by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham and Member of General Synod
I came back from General Synod last week asking this question: Why do good people do bad things? I’d met people from every wing of the Church who were unfailingly ‘nice’ They were polite to me even though I know from the responses to my last blog that some of them are convinced I am “Cruella de Vil” incarnate!
More than that; I know that most of the folk I disagree with are kind and honourable and hold their faith with far more confidence than mine.
More than that; when I describe the human pain and suffering that their attitudes and beliefs cause, they are genuinely empathetic. They are sorry about the pain and would not want to cause it.
And yet………for many the importance of their core beliefs are such they that supersede the moral imperative to treat everyone with equality and compassion.
This is where we are. The empathy leads to multiple apologies. Apologies to gay people, apologies to trans people, apologies to survivors of abuse.
But nothing changes.
A striking example of this came from the very top this week. Having had so many hand-wringing ‘regretful acknowledgements of an offence or failure’ (Dictionary) about the way the church has treated it’s gay members, none-the-less the invitation to the next Lambeth Conference explicitly excluded the spouses of same-sex married couples.
Just one more example. Geoff Whaley who was suffering from MND and had chosen to go to Switzerland for an assisted death, explained what happened in a letter to Parliament: “But then, as I was saying my final goodbyes and preparing myself for the end, the final, biggest bomb dropped and I could no longer keep it together.
“This bomb was in fact an anonymous phone call to social services who informed the police of my plans to go to Switzerland. Within hours Ann and I were facing a criminal investigation. The thought that I might not make it to Switzerland, or that, if I did, Ann might be facing 14 years in jail for helping me, was almost too much to bear.”
This action of calling the police seems an unnaturally cruel and inhuman act. Why would anyone want to do that? Why do good people do bad things?
On BBC Radio 4 on Feb 26th there was a fascinating interview with Gwen Adshead on The Life Scientific. She is a forensic psychotherapist who works with violent offenders including 19 years working at Broadmoor. In her search to understand how these men could do such violent acts she worked with the moral philosopher Jonathan Glover to examine their moral reasoning.
The assumption has been that in murderers and violent criminals their moral reasoning was poor and in some way different from the rest of us. They discovered that almost always this wasn’t the case. Their moral reasoning, their capacity to understand good from bad was not actually different form most people’s. What made the difference was the ability to create a very powerful “justificatory narrative”, a story which you tell yourself which says it is alright to behave this way.
So, for example, someone whose early life was traumatised by the way their father was always going with prostitutes might well create a narrative in which the world would be a better place without any prostitutes and it was his role to bring that about. This man would know full well that killing was bad and caused suffering, but the power of his justificatory narrative was such that he felt it was alright to murder.
That of course is an extreme example, but it got me thinking. Is that what is going on when good people do bad and cruel things? Is there even an extra twist in religious circles because of the way we can attribute our justificatory narratives to God: “ I know you experience this as cruel and discriminatory, but the Bible/God clearly says………..”
Some of these justificatory narratives can be massive. For example the story which has evolved in the Catholic Church that a Priest must be celibate.
Father Daniel O’Leary, a well-known writer, was diagnosed with cancer last June and died on 21 Jan this year. Shortly before his death he wrote a piece which was published posthumously in The Tablet, so as to be “free of fear and bitterness, and full of love and desire, as I step up for the final inspection.”
“I now believe, with all my heart, that compulsory celibacy is a kind of sin, an assault against God’s will and nature,”
“I’m just pointing out that one of the fall-outs of mandatory celibate life is the violence it does to a priest’s humanity, and the wounds that it leaves on his ministry.”
In other words, the narrative around celibacy has justified a very cruel practice, which, if it is not your narrative looks totally counter to all normal moral reasoning.
At an individual level these narratives are rooted in very deep personal stuff. A little seven year old who is sent off to school with his much missed mummy’s words ringing in his ears ‘watch out for those homos’ is going to find an anti -gay narrative much easier to buy into, even more so when it also puts him into a “special Christian club of true believers”.
The point is that we all construct these. We have very powerful drivers which sometimes trump our natural human, indeed humane responses.
It seems to me that this is why Jesus bypassed all the rules makers. Even rules made with the best of intentions can be used to terrorise people. When asked what it was all about he simply said ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37).
So actually there is a very simple test we can apply to our own justificatory narratives. If you have got to qualify Jesus’ clear command to love your neighbour as yourself with the word ‘but’, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
I find this concept hugely helpful and challenging. What narratives have I constructed that allow me to behave badly to others?
It also helps me understand why people I see as good and decent people sometimes act in very cruel ways in the name of God.