Note: A more direct, edited version of this piece was printed in The Daily Item, and you can read it here.
I’ve known I was a sinner for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t understand what it meant until the summer I was seventeen. That June, I attended the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for International Studies at Pittsburgh University.
My favorite professor taught a course about the war and genocide in Bosnia during the 1990’s. Professor Hayes did not spare us; there would be no emotionally fragile “snowflakes” in his class.
We read about atrocities that happened only a handful of years prior. Hundreds of old men and young boys were forced to march into the woods and dig their own graves before being systematically shot. Next-door neighbors and life-long friends betrayed each other. Rape was a central strategy for “ethnic cleansing”—Christian Serbs held 35,000 Bosnian Muslim women and children in their “rape camps.” They did things too grotesque to describe in a newspaper that might be read by children.
The Bosnia “conflict” was like the Holocaust. I’d thought that Hitler was a monstrous fluke, that we’d beaten the bad guys and “Never Again” would the world allow such atrocities. “Why weren’t my parents marching in the streets, screaming and demanding an end to it,” I wondered. I didn’t yet realize that genocide and crimes against humanity are happening all the time: Rwanda, Darfur, right now in Xinjiang, China and the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
We were kids, but Professor Hayes believed we were ready for the truth. If we wanted to champion peace and justice, we needed to know what we were up against.
Professor Hayes quietly, insistently asked, “How did this happen?” Sure, a few sadists might be found in any group, but how could ordinary people participate in such brutality? They were afraid, and fear is as dangerous as hate. Opposing the violence meant certain death, or worse, watching the execution of one’s own children.
I thought about my little brothers and what I might do to protect them from torture and violent death. I imagined myself in a scenario that people really faced:
Soldiers enter my neighbor’s house, gang rape the woman who lives there, and shoot her small children when they cry. The soldiers march the father over to my house at gunpoint. It’s a test: if I believe in the cause, I must prove it by shooting my neighbor. They’re going to kill him anyways, but if I pull the trigger, they’ll know for sure that we aren’t “traitors,” and they won’t “have to” torture and kill my brothers right in front of me.
I don’t know what I would do. And now I ask myself—dear God—what if my own sweet, little daughters were at risk? Maybe I am capable of murdering a neighbor and friend. Once I’d killed someone, would the militias use that against me to demand more acts of violence? Would they use my home for “official business” or put me in charge of bookkeeping? Before you know it, I would be an active participant in genocide.
Perhaps the path is simpler. Maybe protecting my family would mean staying silent as the soldiers moved unchallenged through my neighborhood, doing their bloody work.
The seeds for murder are in my heart even if they haven’t been activated. I don’t have more innate goodness than anybody. The core of who I am is no purer than the people who run death camps.
In Matthew 5, Jesus says that avoiding adultery doesn’t make you better than people who have committed adultery. Maybe you have kinder circumstances or greater self-control, but your heart is made of the same stuff. Before God, you are the same.
You haven’t killed anyone? Good. But if you’ve ever nursed spite in your heart (and if you’re human, you have), don’t fool yourself into believing that you’re fundamentally different from those in jail for murder. Before God, you are the same.
There were surely some Pharisees in the crowd as Jesus preached, and there’s no way that He was telling them to try harder or follow more rules. His point was for us to stop thinking of ourselves as ‘good sinners’ compared to these messier, weaker, ‘bad sinners.’ He’s not trying to make us feel anxious or guilty: He’s calling us to humility.
I’m not saying that every person is capable of every monstrous crime, but if you listen to enough stories about how evil takes over, you’ll see how sin could settle into your guts and turn you into someone you don’t even recognize.
Of course, we’re not helplessly destined for evil—we make our own choices. Christians can follow or quench the Holy Spirit. But we’re particularly vulnerable to sin when we think that we’re above it. If you believe that you aren’t capable of hate, racism or abuse, you won’t watch for those things, nor will you heed the warning signs when they’re taking root. While you’re blissfully (and self-righteously) unaware, you allow time for the devil to get a foothold, lay a foundation and erect an entire fortress.
Early on, Serbs didn’t believe that their leaders, friends, brothers and sons were capable of mass murder and rape camps, so they denied the troubling warning signs or explained them away. They didn’t want to see what they were becoming, or more precisely: they couldn’t bear to face the reality that they weren’t ‘good sinners’ after all.
What about us? Do our church communities think we’re above certain sins? Does our perceived goodness blind us to passive acceptance or active contempt that hurts others? What are we ignoring or explaining away?
What about you? What’s growing, unexamined in your heart because you don’t think you’re truly capable of evil?
I’ve heard many Christians earnestly quote 1 Timothy about being “the worst of sinners,” but Professor Hayes showed me some of the worst sinners in the world and how I’m not so different. He gave me the context I needed for that verse to ring true, to sink into my bones. It was uncomfortable and troubling, but I wasn’t traumatized. It was the truth, and it was freeing.
When I’m called out as a sinner, what is there to defend? I’m not afraid to face my sin or uncover ugly truths about myself, because I already know who I am. I’m no longer shocked when I learn about cruelty in the Church, the United States, or around the world—I’m grieved, enraged, and determined to fight it, but not surprised. Sin is in all of us.
And here’s the beauty and joy and triumph in it all—where sin abounds, Grace abounds all the more.
One of the books I read in my course with Professor Hayes was Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, written by Peter Maass, who was a reporter in the Balkans during the 1990’s.