The Possibility of the Good
by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
Not so terribly long ago the U.S. was shocked and horrified when a man used multiple high-powered rifles and vast quantities of ammunition to shoot out of his hotel window at a crowd below as they attended a country music festival. Dozens were killed, hundreds wounded and, horrifyingly, no one has been able to make any sense of why he did it. He did not, so far as we can tell, have a political agenda, a known history of mental illness, a grudge against any particular person, or against country music. No one who knew him had any inkling that he had been planning this terrible act for some time.
The president called it, “an act of pure evil.” While I’m willing to argue Trump on pretty much anything, it’s hard to debate this. What could be more pure evil than setting out to destroy as many perfect strangers as you can, just because you can? Which brings us around to the crucial question that we UUs have to grapple with whenever we take on the subject of evil. When we say, in our first UU principle, that we affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” do we really mean every person? How could you claim that someone who would go out and randomly slaughter people is inherently—built in from the beginning and inescapably—good?
But that’s the thing. Our first principle doesn’t claim that people are inherently good. It claims that people have inherent worth and dignity. In fact, I would say that it misses the point to say that people are either inherently good or inherently evil—as if good and evil were traits that people are simply born with, like curly hair or being able to touch your nose with your tongue. Every single last person does things that are good and things that are bad. We don’t even always agree on whether particular actions are good or bad, but we know that every person does some of both.
It is, in fact, actions, that are good or evil, not people. The action of shooting at defenseless people is unquestionably evil. The man who committed that unimaginably horrible crime probably did other stuff in his life that was unquestionably good. There isn’t a formula that lets you add and subtract good deeds versus evil ones and come to a sum that tells you whether someone is a Good Person or a Bad Person.
We don’t affirm that people are inherently good, any more than we say that people are inherently bad, cursed from the earliest days for disobeying God. We know that people can do a series of really bad things, but then turn their life around and bring a bunch of good into the world. And we know that someone who spent most of his life being pretty unremarkable could go and do something shockingly evil. So we’re not in the business of predicting whether any given person will do a wonderful or a terrible thing next.
What we affirm is that humans are born with inherent worth and dignity. We say that people, all people without exception, matter. All people, without exception, deserve basic human rights. All people, without exception, belong to our human family. All people deserve to be seen, respected, counted. It doesn’t say anything about who other people are, it says something about who we are, about our own commitment as to how we, as Unitarian Universalists, will be in the world. It isn’t a statement about what human beings are like, it’s a statement about what it means to be a UU.
We affirm that no person should be considered suspect or less-than because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, age, ethnicity, immigration status, history of or present incarceration, or any other category a person might or might not belong to. Affirming inherent worth means that categories don’t define people.
We affirm that because each life matters, each person should have access to the basic necessities of life so that they can grow into their human potential. We affirm that because each life has value, a system of justice and public safety should be focused on just that—promoting the safety of communities and building a more just society, rather than relying on punishment and revenge.
And we affirm that each and every person is a bundle of potential, whatever their age, whatever their history. We affirm possibility. We know that actions from the past matter, that history matters, but that history doesn’t have to determine the future. If we are optimistic (and I think we are), our hope is not that people are good, but rather that people can be good, that we can build a world of goodness one small action at a time.