I remember as a fourth grader looking in my NIV Adventure Bible at a chart that listed all the kings of Israel and Judah. It included the dates of each king’s reign and a sentence on their accomplishments. On the right-hand side, each king was rated “good,” “bad,” “mostly good,” or “mostly bad.” Someone like King Asa, for example, would have been in the “mostly good” category. Curious, I’d go back and read the biblical account to learn more about Asa, to see why he was mostly good, and that’s when I’d learn how his relationship with the Lord suffered near the end of his life.
These days, unfortunately, many in our society seem to be reverting to fourth-grade categorizations for just about everyone, and often doing so with the zeal of a crusader for a righteous cause.
As our society becomes increasingly post-Christian, it’s no surprise to see the vanishing of a Christian view of humanity—an understanding that allows for complexity, even expects it.
Instead, we give in to the impulse to divide everyone into categories of “bad” or “good,” and then treat them accordingly.
The result? Fewer and fewer people, even in the church (and we ought to know better!), who are able to distinguish what’s good and bad in the same person, or truth and falsehood in particular causes.
It’s easy to flatten our neighbors, past and present, into rigid categories, without care and consideration, nuance or grace, and thus betray a Christian anthropology. Here’s how we do it.
1. Make everyone and everything “all or nothing.”
Every society must decide what virtues should be represented through monuments we erect and names we engrave on buildings. When I lived in Romania, street names changed on occasion, as people reassessed the appropriateness of showing honor to certain individuals in the past.
Unfortunately, much discussion in recent years about historical figures flattens everyone into that all-or-nothing trap. Suddenly, a statue of Winston Churchill in London is threatened because, regardless of his chivalry and heroism in helping to save Western civilization from the threat of Nazism, some of his racial attitudes and subsequent actions were abominable. Abraham Lincoln comes under fire because at various points his commitment to the Union outstripped his abolitionist sensibilities and he never became a champion for Black equality.
Similar impulses show up in religious discussions. Some progressive Christians refuse to learn from any pastor or theologian—no matter how personally devout, biblically rooted, or theologically beneficial—who don’t line up exactly with the latest theological position or political proposal. Meanwhile, some conservative Christians do the same, dismissing any book or boycotting any conference featuring a well-respected, biblical preacher, because they disagree with the way the pastor has handled questions about racial justice in the past.
I’m reminded of a quote from one of my seminary professors who recommended several books from a theologian from another tradition. When a student complained that the theologian was in the “bad” category, the professor said, “I agree with you that he’s fallible and there are problems with some of his views, and yet he is so very helpful in other areas that to not read him is to impoverish yourselves.”
Do not impoverish yourself by flattening your neighbor. The all-or-nothing impulse is not discernment but the opposite. It’s a fearful posture masked by righteous zeal that keeps you from having to actually discern truth from error or good from bad. When you write someone off because you disagree with them in this area or that, you flatten them and impoverish your soul.
2. Equate people with causes.
A second easy way to flatten people is by equating goodness with their cause and not their character.
Let’s be simplistic for a moment and, for the sake of argument, put people into categories of “bad” and “good,” just as a thought experiment.
Ponder this: good people can be attracted to bad causes, and bad people can be attracted to good causes.
Isn’t it possible that someone who exhibits virtues of various kinds, who is truly seeking to do good in the world, can be misled into supporting a bad cause? And isn’t it possible that an opportunist, a person who exhibits very little fruit of the Spirit, can be at the forefront of a good cause?
History is full of examples of good people who were involved, at some level or another, in deeply flawed projects of various sorts, causes that did more harm than good. You can also find people who, for personal gain or for their own advantage (or even out of conviction but without corresponding virtues), advanced righteous causes though their hearts were darkened by sin.
No one walks away from Robert Caro’s magisterial biographies on Lyndon B. Johnson and thinks, This is a good man with great conviction. And yet he was instrumental in advancing the good cause of civil rights for all Americans, no matter how shady he might have been as a politician.
The opposite is also true. You can find people throughout church history, men and women who by all accounts displayed good character and great conviction, people who garnered respect even from their political or theological opponents, who nevertheless advanced theological error or were complicit in injustice.
It’s possible to admire people who demonstrate exemplary virtues, even if they are connected to causes we’d consider unjust or they espouse theology we believe to be in error. This is why Christians should avoid hagiography as we look at heroes in the past. We can recognize that even the greatest people are tainted in different ways, even as they’ve been used to advance the truth.
3. Equate good deeds with goodness or bad deeds with badness.
A simple way to flatten your neighbor is to pretend you’re omniscient, to become the judge of others’ intentions and motivations.
In contrast, the Christian view of humanity reminds you of how much you don’t see below the surface.
Novels are illuminating in this regard. From the outside, one might look at the actions of the prostitute Fantine in Les Miserables and say “This is a woman of the night. She is bad.” But the wider frame helps you see the naivete of a young woman, the injustice she experiences, and the quiet desperation—driven by a good impulse to care for her daughter—that leads to her descent into darkness.
Katerina Ivanovna in The Brothers Karamazov expresses a passionate commitment to remain with Dmitri, a man who has shamed her and treated her abominably. You might look at her actions and say, “What a model of selfless suffering and heroic virtue!” Until Dmitri’s brother, Ivan, pierces the facade and exposes the truth that her desire to play the role of martyr victim is driven by her love for herself. She doesn’t love the man; she loves the image of herself as long-suffering and virtuous.
The Christian view of humanity helps us understand why Jesus tells us not to judge. We cannot see the human heart, only human actions, and not every action reveals the heart. Because of common grace, people in rebellion against God still give good gifts to their children (Matt. 7:11–12). And because of the pervasiveness of sin, even righteous people who love Jesus often live in contradiction to their confession.
Love vs. Flattening
Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But all too often, in this era of social media fervor, the standard we apply to others is one we never apply to ourselves. When you look at yourself, you see a bundle of contradictions, wrong in ways you don’t see, flawed and often failing, and yet you want people to consider you in all your complexity, not put you into a box of “good” or “bad.”
So treat others the same way. From the heroes you admire to the people you debate with—don’t flatten your neighbors.