I like things to make sense. Black and white. Right and wrong. Good and bad. Fruit is rotten or fresh. If it’s fresh, I serve it to my guests. If it’s rotten, I don’t. Simple. Clear.
When I was a kid, I thought there were good guys and bad guys. No one could be both. I don’t know if that’s what I was taught, or if it’s just a reflection of how a child sees the world. Maybe we can’t make sense out of a good person who does bad things or a bad person who does good things. It leaves us off balance. Or, at least, it leaves me off balance.
Here at the guesthouse, my guests are the good people. I don’t know what I think of the rest of the Maltese people. Certainly, Mikela, my cook is a good person. But I’m not so sure about the people who work in the government offices. I don’t trust them. Everyone says corruption is rampant here, although I’ve only had a few uncomfortable run-ins.
Still, there’s something in me that wants to categorize people. You are someone I can trust. And that other person is someone I can’t. You’re good. They’re bad. Simple.
We want to be good
But the stories my guests tell are often a mixture of good and bad. The trusted house helper who steals money from the family for whom she works, then risks her life to help the foreigner’s child. The driver who sells information about the movements of a foreign worker, then warns his charge to leave country. An orphanage director who beats a boy to convince him that he mustn’t accept the friendship of a local policeman who’s known for using boys to satisfy his own lust. All mixtures of good and bad.
I don’t want to be that. I want to be good, do good, be generous and kind, always. Am I?
but are we?
I fixed on the question, suddenly rising to my own defense. Or more accurately, aware that I had already risen to my own defense. Surely, I’m not as bad as the house helper. As far as I know, I’ve never stolen money from anyone. I’ve even taken money back when a store clerk gave me too much change or forgot to ring up one of the products I had intended to buy. I’ve never sold anyone’s trust, nor beaten anyone.
I know if I look deeper, I’ll find failures, and I do. The friend whose letters I stopped answering. The algebra test I cheated on in junior high. The time I watched a rival dancer stumble and smiled because I knew her failure meant I would get the part.
I want to tell myself that these failures aren’t so bad. My sins are small, trivial even. In the overall scope of my life, I’ve done pretty well. Then again, I’ve never been threatened, or starved, or truly terrified.
I just finished reading the third chapter in Kate’s book and I want to embrace all that she said, but I’m troubled. How can God love the bad people? Of course, I know he does, but how?
If God looks
One of my guests told the story of a boy who walked into the refugee camp in which he was working. The boy was from Iraq. He was a Sunni Muslim. Shi’ite soldiers had killed his mother and two sisters. His father was gone, fighting with another army. The boy, utterly abandoned, was full of grief.
I tried to picture him. Dark-haired, brown eyes, warm skin. No more than fourteen. Skinny, probably. Not wealthy, but not starving. Sobbing. I see him sobbing, stumbling down the road as his neighbors carry three bodies to the cemetery.
And if I were there? What would I feel? Compassion. Pure, deep, compassion. How could I not? I think of Jesus standing by the grave of Lazarus. Weeping. I’m so glad he wept before he performed the miracle. Insight into his heart. I suppose if Jesus were standing on the street, watching the funeral procession, he would’ve wept. He would’ve seen the boy and felt sadness. Love.
In that moment, the boy was the victim. The one who’d lost too much. I’m sure I would want to gather him into my arms and comfort him. But his story doesn’t end there.
does he see
A few days later, the boy fell in with a group of very bad people. Perhaps they sought him out. Perhaps he just stumbled across them. However he met them, they preyed on his anger. His grief and shame. They stirred his outrage. Accusations. “The men who killed your family are evil.” “Their hearts are black.” “They took away all that’s precious, and beautiful, and good.”
Their contaminated comfort stoked fires of hatred within the boy’s soul.
Then another tactic. They challenged his manhood. “You can’t let them get away with it.” “Retribution.” “An eye for an eye.” “Judgment and punishment is your responsibility.” “You’re the man of the family.” “It’s your job.”
They pounded the malleable steele of his soul into a fierce weapon.
If I had met the boy then, would I have seen the hatred in his eyes? Would I have shied away from him, hidden in the shadows, protected myself from his rage?
And what about Jesus? How would he have responded to such hatred?
The crucifix behind the altar in my in-laws church floats into view. The wooden form of a contorted man, a thorny vine wrapped around his head, a wound in his side, and sadness in his eyes.
I am drawn to the sadness. “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
If the boy’s story had ended there, I would not if heard it, but the men who wrapped him in their violence weren’t finished, and neither was God.
Somehow, they talked the boy into wrapping on the vest, the one full of nails and explosives.
I try to imagine the scene and realize, I feel like the boy’s mother. She’s looking at her son, heartbroken. Weeping. Crying out across a chasm she can’t cross. “No. A hundred times, no.”
But the boy’s face is full of resolve. “I’m a man now. This is what I must do. I’ll pay them back, all of them, for killing my mother and sisters.”
But he doesn’t. That’s the thing. The story of his life changes direction.
At first, he follows the instructions. Walks into a crowded market. His heart full of hatred and resolve. Retaliation. “This is what they deserve.”
But something happens to him. Or really, something happens within him. He walks beside a fruit vendor. Melons. Round and ripe. He sees an old woman with a black headscarf and long black coat. She’s haggling with the vendor and he hears her voice. Behind her, a small girl, younger than him, peers into his eyes.
He sees her.
as we struggle
In that moment, he stops walking. He’s transfixed by the little girl’s eyes, the sound of the woman’s voice, and freshness of the fruit before her.
In that moment, he knows he can’t do it. He can’t blow up his vest. He can’t tear this little family apart the way his own family was torn apart. He just can’t do it.
With a wordless realization he makes a decision. He still doesn’t know how it happened. He didn’t have a vision or see an angel or Jesus or anything ethereal or otherworldly. He just saw a woman and a little girl. He heard a voice, and looked into the eyes of a child. They were human, tender, vulnerable, and beautiful.
That’s what he said to my guest. He saw them, and they were beautiful.
At first, he didn’t know what to do. He realized he couldn’t go back to the men who sent him. He couldn’t go home. He would have to run away. That’s what he realized.
So he walked out to the middle of the bazaar, took his jacket off, and carefully remove the suicide vest. He laid it down on the street and looked up into a circle of angry men. He begged them. “Please, let me run away. Please.”
And they did.
He ran all the way to Jordan.
I don’t know what I would’ve thought or felt if I’d seen him walking into the bazaar. If I knew what he was planning, I’m sure I would’ve been terrified. If he had completed his mission, I’m sure I would’ve despised him. And then, if I saw him seeing the woman and the girl and the melons, I imagine I would’ve been confused. And then, if I saw him standing in the middle of a circle of men, I suppose I would’ve been worried.
But what about Jesus? How did he see the boy? What did he feel?
And here, my knowledge breaks down. The only thing I can be sure of is that he loved the boy. He loved the boy when he was playing in his own street before his mother’s house. He loved the boy when he was grieving his loss. He loved the boy when he fell in with wicked men. And he loved the boy when he took off his vest and ran away.
I suppose that’s what my guests are all saying when they tell stories about thieving house helpers, traitorous drivers, and men who do bad things in the hope of something good happening. Everyone’s a mix of good and bad.
So maybe the question isn’t how good or how bad, but rather how patient God is and how much he loves us. Each of us. Me. The boy. The guest who shared his story. A different kind of simple and clear. God’s love, the balance that enables me to live here in Malta, to serve my guests, to rest in the shared humanity of ‘loved by God’.