In the wake of recent reports of vandalism of a state landmark and theft of memorial tributes of a veteran killed in Afghanistan, an editorial writer asked in paraphrase, "What's wrong with people?" The editorial was entitled "The age-old question", and rightfully stated that the events should cause us all to "pause, reflect and pose" that same philosophical question that has been pondered for ages. So how would we, here in 2010, answer that age-old question? What is wrong with people?
Perhaps some might try to answer in the most obvious way, that these perpetrators broke current laws. Laws on the books currently prohibit graffiti at landmark sites and defacement of gravesites, so what was wrong with those people is that they broke the law. This line of thinking falls short for a number of reasons. Firstly, while it is true the individuals broke the law, this doesn't address motivation, or the reasons for the behavior, so it doesn't really address what is wrong with the person simply whether the action was acceptable or not. Secondly, we would be remiss to raise up as a standard for behavior the current law code because laws are passed by people and are subject to change. What if one day those responsible for passing laws decided defacing public property was no longer against the law. Would that make the actions of these individuals acceptable? There must be something behind the law, something that guides the lawmakers in determining which actions are right or wrong.
Perhaps another might go to personal history, search through the life history of the individuals in question and respond that although they did break the law it was because they were under great stress or pressure from life's circumstances and were pushed into taking such drastic action that most would find deplorable. Again, this sounds reasonable on the surface, and it does go beyond just current laws to attempt to address the motivation behind the action but it doesn't go far enough. Are actions excusable, or right, if a previous wrong has been done? Would a person be exonerated of the charge of robbing a bank if it was discovered he/she had been verbally abused as a child? Would a drunk driver that killed a family of four be set free if it is discovered that he/she was physically abused and that abuse drove them to alcohol? There is an equally old adage that two wrongs don't make a right, which means we all have at least a tacit understanding that some measure of self-control is expected of all people to refrain from harming others in spite of harm that might have been done us.
Perhaps one might try to apply contemporary philosophical arguments of relativity and subjective truth. That something may be right for you but wrong for me. If that were the case then the answer is quite simple, nothing is wrong with anyone. What the individuals who defaced the natural monument and stole the memorials of a fallen soldier where simply doing what was right for them. What they did wasn't wrong at all, it just wasn't accepted by the majority of people. They may go to jail because they didn't agree with the majority, but they didn't do anything wrong. This line of thinking is plainly unlivable.
It seems every explanation we try to come up with falls short in some way and it seems we'll have to give up on finding an answer. Perhaps before we give up we should look at a truth that is older than the question itself. According to the Bible, all men and women have thoughts, attitudes and motivations that are wrong. Genesis 6:5 tells us that man's heart is inclined to wickedness all the time. Psalm 14 says that there are none who seek to do good, that all are corrupt. Hebrews 4:12-13 tells us that God exposes, and is concerned with the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. So we see that intent is prior to content, and the intentions of man are wrong by nature. If that is the case, then perhaps the one who defaced the natural monument may have been motivated by anger; perhaps the one who stole the veteran's memorial was motivated by greed; perhaps even as I write this article in an attempt to help give some meaningful answers to this difficult question, pride tries to creep in so that I have feelings that it be published not so much that others might be helped, but so that my work will be seen by many people in the community.
If that were the end of the story, we would have to lament our very existence and resign ourselves to a life of being perpetually wrongheaded. However, Galatians 5 lets us know that we can be freed from this curse of being wrong by nature and instead have a new desire for thoughts and attitudes of things like love, joy, peace and self-control.
Consider Saul of Tarsus from the 1st century A.D. A vehement persecutor of the Jewish people; brutal and uncaring of an entire race of people; “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1); giving approval to the murder by stoning of Stephen where the martyr’s clothes were laid at his feet. A man capable of such things was to become the most prolific writer of the New Testament and a missionary to most of the known world of his day.
Consider Manuel Noriega from the 20th century. A Panamanian general and commander of the National Guard; involved in gun smuggling, money laundering, torture and murder; putting his own people under his thumb after an uprising demanding his removal from office by suspending constitutional rights, closing national media outlets and driving into exile those who opposed him politically. A man sentenced to 40 years in prison after being extradited and found guilty, only to stand up to stop a prisoner revolt and exhibit behavior that a guard would comment, “I haven’t seen any dedication or seriousness greater than his.”
What was responsible for the transformation of men like Saul of Tarsus and Manuel Noriega? Being blinded and hearing the voice of the Lord transformed Saul persecutor of Christians into Paul apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. Manuel Noriega in his own words stated, “He [Jesus] is the Son of God, who died on the cross for our sins, who arose from the grave and is at the right hand of God the Father and who above all things He is my Savior, and has mercy on me, a sinner."
Many years ago, the question “What’s wrong with England” was asked. Famed author and theologian G.K. Chesterton very simply replied, "I am." We are what is wrong, each one of us. We are selfish, greedy and prideful. Jesus told many parables and spoke once of two kinds of trees, those that bore good fruit and those that bore bad fruit. The good trees do not bear bad fruit, the bad trees do not bear good fruit and each tree is known by the fruit it bears. When we look at the things we do, and the thoughts and motivations behind those actions, it is clear to which group of trees we belong. There is something, however, that can change us from the inside out. If we are only willing to accept the truth and live not for ourselves and our natural desires but for the glory of the Lord then He will change our heart, our thoughts and our attitudes to that which is right. The nature of man is what is wrong with people and transformation is all that will set him right.