Posts Tagged ‘human nature’

Over coffee with friend Cheryl Shigaki, she told me about a recent trip she made to Rwanda. Efforts continue to bring emotional, social and financial recovery in the aftermath of the genocide. Some of the stories are too unthinkable to recount.

After any genocide or conspicuous inhumanity questions inevitably arise, and these are questions of a deep, philosophical nature. They came after the holocaust. They appear in other instances of senseless, unimaginable violence. They came in Rwanda.

The first question is about the nature of the human being, what we would call our “anthropology,” our understanding of the human creature. In Rwanda it was captured in a single question: “How did we lose our humanity?” The first recognition is that it indeed can be lost. We can be swept away by group madness, the reign of the reptilian brain, the harming of others justified by our own twisted rationales. In the face of incontrovertible evidence the human species is not “getting better every day in every way.” No, we can do heinous things, and no one is exempt, placed in the right circumstances. A genocide calls into question our understandings of the human being and therefore what is required to live as one, to live among others like us, and to transcend that evil impulse.

The second question is theological in nature. In Rwanda it boiled down to a graphic statement: “God left Rwanda for 100 days.” The only explanation of God and genocide is absence. And if God can check out in such a way then what is God, really? What really left, and for more than 100 days, is our notion of what God is or does. Old notions crumble in our hands and unless we re-define God we have few options other than to abandon the abandoning God. Genocide forces us to recognize that the ultimate reality of God is not like a great big person that controls everything, determines everything, intervenes, or limits. Human freedom – even for evil – is not limited, but rather exercised. People left the checked-out God in Rwanda by droves, and still are. And they have left a church that was seen as complicit with the political powers and principalities.

What is the nature of the human being and what is the nature of God? These are the most fundamental questions of faith. On the other side of those questions, violently revealed, lie answers that genocides will not leave sleeping undisturbed. We are not what we thought ourselves to be, not totally. And God is certainly different than and more than we imagined. Such terrible labor pains toward new birth. Some even survive it.

Neophyte (N): But the search committee told me one thing, dreams they had, and assured me they needed someone just like me to lead them into the next grand era.

ChurchWrinkle (C): Listen well and learn. Search Committees lie to their candidates, but not that way, not because they are malicious. It’s because they are so hopeful. So they paint a story of how things could be, but not what they really are. You will always find the truth after the blush of courtship is over.

N: I keep preaching and teaching about the way of faith, of Jesus, and all the rest. But it seems like we make decisions just like any other community group might. I don’t see much difference except we might say a prayer first.

C: Yes, it’s like that. And because you are so idealistic it is troubling. You believed you were called to a very high-minded way of life, and you were. But not all people are, though they all live side-by-side in the church. You always have to keep a spectrum of commitment in mind; some are very faithful and committed, and are motivated by the highest ideals. They are a slender minority. Next are large numbers who do it because they somehow feel they are supposed to – an ethic of obligation. And then there are the consumers. Church is like a religious WalMart, just shopping for the best deals. This is your introduction to human nature. They are all there, side by side, but motivated differently because the depth of faith is different. You’ll have to accept this, learn to work with it. You will observe some of the greatest virtue ever known in this place. And you will become acquainted with its opposite. 

N: But some people are so selfish, so power-hungry. How can they call themselves Christian, I mean, by the way they act?

C: There are some of those and their negative energy can ruin it for everyone else. They even can do great harm to the church in the name of some principle, a smokescreen for their own egotism. But don’t focus on them. Focus on the many remarkable people who make this world better just by virtue of the fact that they are in it. Focus on the beauty all around you. Focus on the things people didn’t have to do but did anyway, just because it was right and compassionate. Choose to focus on these things, even when other people rattle the cages and claim that the sky is falling. Be something else, don’t settle, and don’t get pulled down by their gravity.

N: At first it seemed like they adored me, I could do nothing wrong. But more and more it seems like I get blamed for anything and everything, even the things they are responsible for. How can this be?

C: The adoration is an illusion and so is the blaming. If you dare to be who you have been called to be you are like a movie screen upon which people project every wish or frustration or left over issue they had with someone. Don’t be that. Be who you really are, deep down. That will last after their projections have come and gone.

N: But they gave me authority to lead, and then resist my leadership. Why? Why don’t they just hire a secretary, a custodian, a chaplain? If they know what they want already, just hire someone to to implement their desires. They say they want leadership, but I’m less and less convinced. I mean, don’t call a pastor. Just hire an administrator.

C: In the same way there is no free lunch so there is no free leadership. They, the people, temporarily confer authority on you. It is provisional and can be withdrawn, at least in our free church tradition. Focus on the vision you share and help them to discover. Love them and in time – sometimes a long time – they will love you back. And when they love you then they may be responsive to what you have to say, the directions you point, the wisdom you share. But that authority is not often conferred before the trust is earned, not entirely. The church is dying for lack of leadership, that’s a fact. They both desire and fear it. And people are so afraid they will lose some kind of control they usually tread water in place, pretending to go somewhere when they are not.

