There are no bad guys, only good guys who make bad choices
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
– Acts 9:1-20
A common conversation topic in our house is bad guys. This past year has brought into the imagination of our girls the reality of bad guys and good guys, superheroes and villains. In particular, we are big fans of the book Room on the Broom, a story where a witch comes face to face with a dragon who loves to eat “witch with French fries,” but she is saved by the friends she made along the way. The girls love this story so much that they have the witch and the dragon dolls. Part of why they like the dragon so much is that they don’t see him as a villain but just a hungry dragon who made a bad choice. This imagery of good versus bad is reinforced through so many aspects of our lives, regardless of how much I want to shelter them from such things.
Several years ago, before the bad guy talk showed up around our house, I was reading Brené Brown’s Rising Strongand came across a section about whether we really believe that people are doing their best or not. She shares an exchange that ultimately leads her therapist to say, “I do, however, think that in general people are doing the best they can. What do you think?” One of the things that I love about Brown is her honesty; she shares that in her mind she was angry and thought this was the worst idea. So, she shot back, “Do you really believe that, or do you believe that’s what we’re supposed to think?” This conversation sent her down a path to find out what people really think, from clergy to military people. It changed her thinking and mine. Basically (if you want to read all of the stories, and I really hope you do, check out Rising Strongand the chapter “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws”), she finds that if we assume people are doing their best, then when they are not, we need to see if there is a way to help them out, or help them find a better place. For example, if we have a staff person who is not working out, then we need to help that person find a new position where his/her skills match the expectations, or give the person more training or experience so he/she can succeed, or encourage the person to move on. Brown shares that an officer at West Point told her that, if we assume that everyone is doing their best, then we have to stop kicking the rock and start moving it. Brown goes on to say that we have to live “BIG,” which stands for boundaries, integrity, and generosity. We have to have clear boundaries, choose courage over comfort (integrity), and believe that we are all trying our best (generosity). Which brings us to the bad guys. What if the bad guys are good guys who just make bad choices? How would we treat them differently if this were the case? This is how I respond anytime the girls say that someone is “bad” – with a gentle reminder that people aren’t bad but may have made bad choices or have bad behavior. Every person is good.
The Gospel for this upcoming Sunday shows that the early Church had to grapple with this same big idea about good versus bad guys. Saul, clearly a bad guy, meets Jesus, who sees the truth about Saul – that he’s really just a good guy making bad choices – and sends him down the path of self-discovery. The struggle is that Saul, whose reputation proceeds him, has to go on that journey with the leaders of the fledgling Church who have experienced or heard about his wrath. Ananias trusts Jesus and heals Saul, who goes on to be Paul, one of the strongest advocates for Christianity. Saul really was just a good guy who was making really bad choices. What would have happened had Ananias not taken a chance on Saul? Where would we be as a Church today? It is challenging to see beyond behaviors to find the goodness inside each person, which is not say that we should allow someone to abuse us or hurt us (that is the whole point behind the need for having good boundaries), but as Christians, we have to believe that God created each of us for goodness, as a love letter from God to a broken and hurting world.
Through UTO Grants, I have seen so many of you embrace this belief through your lives and ministries. From the post-prison reentry programs to the Thistle Farm affiliates that we have funded, these grant sites are living examples of believing that people are really doing their best and willing to love them and help them remember that they are beloved children of God. These programs are today’s living representations of Ananias – a reminder that God is calling us away from fear and into the belief that we are all trying our best but that we still might need one another. They are also a reminder of what happens when we live out of gratitude. If we give thanks for our safety, it can become a blessing to those who have been trafficked or terrorized. That small coin in your UTO Blue Box really does go on to make big changes for others. Gratitude requires us to assume that people are doing their best, everyone is a gift, and there are no bad guys, just good guys who have made bad choices.
This Easter as we hear the stories of the early Church unfold, may they serve as a reminder of the need to see the best in people, to consider how we might help others succeed, or support those organizations that are actively seeking ways of reminding people they are loved and worthy of love – that they are good and made for goodness. Thank you for all of the ways you work to see the good things happening in the world. Gratitude pushes us to look for the good in ourselves, in others, and in the world. Gratitude believes that everyone is doing their best, everyone is a gift, and everyone has something to offer, even those who have made bad choices and those who sometimes make bad choices but who also strive to do better and be better but fall short.