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In the dark days of the pandemic, actor John Krasinski premiered a homemade video podcast called Some Good News (or, as it soon became known, SGN). Producing it in his living room with a title card drawn by his school-age daughter, Krasinski walked the nation through the normal highlights of springtime (prom, graduation, weddings), virtual-style. Celebrity friends contributed their talents and viewers contributed short videos, artwork, and inspiring messages. Krasinski always concluded with, “and remember, no matter how hard things get, there’s always good in the world.”
It’s hard to argue with that, especially with such a friendly, beaming countenance as Krasinski’s. And he’s right: The world was created good by a good God, and goodness still suffuses creation, from cheerful birdsong to soft evening breezes. But what about the species of mankind? Pessimism about human nature is not limited to the psalmist’s declaration that there is none righteous. The Judeo-Christian view of human failing persists throughout the West, even today.
Dutch author Rutger Bregman would like to change that perception. Humankind: A Hopeful History tries to correct the bad rap ordinary people have received from environmentalists, fundamentalists, activists, and cynical politicians.
For example, did you know that an actual Lord of the Flies situation occurred on a remote island of the South Pacific? In 1965, schoolboys from Togo decided to play hooky in a big way, “borrowed” a boat, got lost in a storm, and wrecked on a piece of rock with no means of communication. Over the next 16 months, instead of turning on each other like the characters of William Golding’s novel, they cultivated a garden and collected rainwater, organized a daily routine, and settled disputes peaceably. Since their rescue, the survivors have maintained close ties and regular reunions.
Without a standard, even “common decency” defies clear description.
Other exhibits in Bergman’s display of positivity are Londoners displaying stiff upper lips during the Blitz and impromptu relief squads rallying at every natural disaster. Horror stories like the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram’s “shock machine,” which supposedly prove our moral weakness, turn out to be misreported or outright frauds.
Philosophically, Bergman agrees with Rousseau that “civilization” and land ownership play the villains of our depravity story. “Evolutionary psychologists refer to [humanity’s adoption of farming over gathering] as a mismatch, meaning a lack of physical or mental preparation for modern times.” That is, humans settled down before their DNA was ready for towns and cities, and have suffered a kind of schizophrenia ever since.
His evidence that we were happy, healthy, and harmonious while chasing mastodons is unconvincing. But a bigger problem is misunderstood terms. “Good” is not so easy to define. If a matter of simple decency, most people seem fundamentally decent. That is, most of us understand appropriate behavior and adjust our actions accordingly. We want others to think well of us, and we want to think well of ourselves.
But even decency isn’t absolute; it fluctuates with social norms. So screaming obscenities in the face of a police officer may seem like fitting behavior to protesters who are convinced that corrupt law enforcement stands in the way of justice. Abortionists justify their actions along the same lines, and who’s to say they’re wrong? Certainly not the company they choose to keep.
That’s why Jesus says that no one is good but God alone; without a standard, even “common decency” defies clear description. As does “evil.” “Cancel culture,” in essence, is the attempt to locate and condemn evil outside oneself. But corruption begins in the heart: a deeply personal and individual matter that only the Holy Spirit can reveal. And I can’t honestly address evil in society without first dealing with the self-centeredness, rationalization, and petty resentments in me.
Optimists and pessimists both obscure the issue. Yes, there is good in the world, and God’s image-bearers, whether believers or atheists, are capable of heroism, generosity, and sacrifice. Real goodness, however, is for God to define, and God’s to judge.