All of the barriers to action I’ve talked about so far—defensiveness, guilt, blame—hinge on the essential idea that P is a Good Person and that P’s Good Person-ness is the central fact that needs to be discussed. P can’t be Racist/Sexist/Classist/participate in the patriarchy/oppression because P is a Good Person. I’ve perpetuated that discussion to some extent with my image of St Peter at the gates of heaven and the scorecards he may or may not be using in order to evaluate one’s application for entry.
First of all, as I started to suggest in my post on guilt, this type of Good Person depends on a binary version of the scorecard, and on some idea of an ‘essential self’. At some point on a scale of good vs. evil, we do the Right Thing or avoid the Wrong Thing enough times or in enough standardized ways that we become Good and no longer Evil and then we get to stop.
It also depends on people spending a whole bunch of time doing things not simply because they are good things to do, but because we need to be Good People. Christians are often approached to discuss the notion of heaven and hell, both in philosophical and practical terms. One of the ways that it becomes a practical question is in the idea that maybe we practice our religion in order to get into heaven and avoid hell. Many thinking Christians have a well-rehearsed response to these kinds of questions that runs along the lines of “It’s not my place to judge whether or not you’re going to hell. I’m just doing what I feel I need to do and God will sort it out in the end”. That’s an important response in a lot of situations, but I’ve never felt quite comfortable with it, because it doesn’t reflect my personal theology very accurately. (Note that the overall idea applies whether we’re actually talking about heaven and hell or speaking in entirely secular terms to someone who is using the simple expressions of striving to be a Good Person—in fact, those exact words are frequently used by individuals who are defending their non-Christianity by saying that whether they believe in Jesus or not is irrelevant, as long as they are Good People)
I’ve tried to explain to people before that the threat of hell and the promise of heaven are ideas that do not play a role in my day-to-day spirituality, but it goes deeper than that. Whether or not I’m a Good Person is a meaningless question, not only because it depends on the kind of binary that anyone who thinks for thirty seconds can recognize as ridiculous, but also because it ultimately defeats its own purpose. It’s easier to simplify moral action down to what is essentially an economic transaction—if I do x, if I sacrifice y, if I pay the cost of z, I will get a, b and c in return—but if we buy into the concept that unselfishness is good, than this viewpoint is merely doing “unselfish” things for selfish reasons. More importantly to my theology, it represents one of the core examples of my experience of what the Buddhists call craving—grasping and trying to pin down morality/God in ways that can only cause suffering because they are premised on transitory things in the world and in myself. In Christian terms, it’s really a manifestation of pride. If I’m constantly trying to distinguish myself, to figure out how I’m different/better/exceptional, then I’m missing the point, even if I’m doing it in all the right ways.
The only binary that’s ever made sense to me is the quotation that “Saints are the sinners that go on trying”. If we’re going to have any discussion about trying to improve anything, the overall point can never be abstract ideas of how to be a Good Person. I don’t care whether P is a Good Person. I don’t care for practical reasons, and I don’t care for theological reasons. That’s not intended to be heartless or unsympathetic towards P—I don’t actually care whether or not I’m a Good Person either, for all of the reasons listed above.
If the point is how to make a Good World, then looking inward about whether or not I am or you are a Good Person is only hindering us from looking outward at what is or is not happening. To me, this is the difference between the conversation I’m trying to have and the conversation P is trying to have, which is where the barriers are tracing back to.