N: But I’ve prepared academically and spiritually for this. I’m ordained by the same church that has affirmed my calling, told me how important this role is. And I take it seriously. They set me apart for this. And then I share some things and they look at me like I just landed from Mars.

C: Well, you have just landed from Mars. It is the Mars of what they don’t know and the fear that you will confuse them with ideas that don’t make sense. You have to become an earthling before you can talk about your experience on Mars. It takes time. Be patient. Don’t be anxious. Some will have positive regard toward your ordination. Others will see you as a paid professional because that’s how they see the rest of their world. Don’t get trapped by all those perceptions; know who you are and whose you are.

N: Everybody seems to get upset about what we can and can’t do, how limited we are. I look around and all I see is bounty, potential, provision and blessing. But all I hear instead is “we can’t.” They sing a constant song of scarcity. How can I convince them that we have to walk by faith and trust?

C: By believing it yourself, Pilgrim, by believing it yourself.

I just re-watched the haunting movie, The Pianist, and came away with questions that won’t leave me alone.

The story is set in Poland of the second world war with the ghettoizing of all Jews and a corresponding attempt to exterminate them. No matter how many times and different ways that I engage this history the impact is always the same. I am led to reflect on the several thousands of years that our species has roamed the planet, dominated it, and contended with one another for the sake of power or possession. The review is not good. And here is the question, in one form or another: Can you think of any species that has done more harm than our own? And the second is liken unto it: Can we really continue to believe that human nature is “basically good,” that we are getting better every day in every day, that in the long trajectory of civilizations there is really such a thing as progress?

Let’s see, address this over a cup of coffee. Right.

I do think we are the most harmful, destructive species known to earth. Like no other we systematically destroy entire groups for a variety of reasons. We exploit whole planetary systems, wage intercontinental wars, and direct huge sums of resources doing so. Among all the species we know what we are doing as we do it. Animals kill for food or to protect themselves. Instinct takes over. But we are able to carefully plan our malice with deliberate forethought. We’re a menace.

And the history of our species in the world also includes compassion, creativity, gestures of love, sacrificial giving, selfless acts of bravery and kindness, and solidarity with the suffering of the other. Go figure.

Saints and sinners are we.

It is not as simple as attributing vice to primitives from the past or savages in the present. Very often their virtue far exceeds our own. There are monsters in the present day and saints in the past, and vice versa. Heinous acts take place close at hand and far away.

Some would say that the brain is evolving, and we are growing into enlarged and increasing consciousness. Well, in The Pianist, I was reminded that some of the most exceedingly intelligent and  “cultured” people of the time embodied the greatest evil. I have personally witnessed, on a smaller scale, people who were characterized as educated and civilized acting in ways much worse than any simple beast in the wilderness. So intelligence, as a measure alone, does not insure anything approaching moral life, wisdom or love. Sometimes rational intelligence enables exactly the opposite. Nuclear power can light cities or demolish them.

Is there a growing spiritual consciousness? Well, for some. But I think people of deep spirit are in a clear minority, certainly not confined to this particular historical moment. And they are not located in some places and not others. There is a scattering of these centers of spirit. And that’s why, I think, so many religions have ended up doing more harm than good; they were, in the end, not guided by some advanced spiritual awareness but rather by the same human nature that brought about all the suffering in the first place.

We are all these things, of course. And the future is not automatically insured by the development of technology. That may or may not insure progress. Without a clear moral compass, humble connection to the spiritual dimensions of life and some sense of life that transcends the self, the technology we create, in the end, may become our end. Unless guided by a moral hand it becomes an exceptionally efficient and effective tool of destruction. As Alfred said to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Night, “Some men just want to see it all burn.”

The difference will not be found in being either smart or dumb. Evil comes out of both. The difference will not be found in some cultures and not others – virtue and vice are found everywhere. Scratch the surface of respectable people and we are driven by a raw combination of instinctual drives, grasping after survival and a deep longing for something more than all that, what the apostle Paul referred to as our lower and higher natures.

Once upon a time, at the broad intersection of earth and sky, a cross was raised to destroy what God had sent to unite. It is there that we gaze upon an unmasked description of the dark underbelly of our humanity and the self-emptying nature of God’s love. In that vast contrast between the best of what God does and the worst of what we do there exists a latent, potential possibility. The inescapable questions haunt us: Which shall it be? Will higher spiritual consciousness overcome the reptile in each of us? In the end, can something as simple as faith triumph over evil and all its attendants?

These are the questions of the world. They have not gone away. We must answer them, individually or collectively, or else the reign of the worst will eclipse another kind of reign, the reign of love, peace and joy. Such a way may actually be foreign to our human nature, unnatural when compared to the track record of our species. In other ways not. However it turns I’m betting on resurrection. I’m believing that, in the end, a different kind of reign will overcome, even when the darkness seems impenetrable.