Meditations on Human Depravity

As the riots occurred across various cities in the United Kingdom, I watched some conversation going on in various internet circles regarding the real issue behind this. Was it simply crime, or was there something deeper? Were there social issues under the surface which, having been left untreated, resulted in these riots? Is it therefore possible to stop such riots by resolving civil issues? Is the issue of human depravity ultimately one of social condition?

The mentality of many people seems to be that man is inherently good, and therefore any crime that is committed can be resolved through rectifying a social problem – ie., if you give a person a chance to have a real job, they won’t resort to crime. The evil that men do is not the result of any innate nature, but circumstances outside their control that affect their overall world view and therefore cause (if not compel) them to commit evil. This of course logically concludes that if one were to raise a child by angels on a desert island and then place into modern society, he would have no capability to commit evil, or at the very least would have the least capacity to commit evil as anyone else in the world.

This Pelagian mindset, of course, only skips across the surface of the water. As much as defenders of this mindset may accuse those who want the London rioters to be arrested as only touching the surface of the problem, they are likewise committing the same error, for they forget the issue goes even deeper than they imagine. To put it another way: whereas those who want the criminals arrested may be cutting off the weed at the top while forgetting the stem, their critics want to cut the weed off at the stem while forgetting the roots.

Those who know me personally know that I have some experience doing graphic design for local news stations, and because of this I’ve spent much time handling mugshots of individuals accused of various crimes. Two things a person doing this notices: 1) there tend to be patterns in regards to the crimes; 2) all people are capable of committing these crimes to varying degrees. I noticed, for example, that while it was common for minority groups to commit petty robbery or theft, the bigger robberies were committed by Caucasians. Whereas gang-related murder or random murders were committed by minorities, family-related murder and similar crimes were committed by Caucasians. I am, of course, not speaking here of absolutes, and you will find variances across the board. My point, however, is that evil is not limited to one ethnic group nor one social class – middle and high class people are as capable of committing crime as those in the lower classes. Evil, one might say, is an equal opportunity employer. It does not matter what race or social class you are, you will be found out by evil and evil will use you in whatever way possible. It will adapt and exist as it needs to. A black thug mugging someone to steal their wallet is committing evil just as a white CEO who commits fraud is likewise committing evil. That one was in a better social position than the other is irrelevant to the problem – both were acting upon the innate evil tendencies inside them.

If people still contend that evil committed in incidents such as this are to be sourced solely to social or civil issues, then why, in those same communities, does good exist? In the original novel of A Clockwork Orange, Alex briefly ponders to himself why so many people speculate on the sources of evil (video games, movies, social conditions, etc.), yet they never speculate on the sources of good. How many people who grew up in ghettos and low income neighborhoods rife with crime ended up being perfectly normal, functioning members of society? For every teen and young adult who went out and committed crimes in London and various other English cities, how many more stayed at home and continued being law-abiding citizens? Why were they “good” when they were in perfect soil to be “bad”? Or to take it another direction: why do people who grow up in situations where they should be “good” end up being “bad”? Ted Bundy, for all intents and purposes, should have been a moral person, not a serial killer, but let’s not ask “What made him evil?”, let’s instead ask “What made those in worst situations than him good?”

God, of course, has given clear teachings regarding these problems: all men are under sin (Rom 3:9), the intent of every man’s heart is to do evil (Gen 6:5), no one continually does good and does not sin (Ecc 7:29), men naturally love darkness rather than light (John 3:19), and men are born children of wrath (Eph 2:3). Man, by his nature, is a depraved, fallen creature. If he cites his social condition as reason for his actions, he is simply attempting to justify his evil nature before society. Likewise, no amount of money thrown at the problem is going to solve what lies under the surface: the depraved heart of a fallen creature.

Many jump to extremes when they hear this teaching. They assume that when we say mankind is depraved, we say all men are Charles Manson, and no one exists who does anything “nice” or “good.” That, however, is not the case with total depravity. Even the most “evil” person on earth is capable of performing “good” deeds. The fact of human depravity does not say that we are all as evil as Charles Mansion – only that we are all as guilty as Charles Manson. We are all guilty of sin, and no one can say to themselves that they will get be judged righteous before God. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

So what do we do with this? Do we become like cynics and throw our hands in the hair and decide that nothing good can come of man? On the contrary. We must cry out with a loud voice, as did the apostle Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24) Then, when we come to the face of the Lord, upon whom is the righteousness we need to be just before God, we can safely say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our lord!” (Rom 7:25) God bless.

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