Some years ago, at community recreation, we watched the movie “Selma.” It happened that at the same time, we had been reading together a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and we were in the midst of reading about his role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. One young monk grew frustrated with conflicting portrayals of President Johnson. “I don’t get it!” he said at one point, “Was he good or not?”
The temptation to divide people neatly between good and evil, to separate the sheep from the goats as it were, is a perennial one. It tends to be stronger, however, in certain eras. In my opinion, this desire for black-and-white moral categories is stronger in times of social instability. Two highly influential, and more or less institutionalized versions of this dualism, are Manichaeism and Calvinism. A strong version of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, in which persons are destined either for heaven or hell, continues to exert a strong cultural influence in America, even post-Christian America. [See Joseph Bottum’s excellent book “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, to see how a peculiar brand of American Christianity morphed into today’s liberal ideals, for example.] I experienced a kind of awakening to this aspect of American culture while watching Clint Eastwood’s (violent) masterpiece “Unforgiven,” and discussing it with a devout Protestant friend. It is interesting to consider Eastwood’s own development from the unforgivable crimes of the Wild West to the redemptive death of Walt Kowalski in the more recent “Gran Torino.” Kowalski becomes a champion and defender of the Hmong families whom he had disliked and mistrusted at the beginning of the film. Was Kowalski good or evil? A lot depends on when we ask the question.
I sense a certain lingering Calvinism in the contemporary American tendency to demonize. Labels like “racist,” “misogynist,” “xenophobe,” are useful and often descriptive of actual behaviors and institutional structures. I would not deny that. But we should use caution when applying them to persons. Let me return to Lyndon Johnson.
Was he good or not? Was he a racist? Like all of us, Johnson was complex, a mixture of good, even magnanimous impulses, along with resentments and weaknesses, especially when positions of power afforded him the license to indulge himself at the expense of, say, women who happened to be nearby. What I am saying, however, is not that we need to resign ourselves to a muddle-along world with good and bad in everyone. The mixture of the good and the bad is in part a side-effect of the fact that we are all unfinished. The dynamic and dramatic arc of a human life is what both (strong) Calvinism and Manichaeism deny. Walt Kowalski changed from being a person with suspicion and hatred toward others based on race to someone who was a friend and defender of the same persons. President Johnson also changed. As a white southerner, he did and said things, especially in his earlier life, that fit with the racist ethos of the circles in which he walked. But he also came from intense poverty, and had a feisty protectiveness for hard-luck cases that could mature into a zeal against injustice. So he also underwent a kind of conversion that made him a champion of civil rights. Other limitations, it seems he never overcame, which will be true for most of us.
Persons can also change for the worse, of course. My point here is that a label such as “racist,” when applied to specific persons, can have the effect of fixing that person in one moral location and foreclosing the possibility of growth. It reminds me of a friend I had growing up whose mother continued to accuse her of being on drugs…even though she wasn’t at first (she was highly creative and goofily energetic by temperament). Well, eventually she decided, “Why not use drugs, if I’m pegged that way anyway?” Literally damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That’s the danger of dualism. It tends to reinforce and bring about the very evil its adherents wish to combat, in addition to blinding those who are lobbing the accusations as to the dynamism of human life.
What I’m saying should not be taken to mean that we shouldn’t name injustices and their causes for what they are. When, however, we recognize that we and others have the capacity to change, we can set about to effect this change through rational argument and action. This is a painstaking process. Impatience with the process can tempt us to fall back on the expedient of power, as I wrote on Sunday. And the difficulty we have in believing that others can change is rooted in our experience of others as irrational, about which I wrote in the same post. When we perceive someone as irrational, another temptation is to despair, for we have no hope of rationally persuading that person to change.
In “Gran Torino,” Eastwood draws on explicitly Christian language of repentance and forgiveness. So for the benefit of non-Christian readers whom I’ve been inviting to read the blog this past week, I should explain that this notion of personal change is not limited at all to Christian vocabulary. Aristotle and the classical tradition that followed him (in pagan Greece and Rome, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) understood human beings as possessing potential. Human infants are amazingly helpless compared to the offspring of other animals. But they also have greater potential. Morality is more or less a question of how we end up developing that potential, whether we become the sorts of persons that we aspire to, or fall short of this goal. As the example of Walt Kowalski suggests, we can’t know for certain how to characterize a life until it has reached its end. In the meantime, even my enemies and others who hold political opinions completely opposite of mine can change. So can I. Colonialists and slave owners of the past denied full human potential and rationality in slaves and in the colonized. But we risk doing the same when we deny rationality and potential in others.
[Disclaimer: I can only claim some expertise in the theology of the Catholic Church. I’ve tried to indicate that my take on Calvinism here is focusing on a specific strand within a complex historical tradition. I hope that I have not mischaracterized Calvinist theology in general by doing so.]