Recently I got a call from a woman asking for help. She was pushy. I asked a question about her location (caller ID showed a Tennessee phone number), and she became rude, bordering on hostile. I finally ended the call. After I hung up the phone, a couple of thoughts went through my head: First, if you’re calling the church asking for help, it probably won’t help your cause to be rude.
The second thought was vastly more complicated.
Central to this woman’s story was her son who had dual diagnoses of Down’s syndrome and autism. If her story was even partly true, her behavior made sense. She was a mother whose entire life consists of fighting: fighting for some help from her son’s father, fighting the school system, DSHS, doctors, neighborhood bullies, churches. She fights for her son. If you are a target of her crusade, you will be annoyed. But from a distance, if you have any heart at all, you are compelled to admire the tenacity of this mother, the sole champion of a broken kid.
Mothers aren’t perfect. Some of them are not even good. But most mothers—Christian mothers, Hindu mothers, Muslim mothers, welfare mothers, wealthy mothers—most mothers are naturally and admirably good.
You probably know of good and noble dads, of teachers whose commitment and competence transform kids, of neighbors who care for the adopted granddad next door, of strangers who rescue people from burning cars, of donors who fund The Salvation Army and Mercy Corps.
Human goodness is real. One of the jobs of the church is to celebrate this goodness.
Jesus said we are most like God when we practice indiscriminate generosity (Matthew 5:45). When we, as the community of Jesus, honor the evident goodness around us, we are encouraging others and ourselves in life-giving cooperation with the goodness of God. Part of our calling as a church is to bless and honor ordinary goodness. We honor the drive of mothers to secure food and shelter and health care for their children. We ought to do what we can to shape society so that mothers fighting for the well-being of their children can win. It’s a great challenge, one worthy of the community of Jesus.
But . . .
There is a deeply entrenched tradition in Christianity of denying all human goodness. In its extreme form, this tradition claims every person is evil. And every person is entirely evil. Humans are so thoroughly evil they lack even any desire for goodness. Any apparent goodness is the result of supernatural intervention by God. Any desire to do good is unnatural. All natural desires are evil.
This theology is simply wrong. It is an unfortunate derivative of the writings of the Apostle Paul, especially in Romans 3 where Paul cites a number of passages from the Psalms which lament human evil.
A proper understanding of what the Bible says about the human condition must include an awareness of the many other passages in the Psalms which affirm human goodness. (See examples below.) Paul’s affirmation of the affection and mercy of God in the face of abject human evil gives hope to people overwhelmed by guilt and shame. We should not use his hyperbolic portrayal of human evil to contradict the affirmations of human compassion by Jesus and our own experience of goodness.
Humans are capable of doing good. We are also capable of doing evil. The Spirit of God cooperates with the goodness hardwired into us and the goodness we cultivate. We do our best work to counter evil by celebrating and cultivating goodness.
A selection of passages in the Psalms celebrating human goodness: