It was a childhood game that we played – good guys and bad guys in several versions: cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, reflecting the characters from the city crime shows and western shoot-em-ups of the early TV that we watched.
A later generation would take their light sabers and battle it out between the rebels, who had the Force with them, and the stormtroopers of the Empire, who represented the dark side of the Force.
Now my grandsons do it with digital devices on which a well-aimed push of a button appears to obliterate a whole civilization.
To such games and those of us who played them, the world was divided neatly into the good guys and the bad guys; and, even though we could easily play on either team, it was always clear which was which.
Somewhere along the way someone’s parent, or a teacher, or a coach, or a scout leader would suggest to us that there is good in bad folks and bad in good folks; the tendency to divide the world into neat groups of good guys and bad guys began to fade into a more realistic and mature perspective.
This has led most of us to be less likely to “categorize and dismiss” people and ideas on the basis of simple criteria and to recognize and take into account the ambiguity of most issues that confront us in our life together in the human community.
Being not so quick to judge without thinking is harder, requires more thought that is sometimes uncomfortable, and often makes it more difficult to appear firm and clear about one’s convictions and principles.
I don’t remember exactly when the virtue of not being “judgmental” began to be emphasized in my experience, but I do know that it has had a powerful effect on the direction of my thinking and the management of my opinions (but not always as powerful as it should be).
Being nonjudgmental seems to lead to a willingness to see the possibilities of good in people and perspectives that might otherwise have been rejected without fair consideration, and that can lead to a helpful refinement of one’s thinking.
But it can also lead to an apathetic ethics of “whatever,” where an uncritical tolerance can lose the capacity to distinguish between the constructive and the destructive implications of various perspectives.
Uncritical rejection and uncritical acceptance of beliefs and ideas both seem to fall short of ethical responsibility.
Even though the differences may not be as clear cut as in our childhood games, there do seem to be good guys and bad guys, at least in the presence of perspectives and behaviors that are constructive to the health of the human family and those that are destructive and diminish the quality of our collective life.
Don’t we need to discern and call these out?
This thought emerged from a recent re-reading of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness,” his affirmation and critique of democracy as it was being practiced in the face of totalitarian regimes abroad and totalitarian perspectives closer to home.
Taking his title from Luke 16:8 (“… the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”), Neibuhr saw the “children of darkness” as those who saw no law other than their own unbridled self-interest, and the “children of light” as those who sought “to bring self-interest under the discipline of a more universal law and in harmony with a more universal good.”
As in Luke’s reference, he saw the former as “bad guys,” yet wise, because they recognize the power of self-interest; and the latter as “good guys,” yet foolish, because they fail to recognize the power of self-will, even in their own devotion to the common good.
Niebuhr models for us an ethics of discernment and evaluation, which goes beyond an ethics of dismissive moralistic judgment, encouraging us to be realistic about the power of negative influences on our thinking, while at the same time being hopeful and committed to the use of our thoughts and behaviors for the common good. His words say it well:
“The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.”
Timely words from 1944, with insights of particular relevance to our current contest of perspectives on what will serve the common good.
I recommend this book as helpful preparation for the upcoming season of our citizenship.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.