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Human Nature - To be Tamed, or Transformed?
by Rowan Forster
Pamela Bone's thought-provoking contribution (in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper) to the debate on human nature sounds a note of optimism, with the assertion that human societies are improving, that we in this age are "kinder and gentler" than our mediaeval forebears, and that we have done a "fairly good job" of taming human nature.
This of course begs the question of why human nature needs taming in the first place; why it perpetually proves so hard to tame; why it "always leaves us teetering on the brink of barbarism" (and often takes us over the brink); and why we will always need the police forces and the legal sanctions against corruption and abuse to which Pamela refers.
The history of the human race yields precious little evidence to support the view that human nature can be relied on to solve the ills and evils of the world. For instance, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor which Pamela speaks of, is unlikely to be overcome by a reliance on human nature, largely because it's essentially a by-product of human nature - i.e., human greed, selfishness, self-indulgence, apathy and insularity - notwithstanding notable exceptions such as the generosity of contributors to The Age famine appeal.
But perhaps the most contentious claim in Pamela's article is her assertion (using an expression borrowed, with due acknowledgement, from Peter Singer) that "the expanding moral circle has led to the abolition of slavery and racial segregation".
This would come as an enormous surprise to the likes of William Wilberforce, Theodore Weld, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu.
Wilberforce, for example, did not experience anything remotely resembling an "expanding moral circle" that made it any easier to win his hard-fought, life-long struggle against slavery. On the contrary, he battled against almost overwhelming odds in the form of concerted resistance from powerful economic interests, and bitterly hostile opposition from his enemies in Parliament.
There was no "expanding moral circle" whereby the good folk of Great Britain suddenly became morally enlightened, and obligingly took pity on their dark-skinned brothers from distant climes. Far from it. And it was not the benignity of human nature that came to Wilberforce's aid in his God-given quest. On the contrary, it was the baseness of human nature which opposed him at every turn, and against which he had constantly to struggle at considerable personal cost.
And what sustained him through it all was not some mythical "expanding moral circle". Rather, it was his strong Christian faith.
And it is no coincidence that the other outstanding human rights activists mentioned above - Theodore Weld, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu - were also inspired, motivated and sustained by their Christian faith, in their respective battles against slavery, racial segregation and apartheid.
These men, and thousands of other Christian social reformers like them, had at least two things in common. Firstly, they recognised that human nature - including, especially, their own - is fundamentally flawed, and needs redeeming and transforming.
And secondly, they took seriously the command of Jesus of Nazareth to love one's neighbour as oneself, and moreover, to love one's enemies - realising this would entail costly, sacrificial commitment, often in the face of strong opposition from the natural human traits of greed, self-interest, brutality, hatred and racism.
As for Martin Luther King, I can find no reference anywhere in his writings or speeches to some "expanding moral circle" that would one day bring an end to racial segregation. The prevailing "moral circles" of his day were anything but "expanding". They were putting people like King into prison. They were putting people like King to death.
In his famous letter from Birmingham City Jail (Easter, 1963), King wrote of the need for Christian love in the battle against racism: "Was not Jesus an extremist for love [when he said]: 'Love your enemies; bless those who curse you; do good to those who hate you; and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you' ?"
These are all attitudes and behaviours which don't come easily (one might say, don't come naturally) to most of us. Jesus knew this, and so did King. So the invitation is to a higher way, that is not subject to the dictates of human nature.
Hope for humanity does not lie in vainly hoping we can do a "fairly good job" of trying to tame human nature, all the while "teetering on the brink of barbarism".
Rather, it lies in discovering that human nature can be not merely tamed, but redeemed and transformed, by an encounter with the same God who inspired and empowered Wilberforce and King, and countless others whose faith has led them, and enabled them, to become God's agents in making the world a better place. That's why there's still hope for humanity.
* Rowan Forster is a Melbourne journalist.