Real People Do Really Bad Things
The internet is a very interesting laboratory within which to observe the human animal. This is particularly true when bad things happen in our world. And it is especially true when it comes to really, really bad things—cataclysmic things that shake us to the core. Like a series of coordinated attacks in the city of Paris on a pleasant fall evening or a murderous rampage at a California Christmas party. When these bad things happen, a familiar move is often made, particularly online. People flood on to social media and make statements like: Real ____ would never do that!
Real Muslims would never resort to terrorism.
Real American Christians would never fight tooth and nail to preserve their right to be armed to the teeth.
Real French citizens would never attack ordinary people doing ordinary things on a pleasant fall evening.
Real Christians would never close their doors to refugees and advocate openly racist government policies.
Real Americans would never vote for Donald Trump.
Real music fans would never listen to Nickelback.
Real bloggers would never hypocritically blather on about how the Internet is degrading human discourse, turning us into the equivalent of squalling toddlers shouting over top of one another, and then cheerfully contribute to the noise.
Whatever the motivation for the statement—Real ____ would never do _____!—the often unstated assumption is that “real ____” would look more like the person that I happen to admire and prefer. “Real” is often used as a synonym for “good” or “preferred.” Part of the reason for this is just pragmatic. We would prefer peace, all things being equal, so if we can just reframe (in our own heads, if nothing else) every religion or worldview out there as somehow embodying the least harmful common denominator we can come up with, we just might be able to live together without killing each other. I get that.
But I’m not convinced that we do ourselves or our cultural discourse any favours by pretending that the “real” expressions of every religion/worldview/ideology/philosophy just happen to look pretty much exactly like our own preferred and selectively accessed conceptions of twenty-first century liberalism (with a little bit of religious and/or “cultural” garnish to add colour and “diversity” to our political projects). At least some of the time, “real x” really do say and do ugly things.
Truth-telling, as always, is important.
There are “real” Muslims who seem convinced they are at war with the West and/or Christianity and/or Judaism, who wish to do harm to their enemies, and who do so based on their understanding of their holy texts.
There are “real” Christians who seem convinced that they are at war with Muslims, who wish to expel them from our nations, to bomb extremists out of existence, and who do so based on their understanding of their holy texts (I know this because a few of them have been filling my inbox over the last few months).
There are “real” Americans (and Canadians) who are racist jerks who are unwilling to countenance views that might change their minds.
There are “real” Americans (and Canadians) who are pretentious elitists whose lives have been shaped at every turn by privilege and opportunity and who literally can’t be bothered to imagine why those who have not shared their experience might gravitate toward more “extreme” worldviews that involve the upending of the present order of things.
There are plenty of “real” ______ who have embraced values and embody ways of being in the world that look nothing like the values and ways of being in the world that we wish they would. And using “real x would never do y” language very often serves mostly as a convenient tool to distance ourselves from those whose actions we find abhorrent—particularly when those people self-identify with groups/traditions that we profess allegiance to.
Perhaps there is something instructive in this for us. We so eagerly clamour to higher ground when we look out at the word and observe humans behaving badly, humans misusing (in our view) holy texts or whatever. We are so desperate to create distance between ourselves and those awful people doing awful things. And, less charitably perhaps, we are equally desperate to give ourselves a bit of a moral boost. If “real” x look more like “us” than “them,” then… well, then, so much the better for us, right? Our sense of our own virtue is preserved and we can avoid sullying ourselves and our reputations with those awful people. They’re other, after all. They’re not even real ___.
There are many things that I am deeply grateful for about my own Christian tradition and theology. The incarnation and resurrection. The cross. The beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, the Christ hymn of Colossians 1, the command to love enemies, the example of Jesus, the hope of forgiveness, the lure of sanctification, the promise of salvation. A legacy of sisters and brothers who sought to live lives of self-sacrifice in response to the God who sacrificed himself for his people and his world. The list could go on an on. And it would be a long and inspirational list.
But one of the less obvious gifts of the Christian faith—one that I resonate with far more at this stage of the journey than I did at earlier ones—is the persistent, irritating, inconvenient reminder that “real x” do awful things because they are real human beings. And real human beings are sinners, to use an antiquated and odious term. Whatever else might be said about the Christian Scriptures, they provide an unflinching portrayal of human beings in all our glorious wonder and all our frightful ugliness.
One of the other inconvenient things that my Christian faith teaches me is that whenever I look out at a bad world full of bad people doing bad things and am tempted to start hurling around the condemnation and self-serving labels, I should probably start at home. That whole log in your own eye thing, right? So, before I ever talk about what “real” Muslims or Americans or _____ would do, I would probably be better served by closing my mouth and holding up a mirror.
It’s not always pretty viewing. Because at least some of the time, real Christians are selfish and small people. Real Christians are haters and killers, thieves and adulterers. Real Christians are incorrigible idolaters. Real Christians are terrible at loving their enemies (or their neighbours, for that matter). Real Christians are liars and perverts and misogynists and racists and God knows what else.
I know. I’m one of them. God knows.
Ah yes, God does know. And therein lies our only hope, I am convinced. That God knows what we really are and why. And that because we Christians are convinced that real Gods look and sound and live and die and rise and forgive and judge and heal like Jesus, there is yet hope for all of us real sinners doing really bad things.