Original Sin in Abu Ghraib

I am horrified by the images from Iraq--but not because the evil is unfathomable to me. I see it lurking in my own deep places.

The images of American military personnel abusing and humiliating prisoners of war horrify me. And not just because I am shocked by the thought that seemingly "civilized" people can commit such acts. I am horrified because those images make me confront the evil that lurks in the deep places of my own soul.

I am a Calvinist, which means I have a firm belief in the reality of original sin. I have come to many of my strong Christian convictions by weighing arguments on various sides of the issues. But not my belief in original sin. This is something that I know directly from experience. I understand perfectly the comment made by the British novelist Evelyn Waugh when someone asked how, given his mean-spiritedness, he could call himself a Christian. He replied to the effect that if it weren't for his Christianity, he would barely be human at all!

Many of my past misdeeds cause me to shudder in horror at what I am capable of doing. I often reflect sadly on something that happened when I was only seven years old. A friend and I walked to and from school together, taking a shortcut that led us alongside railroad tracks. Trains carrying coal traveled that route, and on the ground in that area were lumps of coal that had fallen from the cars. On many mornings we saw a child younger than ourselves walking along with a pail collecting coal. We knew he was very poor; he had no father, and his mother would send him out for fuel for their coal stove. One day we hid in the bushes until his pail was full, and then we jumped out, threw him to the ground, and scattered the coal in every direction. He began to cry, and we went on our way laughing.


That image of that weeping boy on the ground is a vivid one for me. Sometimes now I cry when I think about it. I try to imagine what was going on in my heart when I performed that absolutely gratuitous bit of evil, and I cannot fathom it. I don't understand how the same boy who at that time loved to sing "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world" could also take delight in that child's tears. The experience certainly helps me to understand the biblical texts that we Christians quote when defending the doctrine of original sin, such as the verse from Isaiah sung every year in performances of Handel's Messiah: "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to our own way."

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