Can we ever be wholly good? Can we ever be wholly evil?
We are never entirely either only good or evil — indeed, those who have tried the hardest to be one or the other have failed.
Where the church has claimed the moral high ground, it has exhibited a general inability (or unwillingness) to access this complexity. And so, naturally, do its detractors. (Especially if they’re former church members, well-trained in its poorest forms of argumentation.) Not making this any easier is the fact that both sides have untrustworthy perspectives. And, additionally, we follow at least a societal/cultural paradigm if not an intrinsic, human-nature one, that cries out for clear dichotomisation between right and wrong.
People who believe that the church is purely virtuous are blind to its vices, so they assume that accusations of them must be baseless. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the reasons they’ve been “made up” must also be speculated upon, speculation which undoubtedly reflect poorly on the would-be prosecutor.
On the other hand, there are people who can’t help but see vice in the structure and the dealings of the church (or at least whatever side they disagree with), and they cannot accept that there is any virtue, or at not enough virtue to justify its continued existence. From within that mindset, there must be corresponding accusations levelled at the defendants, which also call their character into question.
This isn’t just a church phenomenon. It happens on all levels, from continental to individual.
If we cannot accept that there is both virtue and vice in all of us, and therefore all of our human institutions, it will lead unyieldingly, inevitably to abuse. In both directions: we are in stark danger of becoming abusive when we either presume its presence, or its absence.
So if we are impure, how do we arrive at justice?
Be warned, this is an unpopular message as our culture lifts its new-found voice in the cause of justice: we must start by recognising that we are incapable of it. Sin is more than just doing bad stuff. It exists in our murkily-mangled motivations for even the best things we do. And perhaps most troublingly, it exists in our internally flawed perspectives of what the best things even are, and why!
Each individual has a valuable and unique perspective, but each perspective is uniquely susceptible to flaws.
We can be a benefit. We can speak up for the oppressed, and we can restore dignity to the down-trodden. But even our most successful engagements cannot provide objective justice. No amount of human effort can possibly earn us the capacity to redeem, to reverse harm, or to re-establish innocence.
Until we recognise that we are all complicit in villainy, we will continue to a blind quest for retribution against villains, thus needlessly perpetuating cycles.
We need to dream about justice. We need to imagine it, and probe it, challenging both status quo and our imagined improvements. We need to enlarge our minds to their very limits. And we also need to know before we start that we aren’t going to arrive at it.
Though it may be better, nothing that we do in the name of justice can ever be perfect.
Life is a journey toward a destiny. We don’t get to pick the final conclusion, but we do get to choose the direction — intentionally or not, it’s a choice we are always making.