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.
When I recoil in horror, then, at the sight of American soldiers torturing Iraqi and Afghan prisoners, it is not because I am witnessing an evil that is unfathomable to me. That kind of evil is all too familiar to me. I see it lurking inside me, and once again I cry out to God for mercy and forgivenness, on my own behalf as well as for people whose misdeeds right now have become a matter of public record.
As a Christian, I certainly do not believe that our only recourse is a fatalistic acceptance of the reality of evil. Both my theology and my experience tell me that divine grace is possible. Humans can, with God's help, resist doing the evil that might come "naturally" in horrific wartime situations. And, with grace, we can be forgiven for even the most depraved sins against our fellow human beings. With repentance, great sinners can recreate their moral lives.
Those of us who have accepted the offer of grace need to work to minimize evil's effects in the world. I see hope in the very fact that so many of my fellow citizens, Christian and non-Christian alike, are expressing great dismay about what some our military personnel have done. This is an important time for the American people to admit to the rest of the world that, though we often act like we are morally superior to the rest of the human race, we are as capable as anyone else of horrible acts of injustice.
It is important, too, that we engage in a serious public dialogue about how we can set ourselves straight. It is not enough that the men and women of our armed forces show a willingness to fight for their country. They must also be educated in the ways in which they can do so with honor and moral integrity. This will happen best in a larger context in which all of us, leaders and ordinary citizens alike, make a new commitment to treating each other with honor and integrity. To engage in this important project will require a new infusion of humility into our national character. Lord knows, we have now learned again that we have much to be humble about. And those of us who believe strongly in both sin and grace must demonstrate to others that recognizing our deepest flaws is a necessary step toward righteousness--both for ourselves and our nation.