What makes a good man turn bad?
That’s an excellent question.
This week, a young white man in Georgia murdered eight people. He was raised in a Baptist church and had professed the Christian faith. His victims worked at massage parlors known to offer sexual services and most of them were of Asian descent.
The internet (and my social media feeds) are full of opinions about how and why this man did such a horrendous thing.
His own immediate confession notes his struggles with sexual addiction and a desire to remove the object of his lust. So, early headlines painted him as either some sort of religious fanatic or a racist terrorist.
Follow-up news stories have illuminated more of his story, noting that–though he’d been raised in a Christian home and had professed to faith years ago–he was a troubled young man who had recently been kicked out of his house, his sexual behavior had ruined a romantic relationship, he’d sought Bible-based behavioral therapy (that didn’t work), he was out of work due to the pandemic, and he’d frequented the types of massage parlors where he committed these acts of violence.
Some of my friends were quick to blame his murderous acts on the Southern Baptist Church, purity culture, and the Christian patriarchy. Some blamed it on the anti-Asian rhetoric of Donald Trump and white supremacy. I’ve seen a lot of hot takes that blend all these environmental factors together to paint the picture of a pressure cooker of a young man who was an anti-Asian, anti-woman, sexually-repressed, gun-toting, Bible-thumping ticking time bomb.
And maybe he was.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to curb the compulsion to offer my own “hot take” on every current event. It’s almost impossible to know the truth of a situation at the start. I don’t want to perpetuate lies by opining on things I honestly know nothing about. What good does it do, after all, to throw fuel on a fire of false assumptions and half-truths?
What I do know, about this particular situation, is that what this man did was absolutely reprehensible and unjustifiable, regardless of his reasons.
But we still want to know “why,” don’t we?
And I think I know why the “way” matters so much.
A few days ago, I said this online:
“The news media of the 1980’s convinced Americans that all young black men were drug-dealing baby-daddy hoodlums. Let’s not now be misled into thinking all white men are women-hating racist terrorists. The world is full of decent men who will never make the news.”
What I meant by “decent,” of course, was not “good” in an ontological sense but decent in the sense that they could live peaceably with other men, that they would still do things like help a stranger change a tire or buy a neighbor’s girl scout cookies. You know, the kind of men who, while they might believe that sex work or infidelity or porn use is sinful, they will never shoot up a massage parlor because of it.
“Not all ideological errors,” I continued, “lead to inhumane behavior.” And I meant it.
When I was growing up, there was an implicit expectation that it was possible to establish a temporary truce, of sorts, among people with ideological differences. This is why my two grandfathers, who disagreed vastly on issues of religion and politics, could gather their families together for Thanksgiving and share a meal and watch a football game and enjoy each other’s company. They may have never become best friends. They would never solve the great problems of the world. But they could find pleasure in sharing space for a few hours on a few days a year without killing each other.
I don’t why this isn’t possible anymore. But it doesn’t feel possible anymore.
Without getting too theological here–because I don’t have the authority or the qualifications to do so–my sense is that there are a few fundamental and foundational Christian beliefs about the nature of man that we no longer believe. The most basic among these is the belief in “original sin.”
It’s the paradigm shift from the Puritan “self is sin” to the postmodern “self is Good.” It’s the shift from “Jesus as savior of the world” to “Jesus as moral example and self-help guru.” It’s what I (not jokingly) refer to as the “Glennon Doyle-ing” of American Christianity. And it’s not just progressive Liberal circles. It happens even among Conservative churches.
In my experience, this is evident anywhere we see secondary theological issues becoming primary issues. The most basic, primary message of the Gospel takes a back seat to the secondary issues of sexual ethics, social justice, racial issues, family structures, liturgical traditions, etc. Then, we subconciously bastardize the daily expressions of our faith from disciplines of simple dependence on Christ to public fidelity to secondary gospels.
We begin to believe that we are not the true Believers unless, for example, we’ve done enough for racial justice or enough to protect the traditional family or to fights for victims of abuse. The hyper-Patriarch, then, is just as obsessed with his own performative, acts-based, self-justification as is the progressive social justice warrior that he sees as his ideological enemy. Both have made the system of his faith his savior, and hold it up as the savior of the world.
When terrible things happen, the reason we become so obsessed with knowing the “why,” is because we believe that the error in men lies in his incorrect or unjust systems, not within the man himself.
We believe the lie that a correct system will create a good people.
And we want to preemptively absolve ourselves and our systems of producing the same evil men.
But we cannot.
The Bible doesn’t let us absolve ourselves in this way.
To be sure–
Believing in the sinful nature of man does not excuse our unrighteous or un-godly systems. And it doesn’t stop us from mourning and lamenting the injustice we see around us.
The Bible does–absolutely, beyond a doubt–demand more just, equitable, Godly systems of church, family, and government. And it also demands justice for the oppressed, protection for the vulnerable, love for neighbor, mercy for the broken, and personal piety.
But these good things only happen, naturally, as the fruit of a people who have already been changed from within.
Righteous systems–whether political or ideological–do not make a man clean from within. They can protect us from harming ourselves. They can protect us from harming each other. They can keep peace between us and make us decent. But only the savior of the world can change us.
This is an uncomfortable position to take in response to the evil of the world. It does not satisfy our desire for a scapegoat–whether it’s the Southern Baptist Church or pornography–and it does not offer the empty promise that “this will never happen again.”
And I’m sorry for that.
Sometimes I wish I could just co-sign with my friends and proclaim that “Yes! If we would just rid the world of White Supremacy, wars and murder and racism would all disappear.” But I know better. I think most of us know better.
We want to know the “why” because we want a guarantee that–if we can design a better political or ideological or religious system– this will never happen again. But, instead, by seeking the savior of the world in a better man-made system, we are doomed to repeat this over and over again.
Unless we are changed from within, our only hope in this life is to try and keep from killing each other. And that’s not much hope at all.