Romans 1:29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
I first looked at this passage closely in a Bible study with my pastor, Bob Hopper in 1995. I was horrified, and burst out, “But how can one live in the world if this is your view of people?” Everyone looked at me, a bit amused at this naive outburst.
But perhaps they were not reading carefully. Wouldn’t it be hard to go out into the world, if you knew for sure that you were going out among people ” filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice….Gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” One shudders.
Luckily, every scriptural moon has its bright side as well as its dark side. Though sometimes, we experience an individual behaving like this, or a group of people when the mob behaviour takes over (we can sometimes even experience all this in a toxic church) in general, I am relieved to say that this is not my experience of people. Neither, I daresay, is it yours.
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I have been travelling a good deal for the last quarter century, since I was an undergraduate–as much as I could afford. In the beginning, my wanderlust was greater than my spare cash. Travel used to eat into our cash reserves. (Now, though it may seem self-indulgent, I have set a little nest egg aside for our family hobby of travel, which I find valuable for rest, relaxation, refreshment, family time, couple time, learning, newness, the revitalizing of a change—and try not to spend more than the growth on the capital on each trip.)
When we were younger, and travel ate into savings, we were sometimes anxious : Is the taxi driver fudging the meter, taking us the most direct way ? Can we trust the waiters’ recommendations, or will he suggest the most expensive dish? Are they pulling those hotel room rates out of thin air? Were we being overcharged? Ripped off? Should we bargain harder?
I suddenly realized that I was avoiding countries in which there is really no fixed price for anything—in which you are charged what they think you can pay. So looking rich is a disadvantage; however, if you don’t look rich enough, those in the tourist trade may be less interested in offering a sensible price, for lodging for instance. A sucker may come around the next minute.
This was fear—I was sticking to Europe, and avoiding some second and third world countries for fear of being ripped off. I repented of what was after all fear; and went on to visit countries like Costa Rica (a fabulous country) Mexico and Israel. (Though we still like Europe best—the combination of history, art, architecture I love, food, nature: it’s all hard to beat as far as I am concerned.)
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Over time, I discovered that I had relaxed. I didn’t hugely mind if I were overcharged (though it really, really infuriates my younger daughter!) The way I look at it, God’s financial blessings are a river; they have flowed to me through his goodness. I am cool if they flow from me to other people, deliberately or inadvertently, because God is a waterfall, and he will replenish my stores (or develop my character if he chooses not to do that immediately!!)
So I am pretty relaxed when we travel, and just enjoy the people I meet. Yeah, sure, negotiating the world like a smiling, happy child must mean that I occasionally get ripped off and overcharged, surely, but by expecting to be treated more or less fairly, I can enjoy the taxi drivers, and waiters, and street vendors and hotel receptionists, and the people whose second homes I rent for the week, and engage them in conversation and learn their stories. And this attitude of observing people, trusting them within reason, and expecting them to be lovely, in fact elicits surprising goodness from all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. The girls are often surprised when people throw in things for free, like simcards and drinks and barbeques when we rent motor homes, upgrade us in hotels, give us things on the house in restaurants, put themselves out to help us when we rent their homes, though that wasn’t what we were after; we were just interested in people from another culture.
That is surely the way to deal with people with joy. Expecting them to be made in the image of God, expecting them to be lovely, rather than being suspicious and cautious and expecting them to be “totally depraved. ”
Believing in total depravity is believing in a theological truth against the evidence of one’s senses and experience. That could count as a working definition of insanity.
(Though sometimes, I do believe in what Jesus says, despite the evidence of what my eyes see, and my experience teaches me. Such as that the meek inherit the earth. I totally believe they do because Jesus says so. But how? I don’t know. Perhaps being meek is a blessing in itself. Being aggressive and scheming is exhausting. Perhaps being meek leaves room for the power of God to act.
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Our friends the Sassenbergs, German missionaries from Word Made Flesh, an incarnational mission in Sierra Leone house-sat for us when we visited Sweden last week. They said one of the hardest things about working in Sierra Leone was the daily and nightly beatings, of children especially. The shrieks, the crying , children blinded, deafened, scarred, burnt, as a result of violence from parents, stepparents, grandparents, uncles, teachers. Swollen faces, pummelled bodies.
And then we visited Sweden, which partly due to the pioneering work of Astrid Lindgren (creator of Pippi Longstocking) was the first county to outlaw the spanking of children. Outlaw it!! Wow. Proverbs has a verse which says, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it out.” So how did one deal with children when the rod of discipline was banned?
Well, with declining birth-rates in Scandinavia, children are exceedingly precious. The little Swedish children we saw frequently had two parents, or a parent and 2 grandparents, or a grandmother, mom and grand-aunt in tow. 3 adults fussing over a child! It was democratic, I observed. I saw a little toddler with a shaggy white hair of a polar bear object to being put in his stroller till he turned red in the face with his crying. No problem. His mum picked him out of the stroller, allowed him to toddle around, pull out a few plant tags in the botanical garden, play with a rose or two, and then, with quiet resignation, he got back into his stroller. Negotiation and compromise!
If man was indeed totally depraved, I said to Roy, Scandinavian children, who generally seem as well-brought up as their elders would be as savagely beaten as those in Sierra Leone; it would not be possible for man to refrain from violence.
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eBay was founded by Pierre Omidyar on the premise that man is basically good. He created a rudimentary website, which later became eBay, on which people could advertise their surplus, purchasers would send sellers a cheque, and the sellers would then send Pierre a small cheque for his cut of the transaction. (Eventually, so many cheques piled up that Omidyar stopped cashing them). Omidyar proceeded on the premise that since people were basically good, it was not risky to send a total stranger a cheque believing that you would get your stuff, and Omidyar his cut. (eBay, interestingly, has moved on from this model of total trust, though it is still a lot more trusting than Amazon. It’s a nightmare to get a refund from an eBay seller who doesn’t want to give one.)
I recently read of an pay what you can experiment by Panera Bread, which offered restaurant quality food to everyone regardless of their ability to pay (to provide a dignified way to help those bitten by the recession). Of course, if man was totally depraved as John Calvin maintained, then it would not work, but it did. Just 20 % of people did not pay the suggested price, which was balanced by the 20% who paid extra. I’ve often wondered how these pay what you can afford schemes work. Now I know.
Of course, more interesting than the question of whether total depravity is a fact (which it cannot be!!) or a theological dogma with little basis in fact, is the question of how we should proceed. Should we deal with people as if they were made in the image of God, or as if they were totally depraved?
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In my mind, it all comes down to Jesus. How did he treat people? With openness or suspicion? I would say with openness, but circumspection.
He healed everyone who came to him for healing. However, even when it came to believers, John tells us that « Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person. » John 2:25.
He did, however, entrust himself to a chosen few, one of whom betrayed him, one of whom denied all knowledge of him, three of whom fell asleep in his hour of need, and eleven of whom were nowhere to be seen as he bled to death asphyxiated and in excruciating pain.
And yet, his last instructions were that we learn to love each other.
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So perhaps that is the balance one needs to learn rather than putting one’s faith in extreme theological statements; that is the best way to go out into the world, to treat people, to deal with people. With kindness, expecting the best. Not being over-hasty to trust, being aware that people’s capacity for betrayal lurks just below the surface, but that people also have a surprising capacity for kindness and self-sacrifice.
Exercise caution in your business affairs for the world is full of trickery, as the Desiderata put it. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Never underestimate the kindness of strangers or willingness of people to commit random acts of kindness and of love.