If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
When I was 17, I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Early on, Zinn quotes Albert Camus: “In a world of victims and executioners, it’s the job of all right-thinking people to side against the executioners.” To my 17-year-old self, that seemed a fully-accurate assessment of the world and of my moral duties. Having now lived another seventeen years, I’m not so sure. The world isn’t that simple any more. Now, I’m more inclined to agree with Solzhenitsyn.
Yes, we live in a world of victims and executioners, but most of the time, we’re both at once. The victims cry out for the execution of their victimizers, and the executioners claim victimhood to justify executing their victims. We live in a world of black and white, where you are either totally innocent and thereby relieved of all responsibility or completely guilty and thereby deserving of the harshest of punishments.
When people hear the circumstances of my husband’s arrest, they tend to have one of two responses: they either think he’s a victim, of either entrapment or of a society that has criminalized normal sexual desire (that of a guy in his twenties for a post-pubescent teen girl), or they think he’s a monster, a dangerous man seeking to prey on teen girls who should probably be locked up for life. We are fortunate: in real life, we only know people who think the former. The only people who hold the latter opinion I’ve met have been online. Still, the tendency is to either exonerate or condemn. It’s to declare him victim or executioner.
I don’t think that’s our place. Our response, when we hear the bare facts of a person’s situation, when we hear the labels society has given them, shouldn’t be to assign blame or penalties, to acquit or convict. Our response should be, “I want to understand, to hear your story. Tell me more.” And if we really listen, we’ll probably see that, in all of our stories, we are neither innocents nor monsters, or that we’re both at the same time.
In some ways that is part of why I like the Christian story, because at its best it touches this. It recognizes that we are very good, but fallen. That we are desperately sinful, but capable of redemption. It keeps us living in that both/and.
And that’s the both/and that I will always push us toward, that every great evil we’ve committed (usually in the name of something good) has denied. We can’t side against the executioners, because they are us and they are in us.
I will continue to resist all attempts to deny complexity. I will resist attempts to paint sex offenders as monsters. But, I will also resist attempts to portray them as innocent victims of an unjust system. The truth is more. The truth is harder. The truth is that most of them are men who have done wrong but who can and often do do better. And even then, they aren’t perfect. They’ll make new mistakes. Five years after my husband was arrested, he had an affair with a colleague a few years older than he was. What is he then? A new kind of monster? Or, still, always, only a person who tries and fails, who has areas he is particularly prone to make mistakes in (for him, poor sexual decision making), who can learn and change?
And isn’t that who I am, too, and all of us?
We cannot externalize evil. We cannot externalize goodness, either, although we’re far less prone to do that. We cannot quickly and neatly declare somebody a victim or monster, innocent or guilty. What we can do is listen, and maybe learn, not just about another person but about ourselves, as well.