Tony Woodlief | Author

Good guy or bad guy?

One of my sons asked about an historical figure, or maybe it was some living politician whom history will soon forget. My son wanted to know whether this man was a good guy, or a bad guy.

This is our most fundamental typology for strangers. For all others, it is blood and love. Are you in my family? Are you steadfast in our little platoon? Will you come when I call? Do you love me?

We’ll tolerate many evils from the ones who answer yes. Some of us tolerate evils long after that inward, knowing part of the heart realizes they are lying, that they are no more steadfast for our little platoon than the politician whose television ads claim he dwells in our communities, considers us family, loves us.

There are the people who share our blood, and there are the people we hope love us, and then there are the rest of them. And something in us or about us leads our children to ask: “Dad, is he a good guy, or a bad guy?”

And what do you say?

It was easier when I believed God had sorted all this out in advance. I may not have been able to discern who was chosen or damned (though I had my suspicions), but I could rest in the assurance that people were becoming, in the (sometimes misapplied) words of C.S. Lewis, “immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

My answer, then, might have been: “We’ll know in heaven,” by which I would have meant that we would find out the truth of each person’s nature. Good people can do bad things, to be sure, just as bad people sometimes do good. But in each case, I believed, they are acting against their natures. There’s charity and hardheartedness in that view, in equal measure.

But that was just a peculiarity of a particular theological sect. It gave me reasons to embrace the inclination I think most of us harbor, which is to separate people by dark and light. A great many of us find ourselves asking: “Is he a good guy, or a bad guy?” Often I find my thoughts drawn to these words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

My answer to my son, then, is borne not so much from psychology or history or even theology as it is from confession. Is that man good or evil? Like the rest of us, child, he’s both.

My son nodded, considering this. I think he’s still considering it. I want to believe he’ll consider it all his days, while working out his own salvation with fear and trembling, which amounts to nothing more than pushing that line stretched taut across his heart steadfastly into the darkness, enlarging the space where sacrificial love resides, diminishing the malevolence that strains with all its might to make the whole human heart its cancerous domain. And which sometimes succeeds, which is why we believe in monsters.

Is that man good, or evil? Which am I? I am both.

And so are you.

But today we will try our best to live in the light.

On Key

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