Faith: Are people inherently good?

Deana Armstrong

In one of my classes I had to write a PowerPoint on the nature of people and how they develop problems. I had to do this in 10 slides, plus bibliography and title slide. That doesn’t give me room to say much.

Are people inherently good like most of my younger classmates insisted? I had trouble with that answer. Open to almost any page in the Bible or a history text and you would be hard pressed to agree with that statement. History is filled up with people doing evil things to each other. So, if we are inherently good, how does it happen that we don’t do what we want to do?

Every religion has wrestled with this question throughout history. Most of them have concluded that we are not inherently good, or at least that whatever we were originally, something happened to cause a flaw in the design later on.

It is only recently that we have started saying that we are inherently good. Oddly, we have even more and worse evidence that we are not. Death camps — from Auschwitz to the killing fields of Cambodia, to the camps of Brazzaville in the Congo to those hidden in the jungles of Guatemala and the mountains of Pinochet’s Chile — on every inhabited continent bear silent witness to the fact that we are capable of great evil.

So, when we ask about the nature of humanity, we must wrestle with the question of evil. How is it that we do such horrible things to each other? And how is it that God lets it happen?

Those are not easy questions to answer. Especially in 13 PowerPoint slides.

Fundamentally, the question is about sin. What is sin? People have suggested several different definitions of sin:

• Sin is those things that God tell us not to do. The ‘thou shalt nots.’

• Sin is missing the mark. This is based on the Greek word that is most frequently translated as sin in our English bibles. It is an archery word, and it was the word for people who missed the center of the target. They ‘missed the mark.’

• Sin is separation from God. This is C.S. Lewis’ definition. Sin is anything that separates us from God or our neighbor.

This last is probably the best definition we will come up with. Though perhaps we should add one thing to it. Sin can also separate us from ourselves.

So let us look at the story of Joseph and his brothers considering that definition. It starts first with Joseph’s sin of pride. He uses his position as Jacob’s favorite son and his special ‘princess coat,’ to separate him from his brothers. He then uses his special gift of dreams to separate him further.

His brothers let their sin of hatred separate them further, and they contemplate murder. In the end they settle for selling him into slavery. When their father dies, they fear he will exact retribution on them for their grievous act. Joseph, however, has learned his lesson through hardship and reassures them that he will not cause further separation in the family. Sin has been stopped in its tracks by one person’s act.

This leads us to the second part of the question. How do problems — sin and its consequences — get fixed? Someone at some point in the equation must recognize that there is a problem. Someone must say this tit-for-tat existence isn’t working and step outside of the cycle and decide to change it. Once the person realizes that the cycle isn’t working and decides to change it, they must then step back in with a plan.

Christians call this three-part process — stepping outside, deciding on change, and stepping back in— “redemption,” “salvation,” or “healing.” We have different words because the model has changed over the centuries. We recognize that it can look different for different people and at various times. What we always recognize is that the change starts with one person deciding to stop the cycle of harm.

In his story, Joseph recognizes that though his brothers hurt him, God used that action to save not just their lives but to save many, many lives. He chooses forgiveness and grace. It begins with a simple question: “Am I God? (Genesis 50:20).”

The answer is no. His story ends with these words: ‘”Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” So, he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them. (v.20b-21)”

Over and over, the witness of scripture shows us people doing this. It is not an easy example to follow. The easier path, is that of the closed fist and the angry word, but the path that leads to peace and change is that of the open hand and the gentle voice.

Rev. Deana Armstrong, M.Div. is the pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, Craig, CO.

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