Separating Person from Behavior

We need to come to understand there is a difference between a person and their behavior. If anything has made this apparent recently, it is the retirement announcement of Pope Benedict XVI. Allow me to elaborate.

Prejudices and anti-Catholic biases notwithstanding, nobody becomes Pope without being of above average intelligence. If you doubt that, read the writings of any Pope. It’s reasonable to assume that people of above average intelligence make relatively informed decisions, yet if you are like me there are certainly decisions made by any Pope – or any other religious leader, for that matter – with which you disagree. Some of those decisions could legitimately be characterized as oppressing people, and the people who are oppressed by those decisions become angry with the Pope who made them. That’s perfectly understandable. We run into problems, however, when we determine that a person who in our judgment makes bad decisions is in fact a bad person.

We have all heard mothers and fathers of young children scold their children by saying things like “bad boy!” or “naughty girl.” These are classic examples of failing to distinguish person from behavior. Can a child ever be “bad,” or do we really mean their behavior is unacceptable? As children grow and develop they move through a number of stages in which they are discovering what is and what is not appropriate behavior. They will make good choices and bad choices, but what they are doing is learning and growing. Can we see the problem created when we try to convince our children that they are defective because they are doing the developmental work they need to be doing? Of course, we tend to do and say these things to our children because they were said and done to us, but that doesn’t mean we should declare our parents bad people. They were doing the best they could, and we have been doing the best we could, but now we have new information at our disposal and need to do better.

Can we see there is a lot more that would need to go into creating a “bad” person than some bad choices, if for no other reason that all of us make bad choices now and then? Can we see that, with some pretty notable exceptions, when we declare someone a “bad person” we are really trying to turn them into scapegoats? In ancient Jewish practice, the High Priest symbolically placed the sins of the people on a goat once a year and the goat was released into the wilderness – carrying the sins of the people away. Of course, scapegoating didn’t create lasting change back then – the process had to be repeated each year, after all – and it doesn’t create lasting change now. Still we seem to love our scapegoats and so we pin our feeling about the behavior on the person and want to punish them.

It seems pretty clear to me that Pope Benedict, back when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, engineered the cover up of the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church and that this happened with the full knowledge and approval of Pope John Paul II. What isn’t clear to me is what will be gained by continuing to feed the hatred some people hold that drives them to want to see an 85 year old man dragged through the streets of Rome. Again, I believe he is guilty of crimes but realistically there isn’t going to be an extradition from Vatican City – a sovereign nation – and even if there was such an extradition I hardly believe he could receive a fair trial. What’s more, at 85 years old, he might well die before the trial is over. What’s the point, unless it is to vent our anger and rage and in doing so perpetuate it.

In less high-profile matters we tend to do the same thing – fail to separate person from behavior. When someone gets arrested for drunk driving – a terrible thing to do – they become “the drunk.” In these cases their person disappears altogether to be replaced by their illness. I often wonder how much that shift contributes to the large number of addicts who fail to attain sobriety. Some years ago in the medical community there was a movement to stop referring to patients by their diagnosis. Prior to that, a doctor might say “there is a kidney in room 212,” when in fact there was a person or patient in room 212 who had a kidney problem.

Borrowing from that shift in the medical community and extending it a bit, what might happen if we determined that there isn’t any such thing as a bad person? We acknowledge that good people do often make bad choices, but that those choices don’t impact their inherent value as a living being. How much harder would it be to say, “that person doesn’t deserve medical care”? How much harder would it be to say, “that person doesn’t deserve to eat”? By what standard could we make those distinctions? If all people are good people, then none are disposable. If all people are good people, we will have to learn to deal with our anger in healthy ways. If all people are good people, we will be forced to see our greed for what it is.

For a future to be possible we have to move from our current habit of judging people to a healthier, more accurate practice of seeing all living beings as being of value. We need to come to the place where we truly believe that there is no disposable human being. We need to let go of our need to scapegoat, and determine to walk together into the future as true brothers and sisters. We cannot wait another moment.


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