionally behave outside of type and who deserve a lot of slack (which is usually another way of saying, “people like me”). It cannot be neatly reconciled with the discrete categories of the regnant popular narrative. But when all the layers are peeled back and the dust settles, it is exceedingly good news for us all — for both Scrooge and the Cratchit family, for my pernicious presbyteral predecessor and his victims (to say nothing of those who were nourished and fed by his ministry), and even including, proleptically, both Bill Cosby and his victims.
The Word became Flesh and agreed to be part of the mess. It’s complicated. Wonderfully complicated.
The featured image is “Ebenezer Scrooge” (1960) by Ronald Searle. It is licensed under Creative Commons.