There is a problem with “good” people. In fact, I would suggest to you that there is a big, bad problem with good people. I know this may seem like a strange statement to make. What could be wrong with being a “good” person? Isn’t it good to be…good? Surely, that’s what we learn in Sunday School and kindergarten—that we are supposed to be nice, kind, fair, polite, wait our turn, share with others and say please and thank you. Do all of these things, attend an occasional church service, pray before you go to bed, perhaps even give money to a charity around the holidays and voila! You are deemed a good person. I don’t mean to make light of the importance of being respectful, compassionate, generous or courteous. Nor do I want to minimize the importance of attending church services or Sunday School. I’m Baptist after all.
I also don’t want my point to be misunderstood here. I am not suggesting that it is okay to be rude, crass, nasty, mean or a bully. I am not suggesting that poor manners or unethical behavior should be excused. Clearly, people with these personality traits are difficult to deal with and to be avoided if at all possible. This is something we already know.
But, there is also a problem with “good” people.
A big, bad problem.
I was reminded of this after a work-related retreat with a coalition of faith-based groups. During the retreat, we began to talk about race. As we began to try to unpack how racism continues to manifest itself in our society and the real and sometimes tragic consequences of racism and unintentional bias for African Americans, someone went to the microphone to insist that most people are “good” and definitely not racists!
This person was repeating a sentiment that I have heard time and time again. It is almost a knee-jerk reaction to a deep sense of denial embedded in our culture. Those people are racists – the Skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazis—but the rest of us, we are “good” people. It is the kind of denial that negates implicit bias and the institutional racism that impacts every aspect of life in America. It is the kind of denial that refuses to acknowledge the white privilege that is woven into the fabric of our society. It is the kind of denial that rejects even proven studies that show African Americans are treated differently, regardless of their economic status and sometimes because of their economic status.
However, there is a big problem with being good. The problem is that if most people are “good” then why is racial hatred, bias and hostility so pervasive in our society today? Why is it that “good” Christians will defy their own belief system to defend racist ideologies that maintain the status quo? Why is it that good people so often do nothing and say nothing when they recognize someone else being treated unfairly? Why is it that good people will support policies and practices that have profoundly negative impacts on those who don’t look like them or worship like them if it reinforces a narrative of their own safety, status or superiority?
Sadly, this is what many good people do.
As I listened to these assertions about the goodness of most people at the retreat, I commented to a colleague that clearly it is not enough to be “good.” I mean if most people are good and decent but we live in a society that continues to be plagued with all kinds of injustices that dehumanize and oppress certain people, hindering them from reaching their God-given potential while exploiting their gifts for selfish gain, it just cannot be enough for us to be “good.”
Good has merit. Good has potential. Good is a starting point. But, it is not enough to be good and never will be.
You see, there is a problem with this goodness that we hold like a crutch or even worse, a license for silence and inaction. Good people get a pass. Being a good person means I’m not responsible for the injustice I see around me, especially when it benefits me. Being good means I don’t have to do any more than what I am doing right now. I can be silent. I can judge others and dictate how they respond to the oppression and injustice that impacts their lives and their very being. I can do nothing. I can…be. Because I have determined, and society agrees with me, that I am good.
This declaration of goodness and the subsequent silence and inaction that comes out of it by so many in the church and wider culture troubles me. From a theological perspective, it is a deeply flawed conclusion about oneself that doesn’t quite line up for Christians who believe in being made a new creation in Christ. You see if it were enough to be a good person, why would we need a Savior?
Jesus actually challenges this notion of goodness in Mark 10:17-23, when a rich man, who is trying to find out how to receive eternal life, calls Jesus “Good Teacher.” Jesus tells him no one is good but God. Yet, in our context today, Christians carry being a good person like a badge of honor, as if their good behavior transforms a sinful and unjust world. Interestingly, in this text Jesus tells the rich man to sell all of his goods, give the money to the poor, take up his cross and follow him. Jesus’ concern was for the least and the lost. During his earthly ministry, he tore down economic, social and even ethnic barriers to speak and act on behalf of others, often putting himself at risk to do it. The ultimate example of this being his death on the cross.
Unfortunately, “good” people aren’t always courageous people and sometimes their own well-being is paramount even when staring discrimination, suffering, injustice and oppression right in the face.
History has shown us that the shameful inaction and deafening silence of good people has resulted in some of the greatest atrocities this world has ever known. Nazi Germany. Genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, the Sudan. South African Apartheid. American chattel slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. Human trafficking. Violence against women… Good people have watched nightmares unfold for others around them and in all too many cases have said nothing and done nothing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who defied the Nazis and spoke out against Hitler and the Holocaust, even though it would cost him his life, said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And, Fannie Lou Hamer said this, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
In other words, it’s just not enough to be good.