Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst. (I Tim. 1:15)
During the recent coverage of the terrorist attack in Boston, I heard a repeated comment that struck me during a number of interviews with ordinary people. This comment was that in spite of the evil perpetrated by these bad people, the country would quickly recover because there are far more good people here then bad people. When I heard this, my immediate response was to wonder how these people knew that this claim was true. Did someone take a poll asking American citizens whether they consider themselves good or bad people? One could easily predict what the outcome of such a call would be, that America is made up of nearly all good people. “Nearly all” I say because there are likely at least a small number of people who have not succumbed to the self-evaluation by the relativistic moral standards of our day, people who still have the humility expressed by St Paul in the quote above, or of a St. Teresa of Avila who wrote that she considered herself as fully capable of committing every kind of sin, were it not for the grace of God.
So the real question these comments raised in my mind was what these people meant by “good” and “bad” people? St. Augustine long ago clarified this issue somewhat when he said that the demarcation line between good and evil is not a line that separates people into good people and bad people, but it’s a line of measure that cuts through the heart of every individual person on this planet. What clarified this problem for St. Augustine, and the other saints of the Church, is the fact that the ultimate measure of goodness and evil is found not simply in abstract moral norms but in a person, the Person of Jesus Christ. He is the true measure of goodness in this world by his personal goodness and the true measure of evil in this world by his passion. Jesus and Mary – by His grace – were the only two people who were truly “good” people through and through, good persons in the full meaning of the word good. The rest of us are a mixture, good to the degree that we are like Christ, evil to the degree that we are unlike Christ, that is, sinners. In this sense, some people have greater goodness than others to be sure, because they are more like Christ than others. Other people are more evil than others, and some radically more evil, because their actions are more radically contrary to the norm of goodness found in the life and actions of Jesus Christ.
In this sense, I would have been less disturbed if the people who spoke in these interviews had said that he or she believed there were many more people in this country who are better people than these murderers than are like them. I might at first think that’s probably true, but then I might hesitate as to just how many more were truly better when it comes right down to it. For instance, are people who approve of the right to kill innocent unborn children, and by implication must morally sanction the deaths of 60 million innocents, really better people than these two brutal murders who killed 3 people and maimed 180 others? Or are all these “good” people caught up in a sophistry that will approve the right to kill innocents but draws back from actually approving the actual murders of 60 million? In other words, is a person really good by the measure of Christ? Is their moral judgment really in line with His mind on this matter of the killing of the unborn? What then is their measure of their own goodness? And when you consider that 60 million children have been brutally murdered in the wombs of their mothers and that significant numbers of their mothers’ friends and relatives would never condemn their choice to commit murder, does not that get us very close to at least half the adult population of this country.
Separating people decisively into the categories of good and evil is a tricky business in this world. So we need to stick to clearly condemning evil acts as evil and praising good acts as good, and let God sort out the final division of good from evil persons. You can always find some good in the worst murderers and some evil in the best of persons. We all carry dangerous roots of evil in our hearts until they are completely purified by the grace of God and the light of Christ, and that will take place only in the next world. “Good” people – in our estimation – often shock us with a sudden outburst of great evil that has been lurking in their hearts unbeknownst, perhaps, even to themselves. Mobs form quickly out of good people who suddenly allow ancient resentments and even hatreds to flare up. Even “good” children can quickly degenerate, as William Golding portrayed in his novel The Lord of the Flies, where the savagery that always lurks in the human heart suddenly breaks loose and results in murder of the innocent.
Contemporary secularized culture no longer accepts the truth of Original Sin and its effects in the human spirit that are all too real. So secularists are left with dividing men into good and evil men, placing themselves on the side of the angels, if they actually believed in angels. Thus while the “evil” people perpetrate acts of terror and horrific crimes, the vast majority of “good” people come to be deceived about their own goodness. And so they end up approving and even supporting much more numerous crimes against humanity, like the virtual liquidation of Downs Syndrome children today and the death of millions of other innocents simply because they are the wrong sex, have another handicap or are simply inconvenient to the mother and father. All of this takes place while these secularized citizens congratulate themselves on not being like those evil terrorists.
What all this should warn us is that real goodness is no easy thing to acquire. It requires a close and constant union with the source of such goodness, the Creator, and His Son Jesus Christ, and His Spirit, and all that requires both faith and sacraments that communicate that goodness and the grace necessary to acquire it and keep it. Unfortunately, Jesus is Himself no longer broadly accepted in today’s Culture of Death, and so the number of “better” folks is bound to decline as time goes on, unless there is a great return to the faith of the ages.