The monsters among us receive no credit for any good they do, since their lack of shared identity with us means we see them as simply bad. Meanwhile, we are inclined to consider whatever bad things we do as somehow excusable. A minor lapse, at most, the sort of thing anyone might fall into. Certainly, the bad things we do don’t change our definition of ourselves as “good people.” Nothing they do can win for them the status of normal, and nothing we can do can deprive us of the comforts of society (or heaven).
Now, the definition of who is a monster, an alien, and who is not, changes over time. Serial killers remain monsters in our estimation, but others that once carried a stigma that made people avoid their company – avoid even mentioning them in polite company -- have been allowed to enter the status of normal. They’re just folks, now.
The mentally ill were once considered monsters. “Crazy” people were inexplicable to us, and we avoided them. We didn’t know how to talk to them. Now, we know lots of people (including ourselves) who are on psychotropic drugs, and mental illness is just another kind of illness, like diabetes. (Addicts are still on the line – the “junkie” is a problem, but the person with the “drinking problem” is just folks.) Divorced people were once excluded from polite company, talked about behind their backs, made to feel disfigured and dishonored by many. This is no longer the case. And gay people, of course, were once felt to be intolerably icky. Now, we all know plenty of gay people. Some of them are in our families.
Now, it is altogether a good thing that we see the mentally ill, the divorced, and gay people (just to name a few) as people like us. The problem is, having normatized their status, we have lost the ability to critique their behavior or talk about their situations in helpful terms. They have become us, and we are always “good people,” regardless of what unhealthy or bad things we might do. Some years ago, an evangelical preacher friend was telling me about his son, who recently got married following an earlier divorce. “That’s okay,” he said, “everybody’s entitled to one mistake.” I was floored. I realize, of course, that not all marriages last – or should – but I still think that every failed marriage is a thing to grieve for. Something good and brave and hopeful has died. I don’t want to assign blame and make people carry a stigma over it, but neither can I see just granting everybody a mulligan. How does that help people? Are they not more likely to carry over the same problems into a new relationship? Which we see all the time, as some people are on their third or fourth marriage (and still picking the same losers and wondering why they’re so unlucky), while others go into their first with their fingers crossed behind their backs and a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure in the deep recesses of their minds.
We make monsters because it makes us believe that there is some big, bold line that separates the bad people from the good people. It makes us sleep better at night, to think that all the monsters are on the other side of the line, safely kept away from us. We don’t need to bother with them. Which make the shock and horror of having to bother with them the greater, when we find them on our side of the line. We also want them on their side of the line because it allows us to feel more comfortable with our own thoughts and behaviors. We know we are sinners, but we don’t want to worry over our sins. We want to know that we’re okay, with God and with others and with ourselves. We separate others from us and create a space of normality for ourselves to dwell in. Which means that when society releases some group from the monster pen to inhabit normality with us, we cease to regard their condition as bad. And that means that to say that what they do is bad would make us lose our only defense against defining ourselves as bad, which is psychologically impossible for us.
Christianity says that we should “hate the sin but love the sinner.” That sounds easy to do, but in fact it is almost impossible. Our natural tendency toward self-justification wants to excuse all the sins of “good people” (people like us – meaning, ME) while disallowing all the virtues of the monsters. In the recent and ongoing debate over gay marriage and ordination of gays and all the rest of it, we see our society becoming more and more accepting of gay people. That’s a good thing. Gay people are not monsters, and should not be seen as such. But, the problem is, once we’ve normatized homosexuality, the ability to make distinctions is going to be pretty much lost, and the Church will be under extreme pressure to drop all objections against gay marriage and ordination. Because at that point, gay people will just be “us” – and there can be no possible hindrance to what “good people” like us want.
In reality, of course, there are lots of things that “good people” like us want that we shouldn’t give them or approve of them doing. We can’t stop them and we shouldn’t stigmatize them, but we don’t do them any favors when we tell them that everything they want is okay. Our job is to “speak the truth in love,” which is only slightly less hard than “hating the sin but loving the sinner.” But if you’re following Christ, especially if you have the job of speaking for Christ, it’s what the job’s about.