No one sees themselves as the bad guys

I have a working theory that says that no one has ever seen themselves as the bad guy. It doesn’t matter who we are talking about. Everyone, even the most evil of people in history, have always thought of themselves as on the side of good and that their cause is just. Many will invoke God in some way as justification for their actions and beliefs. We have this tendency to twist God for our own purposes after all. Humanity has been doing that for a long, long time.

Does that mean there are no “bad guys?” No, it doesn’t mean that at all. Some can see the damage others are doing in the midst of the action. Some can even see it before it happens. More will see the damage after the fact. And still others will never see it as damaging at all, just how they supposedly benefited. This is why it’s a bit easier to look back to the past – especially a past we didn’t personally play a part in. It’s easy for me to look back at the 1960’s for instance and make quick judgements about who the good guys and the bad guys were. I wasn’t born until 1976. It’s a lot harder for me to look at times I have been a part of because there’s always a danger that I have been on the wrong side. I know I have. Am I getting all right now? I doubt it. I pray that future generations will look back on me with some grace. That’s if anyone remembers me at all after three generations, which is unlikely for most of us. Which leads me to try to see the past with some grace as well.

That doesn’t excuse some actions. Lynching has always been wrong. Society and the law may not have seen it that way. I am left speechless at how people could go to church on Sunday morning, round up a posse, hunt down a black man, and then lynch him in what turned out to be a public picnic by lunch time that same day, complete with lynching pictures that people took to commemorate the event. No one had the thought that what they were doing was in conflict with what they just heard from the pulpit? Or more likely, I’m making a bad assumption about what was preached from the pulpit.

I watch what happens in our society today and I just have to wonder – Do the bad guys know they are the bad guys? What constitutes a bad guy anyway? And how do I know I’m not a bad guy? So often in our American context, we get caught up in dichotomies. Clearly, there’s only two options right? A good guy and a bad guy. Oh how we all want to be the good guys and we’ll go to great lengths to show which side we are on. And it always turns out we’re on the side of good, regardless of who we are. It always turns out that God is on our side too. How convenient. It always turns out that we can find the data, stats, laws, information, and more to back up our claims of being right and on the side of good. It always turns out that we have a way to spin any situation we are in and there is always an excuse as to why something happened the way it did. Always.

I’m convinced humanity has been like this a long, long time. This isn’t anything new. Go back to Genesis 3 – Adam and Eve in the garden. The snake tempts Eve to eat the fruit so that they will be like gods and know good and evil. And she gives the fruit to Adam. And when God comes walking in the garden and finds them, they are wearing leaves and God asks, who told you that you were naked? And the spinning and the blame and the justification ensues. Forget interpreting this story in a literal sense. I think we lose out when we do. This is a story about how human beings act when we have a need to be right and show that we are on the side of good. The key to the story is that everyone blames someone else and shows how those others are in the wrong, the bad guys. Humanity has been playing this out ever since.

So who are the good guys and the bad guys?

Recently I read “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle is “Why good people are divided by politics and religion.” Haidt talks about why people vote the way they do and why they believe what they believe. There’s some science. There’s plenty of issue around identity. There’s history. There’s culture. Often the division comes down to what people value and their moral matrix and have a difficult time understanding how those in opposition could have a different value system and morality. This creates serious conflicts, policy differences, and consequences. The result is that we often miss some things in our own value systems – we look past the weaknesses and the holes. We miss some of the positives of our opponent’s value systems too – things that would actually be helpful.

So who are the good guys and the bad guys? We come back to this question over and over again. A good Lutheran answer is – we all are to some extent. We are both sinner and saint after all. Maybe some of us are a little heavier on the sinner side than others. Maybe not. Who knows.

So am I arguing for some kind of relativistic position? I don’t think so. You see what makes good guys and bad guys go beyond just individual action too. Recently the parents of a school shooter were given prison time for how they did nothing to stop their son from doing what he did. They didn’t carry out the action, but they were deemed to have some responsibility.

How do systems work into this? How about institutions? How about cultural norms and mores? How about language? How does the teaching of history and civics fit in? How does the use of money and our relationship to it as a society fit in? There’s dozens of other questions I could add. Now the question of good guys and bad guys gets a bit more complicated, doesn’t it? Are we bad guys because we participate in these systems, even if we would choose not to but have no choice in the matter?

Who are the good guys and the bad guys? I have my thoughts on that. It’s really easy for me to label someone a bad guy – more often than not it is someone who is the opposite of me, values different things than I do, has a different moral foundation than I. But I need to be really careful when I do that. I’m putting myself on a pedestal and ignoring my own flaws, missing the holes in my morality and values, and how I have been the bag guy (or maybe am still the bad guy and I can’t even see it). Because there is no one who doesn’t see themself as the good guy.

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