Sunday’s Wisdom #350: Better Than Right

“You need to know, Willard, we’re good folks around here… With all the bother we’ve given you, it’s just the way we’ve been brought up. It’s us trying to do what we think is right.”
– Waterman, The Fighting Preacher

I commented last week about being careful with our judgments, particularly when those judgments run in the direction of death. It got me thinking about people and how often we do the wrong thing, but almost never because we want to do the wrong thing. Almost nobody ever gets up the morning and thinks, “What evil thing can I do today?” We’re not the villains from Power Rangers, ThunderCats, Captain Planet, or a dozen other kids’ shows I could name, who are all knowing and willing participants in the forces of evil and destruction.

Evil exists, and there are evil people, and there are evil people who are knowingly evil, but by and large, as of yet, most people who do wrong are actually trying to do right.

For example, the movie The Fighting Preacher is based heavily on events from the history of my own church, whose early members in almost every region and community have faced severe persecution from their neighbors. Of course, we’re not at all unique in that, and you won’t find me trying to claim some special status on that count. What I mean in bringing it up is that we’ve had a good deal of time to consider the why of it all, especially as some of our most stubborn persecutors eventually joined us and, like that Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the Apostle, became beloved brothers. And on the other hand, some of our dearest members turned to become our most bitter enemies. With history like that, one eventually learns that people are not simply good or bad and that is what they will always be. People are much more complex than that, with the teachings of their parents, their culture, their nation, their religion, their stories, and their own lives all ringing in their ears all the time. With all of that, and with our generally flawed understanding, it can be very easy to get it wrong even when people are trying so hard to get it right.

In our stories of World War II, we cast Germany and the Nazis quite squarely as the villains. They did engage in the Holocaust, after all, with millions upon millions of innocent people slaughtered with industrial efficiency. However, that same German army, whose soldiers wore the same uniforms as were worn by the mass-murderers at Auschwitz, also showed mercy at times they didn’t have to. At the beginning of what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, there was a small group of Allied forces which stood directly in the path of an overwhelming German force. They fought like dragons, and killed many German soldiers, but were overrun and captured. Key word: captured. Not killed. Because the Germans behaved with honor towards them, sparing the survivors of these few soldiers who had fought so hard and earned their respect.

As a final example, rather pertinent to my country today, there is the conflict between police officers and the group known as Black Lives Matter. I personally believe that most police officers are good, decent folk who are putting their lives on the line to protect me and my loved ones every single day, and that earns them quite a bit of respect on my part. I also personally believe that BLM has wrought a great deal of harm to a large number of innocent people, and for that they earn very little but disdain from me. However, the people who make up BLM’s ranks do what they do, I think, because they are misguided. They’ve been taught that police are racist towards black people, and they’ve been taught that this is a wrong that needs to be corrected, and they’ve been taught it must be done now, violently. That doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty, of course – Paul the Apostle was forever haunted by what he had done as Saul, because he was responsible for what he had done – but it does mean that they aren’t evil. They, like the people who persecuted my church and like the German soldiers of World War II, are trying to do something right.

In all three cases, the real problem is ignorance, and the solution is the dissemination of knowledge.

I will never forget when a black man came to talk to my classmates and I about the Civil Rights Movement, and he shared an experience where he encountered a young member of the Ku Klux Klan. He responded to the young man’s hatred, which the boy had learned from his family, with a small deluge of knowledge, educating him on how black men had contributed to the society around him, like the development of traffic signals and gas masks that save lives and so forth. It struck this racist young man deeply and profoundly, and in the ensuing years he learned the truth for himself, eventually leaving the KKK and becoming an outspoken advocate against them in general and against racism in general.

Most Germans didn’t know what was going on in the concentration camps, but those who did, or had suspicions, or had some other reason to distrust their rulers, did something about it. Some hid Jews, or stole books, or printed a newspaper, or spied, or smuggled, or even tried to kill the Fuhrer. These efforts were not all successful, but they left a legacy of honor even in the midst of horror and tyranny. Today, the Nazis are a black mark on German history, while their dissidents are revered for their heroism.

And as for “the Fighting Preacher,” one Willard Bean, he tried everything he knew to exist peacefully with his neighbors. Eventually, he managed to make friends with them simply by helping and serving them, even if those who didn’t want anything to do with him and his family at first. But as he helped them out, they talked, and the scene surrounding this quote is one where he opens up and shares a lesson he learned most painfully about trying to do better. He let others come to know him as he was helping them, and, bit by bit, the anger and spite and religious judgment died away. People were able to see him for him, to really know him, and his family, and see that they were all good people, just trying to do what they think is right.

I suppose it all comes down to how we have to remember that evil exists, that it is real and must be opposed, but also remember that most people themselves aren’t evil. By and large, we’re all just people, good people, trying to do right as we see it. It gets confusing, and we aren’t perfect. We all collect regrets along the way for things we’ve done wrong, or haven’t done as right as we wanted.

Perhaps the lesson here is that we can’t simply try to do “good.” We have to try and to “better.” Better than we’ve done before, better than the things we don’t like but think are necessary, better than hurting people, and… better than judging people.

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