I was reading an article yesterday about a con artist. She has hurt a lot of people and she is now in prison for her cons. But what struck me was that the article kept saying things like, "There are a lot of bad people in the world," and "She is simply a bad person." And I found myself looking at the eyes of this imprisoned woman and seeing in them hurt, poverty, desperation, pain, and a lost-ness that didn't make her look like a "bad" person to me, but rather, a person who was broken and in need of help. Is she conning me, too, then with her look? Perhaps. However...
I remembered a changing point in my childhood when as a culture we seemed to realize that saying certain children were "bad" was not helpful. We were taught and told that instead of saying, "he is a bad boy", it is much more helpful, to both the child and to the rest of us to recognize that he is not in fact a bad boy. He is a boy who has done something we don't like or don't approve of. We might say, he is not a bad boy, he is a boy who has done a bad thing. A great deal of that change in our culture came about as we started to look at each child's life. We started to see where those behaviors that we describe as "bad" stem from, we started to see the child in a context, to understand the pains and challenges each child experiences and to have compassion for those. We learned that once we understand what is causing a child to act out in a specific way, we can deal with those causes, as well as simply addressing the unfortunate behavior, and hopefully help a child to become an adult who does not continue those behaviors but who is a responsible and compassionate member of our society. But while I think it is a huge and wonderful step for us to do this with children, we fail to apply those same principles to adults.
We are told, as people of faith, that everyone, EVERYONE is a child of God. That means we can begin with an assumption that there is good, somewhere, in everyone. Their motivations may be wrong, their thinking may be off, they may choose a negative behavior that we know to be wrong. But have we ever looked at why? We rarely do that. We fail in this obvious step of actually taking the time to see why people do the things they do. Of course we fail in this. If we had to actually see why someone did something, we might have compassion for them and then where would we be? We'd have to rethink how we handle punishment. We'd have to step back and take a look at how we deal with criminal behavior. We'd have to change society in major ways. So it is easier to just label people. And not just people who do things we don't like, not just people who break the law, but whole countries of people, whole religions of people, whole groups of people who think differently than we do. My people are the good people. Your people are the bad people. It makes it all much easier. We don't have to take time then to know people. We don't have to take the energy of really seeing or understanding someone is different from us. We also, and I believe this is probably the most important point in all this, we also don't have to look at our own culpability in someone else's actions. It is so easy, as an individual, as a community, as a COUNTRY, to simply avoid looking at how we have encouraged, added to, created, been complicit in, been GUILTY in creating the "bad" behavior of others. And that refusal to look at ourselves, that refusal to own our own sinful (because that is what it is) behavior, leads us to feel self-righteous, angry, wanting to see revenge, wanting punishment for the other, without any repentance or ownership or change on our own parts. And while that is comfortable, and helps us feel superior and self-righteous, THAT is bad behavior.
Who is better for this attitude we have of seeing others as bad? Who benefits from this kind of thinking? When I can simply relegate you to being "bad" then I don't have to deal with you except to express anger, to administer punishment, to aim destruction at you. But I also don't have the learning and grace that comes from getting to know someone who is different from myself. I don't have the challenge to my own thinking that might cause me to grow and think differently. I don't get to understand what causes someone else to act in ways I don't like, and I don't have the opportunity to learn a deeper compassion than what I now feel. I also don't have the opportunity to take a hard and honest look at myself and choose a different behavior. I don't have the opportunity to repent, to change, to really improve myself or my world in any way. And the person I am judging as bad? Well, my experience with people of every age is that once you are labeled "bad" there is no motivation to do or be better. None. When I tell my child, in contrast, that I know they are a good person but I don't like their behavior, I do see an effort to try and act differently. I just wonder, as I think about our overcrowded prisons, and our desire to go to war so quickly at times, and the way we so casually and callously label people as "bad" rather than working with them to change behavior, how much we are actually creating the "bad" we throw out as labels so freely onto others.
Are there people beyond healing and redemption? No doubt there are people beyond human healing and redemption. But again, I think we contribute to that by so quickly moving to the label "bad" and so rarely giving people chances to explain, to be in dialogue, to be in relationship, and to change. Also, who are we to judge who is beyond redemption? It seems to me that making the call on who is beyond help is something only God can do and that we are playing God by deciding whom we can't help or work with. And again, this destruction of the other, the one we don't understand, the one we label as "bad" never pushes us to own our own stuff, to really do the self-reflection necessary for genuine growth, never allows for real healing of any of us - either the person we've labelled as bad or ourselves.
I don't know the woman con artist who was written up as "bad". But it was clear to me that neither did the journalist who so quickly and readily labelled her as "bad". He had spent no time talking with her at all, and it was easy to simply see her as horrible rather than seeing the desperation that I can imagine might lead to that kind of behavior. It was clear from the article that she had no family, no skills, no education. And all of that combined could lead a person to a very desperate place, a place where, if she could find a way to manipulate those who seemed to have everything while she had nothing, she would feel no remorse about readjusting some of her communities resources so that she might have a share in the pot. Am I condoning her behavior? Of course not. But I do understand that desperation sometimes leads people to desperate behaviors. If she saw no other way, I can see her using in destructive ways the people she probably labels as "bad" - those who have while she has not. And i wonder if some kind of mutual understanding and a genuine desire to help and work with her might not make a difference - not only for her, but for the people she will inevitably try to con again once she is out of prison if no changes are made, if no real care and help is forthcoming, if there is no one who attempts to care and understand her.
It just isn't helpful to label people as good or bad. It isn't helpful to them. It isn't helpful to us.