For years, I’ve been the pastor assigned to teach about Presbyterian theology and polity to people interested in joining the congregation. I’ve described total depravity as the belief that there is no part of human life that sin hasn’t infected and therefore affected. I’ve talked about what our inclination toward idolatry might mean — that we tend to worship created things rather than our Creator; that we wrestle with “disordered loves,” in the words of St. Augustine. Because sin is all inclusive, it is only the grace of God that heals and transforms us.
For a long time, this was a hopeful doctrine to me. I wasn’t ever surprised or discouraged when people failed — morally or otherwise. Failure was simply part of being born human after “the Fall.” A fellow Presbyterian friend once told me he thought Presbyterians were more relaxed because there was less pressure to “improve” or “change the world.” He didn’t mean that seeking a better world was unimportant, but rather that Presbyterians had perspective to fall back on when our utopian visions for ourselves or our society inevitably didn’t work out the way we wanted.
Lately, I’ve been wrestling with this notion of total depravity, especially as it relates to evil. Total depravity isn’t surprised by evil in the world. There is evil in all of us in the eyes of Reformed theologians. But what happens when we start to label people as “evil”?
I recently attended a workshop on human trafficking that did not mince words when talking about people who prey upon vulnerable and naïve youth, regardless of socioeconomic status. Sex trafficking affects the middle class, too. As the parent of a young child, I left feeling terrified. Initially, I took some comfort in the notion that there are simply bad people out there wanting to do harm. It helped me make sense of my fear and gave me some measure of control. The bad people are “out there” and I just have to protect my children from “those people.”
Then I listened to a podcast interview with Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit and founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Boyle has worked with gang members around the city for over 30 years. He was interviewed by the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Mark Labberton. “I’ve never met a bad gang member,” said Boyle. “Unspeakable things were done to them.” Your perspective changes when you think of people not as evil but rather as “despondent, traumatized or mentally ill.” Granted, even these three categories are limiting. They can’t describe the whole of a person’s life. But, his words broke me of my fearful reverie. People aren’t evil; they’re wounded.
The answer to gang violence, according to Boyle, is not being “tough on crime,” but rather kinship — communicating the tenderness of God through relationships. “Imagine a circle of compassion with no one standing outside of it.” Key to Boyle’s anthropology is his belief that people are inherently good, not totally depraved.
The concept of total depravity has its advantages, I suppose. It at least makes us shrewd and not naïve to the pain of this world. But it’s ultimately a doctrine that feeds on fear — the fear of the harm that we could do to one another or have inflicted on us. Seeing people as good but wounded makes us compassionate to their pain and destructive choices. It allows us to be a healing rather than condemning force in people’s lives.
Has the doctrine of total depravity lost its usefulness? I will certainly nuance it the next time I teach on Presbyterian doctrine. After all, Scripture not only declares that sin is part of our lives, but that God created all things good. And goodness is far more hopeful than brokenness.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.