How often do we come across the claim that so-and-so is ‘basically a good person’, or, despite the fact that they repeatedly behave in an obnoxious fashion, use crude or vindictive language, etc, that they are, deep down, basically a nice guy? This situation presents a number of problems for the Christian, as we are told not to make judgements about others, knowing that only God knows the secrets of the human heart, and that there are large bits of wood that need removing from our own eyes before we start trying to pluck splinters from the eyes of others. However, not judging people does not mean being oblivious to falsehoods, especially when they are misleading ones.
The above claims I’ve cited are predicated upon the assumption that to be a ‘good person’ means reaching levels of civility, politeness and common courtesy that we should expect from each and every member of society – i.e.; the bare minimum. They also seem to imply that it is enough that someone act courteously towards people face-to-face, but when cutting things are said about others behind their backs, this does not impinge upon the slanderer’s character. The number of times I have been in a situation where I have heard such things said is innumerable, and I still haven’t worked out a satisfying means of dealing with it other than remaining silent and trying not to give any impression of endorsing the slander.
Again, I would not wish to imply that I am ‘judging’ from a position of moral superiority, or have never done such things myself – this would be a gross misrepresentation of my past and present history! I am however very concerned that the excusing of such behaviour, in all of us, on the basis that one can be a ‘good person’ in spite of these transgressions, is a very damaging thing indeed. Firstly, it is clear that justifying bad behaviour (no matter how commonplace or casually performed) in others is a very good way of making oneself believe that the same sort of things are okay in general – i.e.; it makes the one who endorses slander, vindictiveness, crudeness, etc feel as if these are not serious sins, and so makes it more likely they will succumb to them as well.
Secondly, if an observer sees someone who claims to be a Christian joining in with such behaviour, then we will have reinforced already prevalent ideas that all Christians are no better than anyone else, or in fact worse for being hypocrites. One remedy to this is of course to avoid society we know to behave this way, but once in such company, silence does seem to be the best option, as it avoids both endorsement and pedantry (both of which can make for damaging witness). C.S. Lewis has some good advice here, in his Reflections on the Psalms, where he considers passages in the Psalter that deal with such situations:
‘Silence is a good refuge. People will not notice it nearly so easily as we tend to suppose. And (better still) few of us enjoy it as we might be in danger of enjoying more forcible methods. Disagreement can, I think, sometimes be expressed without the appearance of priggery, if it is done argumentatively not dictatorially; support will often come from some most unlikely member of the party, or from more than one, till we discover that those who were silently dissentient were actually a majority. A discussion of real interest may follow. Of course the right side may be defeated in it. That matters very much less than I used to think. The very man who argued you down will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said.’
Reflections on the Psalms (1964), p.63, Fontana Books.
Lewis’ advice is sound I think, and I have tried (not always successfully) to keep to some version of it. However, my main point here is that the behaviour that I have loosely described above – fulfilling obligations to courtesy in public, whilst saying and doing either rude or downright nasty things in private – is considered to meet a ‘bare minimum’ level of conduct, which qualifies one to be described as ‘basically a good person’. An extension to this could also include the fact that such-and-such a person is nice to their friends and family members, willing to do things for them, look after them, give them a shoulder to cry on, etc, whilst still exhibiting the aforementioned pernicious behaviour, and not extending their charity beyond friend and family.
The first thing to note here is that the bare minimum standards for being a good person that are invoked today are quite often very bare indeed. During my lifetime I have met a great number of scoundrels, all who have been considered to be ‘nice guys’ by those well aware of the full range of their behaviour. It is becoming increasingly hard to see just which criteria of goodness are being met in some individuals, to the point where the term ‘nice guy’ almost becomes meaningless. It seems the maxim that ‘as long as you’re not hurting anyone’ used as an ethical rule of thumb is being taken to its logical conclusions, and as long as you’re not being actively violent towards anyone, you have met the minimum standards necessary.
So first of all, the standards seem to have been lowered quite substantially. The second thing though, is that even when we are not behaving as scoundrels, or not chatting about people behind our backs, and when we are consistently good to our friends and family – in other words when we are meeting something that could be said to be a bare minimum of good behaviour – this, according to Our Lord, is not enough. For we are not called to do just as much as everyone else should be doing; we are called to excellence. The standards we must aim for (whilst being fully aware that we will regularly fall short of them) are those laid out on the Sermon on the Mount – we must be perfect, as Our Heavenly Father is perfect.
The ethical rule of thumb for the Christian is instead to aim for the great heights, knowing full well that although we, weak as we are, will often stumble along the way, that the One who sets the bar so high is also One who is infinitely merciful, and waiting to help us up off the ground every step of the way. The higher the goal, the more one can and will achieve – if we aim for the bare minimum, which even the Gentiles and the tax collectors do (c.f.; Matthew 5:43-47), then we may reach it, we may not. But if we aim for the higher path, the way walked by Our Lord and taken by the saints that followed Him, then even our imperfect attempts to do so will greatly exceed the minimum standards, and the Kingdom of God may, in some small part, be shown in us.