We’ve adopted an “identitarian” mindset in America today. By that I mean everyone is viewed first and foremost through their racial, national, political, gender, or sexual identity. But events are confounding this narrative — and rightly so.
In Ukraine we have wanted to think that this war was a matter of good Ukrainians versus evil Russians. I have wanted to think that. But, as always, it is not that simple. President Zelensky recently fired 14 cabinet level officials, including the powerful minister of defense, for corruption. Corruption has long been a problem in Ukraine, and it’s no surprise that with so much money flowing into the country some Ukrainians have got their hands in the pot.
But the identitarian narrative has been buffeted by recent events here as well. Black officers, part of a majority black police force in Memphis, murdered Tyre Nichols. The idea has been that black police would not be caught up in police violence in the same way as have white officers. Not true. In a grosser form, the idea is that white police are bad, black or at least non-white police good.
We want to draw the moral line between nations, races, and genders. These are the good guys, those the bad guys. We see racial, national, ethnic, sexual and gender identity first and reach our conclusions.
But as the poet and Czech dissident who became President, Vaclav Havel, reminded us the line between good and evil does not run between nations, races, political parties or and other identity categories. It runs right through each human heart. Writing about the Central European regimes of the 1970s and ’80s Havel said, “The line between good and evil did not run between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ but through each person.”
Havel was drawing on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
This insight is very congruent with Christian faith. Scripture tells us that everyone’s hands are dirty. The apostle Paul puts it succinctly and brutally. “There is none righteous, no, not one . . . all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3). Under the right circumstances, we are all capable of murder.
Time and again in the Bible’s stories, it is the outsiders, the members of out-groups, foreigners and “bad” guys, who emerge as the ones who are doing God’s will and work. The overlooked catch in the famous “Good Samaritan” story is that there were no “good Samaritans.” For Jews, the Samaritans were a thoroughly despised group. And yet Jesus, a Jew, told a story in which Jewish leaders were indifferent to a man’s suffering. The one who stopped to aid a beaten man lying in a ditch was a no-good Samaritan. Reminds me of the time a pick-up-driving, gun-in-rack guy with a Trump/Pence sign helped me out of a ditch after a bicycle accident! The Subarus and BMW’s sped up and passed by on the other side.
We have inverted Dr. King’s plea to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We see first, and often last, people’s racial, ethnic or other identity marker, and judge them among the righteous or the unrighteous. We judge and simplify by outward appearances and labels.
After the Monterey Park shootings in which an American man of Chinese ethnicity shot and killed other people of similar ethnic and racial background, our NPR station was full of stories of racial violence against “Asian Americans” (a category that many who are lumped into it protest as a non-existent media creation). Racism may not have been the best explanation for that mass shooting. But it is our go-to.
One might throw in the situation of boys in American society, who have for long now been on the wrong side of the identitarian equation, but that’s a topic for another day. Solzhenitsyn and Havel were right. The Bible too. The line between good and evil passes through each human heart.