When I was a kid, I was taught in catechism class to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” But, in my experience, it’s much more gratifying to hate the sinner and love the sin.
I long for the Judas goat, to carry away all my ugliness and hatefulness into the wasteland. I want someone to blame, so I can avoid the painful, tedious work of growing up. It’s so much easier to focus on the sins of others.
If there are “bad people” I can label and shun, then (by implication, by categorization, by magic) I get to be a “good person.” The bad is out there, far from me, and I get to feel superior to it. Then I can do my bad stuff and keep it secret. As long as no one sees me, I don’t have to acknowledge it or do anything to change it.
Projection is a pandemic, poisoning our world. Whether it’s Israeli soldiers firing on unarmed civilians, celebrities slut-shaming the victims of their sexual offenses, or cops justifying shooting yet another black man, we all want to slay our sin by blaming others as sinners.
But the truth is that there are no good people. There are no bad people.
There are only people.
We all have within us the capacity to do good and evil, to be loving and selfish, kind and cruel. And until we truly embrace that agonizing truth, we can never truly love. Never truly find peace.
In my work with sex offenders, I have learned that bad behavior is driven by a misguided attempt to meet some basically good need. The need to be heard. The need for control. The need to connect. The need to feel safe.
A paradoxical mind and heart is needed to come to grips with this. Sexual offending is never okay. The offender must own what he did (it’s almost always a “he”). At the same time, there must be room in the heart for understanding what drove the behavior, so that the underlying needs can be met in a healthy way.
Neither pole is enough. Simply punishing and shaming accomplishes nothing — in fact, it makes everything worse. If you believe you’re a monster, unforgivable, why not burn down the world. Yet empathy without accountability reinforces victim mentality.
Justice must be tempered with mercy, and vice versa.
In this historical moment, we are sorely lacking in mercy. Mercy is hard to find when I see myself as the “good guy” and the other as the “bad guy.”
The way forward calls for us to embrace one simple truth:
You are not a good person.
None of us are.
Let’s help each other nurture the good and heal the harm.