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
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
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
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
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. Click here for links to further articles
December 24th, 2002