Who is Righteous Among Us?
|Benvenuto, "Expulsion from Paradise"|
When I was in seminary I wrote a paper challenging the doctrine of original sin. I didn’t doubt the ubiquity of sin, just its origins. The doctrine has its roots in the story of the Fall, where the first couple chose to disobey God’s directive, ate the forbidden fruit, got cast out the Garden. I had a good rationale for my position, which I won’t go into, and I probably would still stand by much of it. However, over time I have come to recognize that things are more complex than first discerned. Reading Reinhold Niebuhr has helped form a more nuanced position regarding the human condition. My recent reading of Langdon Gilkey’s memoir Shantung Compound,which describes his internment in a Japanese concentration camp in China, offers additional evidence. Published in 1966, this memoir written by a University of Chicago Theology professor, Gilkey’s story tells of the ups and downs of life among the inmates of the camp. The focus is not on the captors, but on the relations among this group of people that included Western business people, educators, and missionaries, as well as their families. As he tells the story, the Japanese military essentially let their captives organize their own lives, with little interference (as long as they didn’t try to escape). Thus, he writes:
Certainly in camp everyone alike was involved in the problem; none was entirely righteous. “Good” people and “bad” people found it incredibly difficult, not to say impossible, to will the good; that is, to be objective in a situation of tension, and to be generous and fair to their neighbors. In all of us, moreover, some power within seemed to drive us to promote our own interests against those of our neighbors. We were not our “true selves,” the selves we wanted to be or liked to think we were. We were caught willingly and yet unwillingly in a self-love from which we could not seem to achieve our own release, for what was wrong was our will itself. Whenever we willed something, it was our own distorted will that did the willing, so that we could not will the good. Though quite free to will whatever we wanted to do in a given situation, we were not free to will to love others, because the will did not really want to. We were literally bound in our own sin. [Gilkey, Langdon. Shantung Compound (p. 116). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.]
What he discovered was that when push came to shove, even people who prided themselves on being upright and even righteous (including missionaries), focused on themselves even at the cost to others. He tells the story of a delivery of goods by the Red Cross. Since there was no directive, and because the goods came from American sources, the Japanese commander decided to give each American one and a half parcels, and the other internees (1300 of the 1500) one parcel. Unfortunately, a group of Americans went and complained, demanding that since these were American goods, they should go to Americans only. This caused quite a controversy, and Gilkey and a few others tried to persuade their fellow Americans to share, to no avail. Finally, Tokyo decided that every family would get one parcel, and the remainder would be sent to other camps. The point of the illustration was that self-interest prevailed, even at the cost of relationships within the camp.
So Gilkey writes of his rediscovery of original sin (he grew up in a theologically liberal family, his father being the dean of the chapel at the University of Chicago):
When I saw this congruence between the Christian description and our actual experience of ourselves, I realized that it was just this situation which the idea of original sin had always sought to make partially clear. The reality to which the symbols of the “Fall” and of “Original Sin” point is not really the particular and dubious act of Adam. Rather it is this fundamental self-concern of the total self which, so to speak, lies below our particular thoughts and acts, molds them, directs them, and then betrays us into the actual misdeeds we all witness in our common life. The particular past act of Adam and Eve in the garden, and the Augustinian notion of an inherited corruption, were explanations or theories used by Christian thinkers to explain how this undeniable reality in human existence came about, how we got into the difficulty we are so clearly in. [Gilkey, Langdon. Shantung Compound (p. 116). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.]The Enlightenment vision, as propounded by John Locke, is that we are blank slates upon which society/experience writes. Perhaps there is more to the story. We need not embrace a literal vision of Adam and Eve to see the metaphor of the danger of human self-interest. In fact, are we not seeing this right now? I wonder. Who is righteous among us?
Picture attribution: Benvenuto, di Giovanni, 1436-ca. 1518. Expulsion from Paradise, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51113 [retrieved August 23, 2018]. Original source: www.mfa.org/.