By Charlie Clauss
In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tells the story of the Soviet gulag. He sprinkles in pieces of autobiography: while an officer in the Soviet army, he was accused, arrested, and sent to prison, the gulags, and eventual exile. Giving power to his descriptions of mistreatment, suffering, and torture is a matter-of-fact style of storytelling. He makes little effort to turn up the temperature of the narrative; rather, he describes terrible things as if he were commenting on the weather.
This background is necessary, for it provides key insights into one of his most quoted passages:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (Part I, “The Prison Industry,” Ch. 4)
What makes this truth much more powerful is that it is placed in the context of great evil that Solzhenitsyn both witnessed and experienced. How easy it would have been to have pointed the finger at the Soviets and claimed “there are the evil ones; we are innocent!” He by no means lets his torturers and jailers off the hook. No, their actions are condemned in no uncertain terms. But at points along the story, he makes plain that he does not consider himself innocent.
This point seems to be vitally important to his purpose, for he says the same thing twice:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. (Part 4, “The Ascent,” Chapter 1)
It is an oft-discussed topic that our society is very divided. There is no question this is true when one looks at the political landscape. Right-left, conservative-progressive, Republican-Democrat — these are all divides that should be taken seriously. It is fruitful to consider how we arrived at this impasse. The Righteous Mind, a book by Jonathan Haidt, is an intriguing answer to this question, using the methods of evolutionary psychology. Haidt argues that our development as a species has caused us to take sides and set ourselves against the “other.”
As important as it is to consider (and work toward at least the lowering of) these cultural divides, what Solzhenitsyn identifies is the fundamental divide of human anthropology.
It is vital to point out what he is not saying. He is not arguing that humans are completely evil. In the passage from Part 4, chapter 1, he continues:
This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.
From a Christian perspective, this is certainly true when one considers the twin pillars of Creation and Incarnation. The “very good” of Genesis 1 is never rescinded. A curse is pronounced (to our sorrow), but that does not negate the goodness that lies within creation and, by extension, humanity. Further, the Incarnation is a new declaration of “very good.” God becomes human — in spite of our condition — and so puts a renewed stamp of approval on creation, and again, by extension, humanity. We are doubly bought; God owns us by virtue of both making us and redeeming us.
The goodness in humanity can be rather thin, hidden in shadow. It hangs by a thread. When Solzhenitsyn used the phrase “one small bridgehead,” did he mean to elicit warfare images? In any case, we really do face a war. A battle was lost in the Garden, leaving only a “bridgehead.” To use a different martial metaphor, in the Incarnation God formed a “beachhead,” and won the decisive battle at the cross. The war has been won, although we will not see the final victory until sometime in the future.
It is important to stress that the line through the human heart implies goodness there. Too many have denied this. But the flip side also needs to be stressed. Evil lies in every human heart.
It is tempting to quote G.K. Chesterton: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved” (Orthodoxy).
We can follow the rabbit trails of what is meant by “original sin,” but if it means anything, it must mean that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Where someone comes down on this question (does this line even exist?) has important and far-reaching consequences. Who Jesus is and what he has accomplished mean very different things if you deny the line dividing good and evil. Deny it, and Jesus is at best an interesting historical figure. Believe the line exists, and Jesus could very well be the means to remove that line from the human heart, and restore that heart to complete goodness.
There is one last point that Solzhenitsyn helps us to see. You might believe the line exists, but you stop at the part that says “every human heart.” In the darkness deep within, we add the word “other” — “every other human heart.” Again, Solzhenitsyn:
“And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
This difficulty lies at the root of our cultural divides. We easily see the evil in the heart of the other. As Christians, it is a tragedy of cosmic proportions. We of all people should be willing to acknowledge that the line transects our heart.