What makes a good person? Goodness is something we assume to be general. We hear it all the time: “I’m basically a good person,” or, “I try to be a good person,” as though it were a default position and one needs special prodding to be bad. When someone acts spectacularly bad, it inevitably raises the question: What happened? How could such a normal-seeming person go so wrong? As if “normal” and “wrong” were opposites.
Connie Schultz, a syndicated columnist and the wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, struggled with the meaning of goodness after last Tuesday’s sentencing hearing for T.J. Lane, the “Chardon Killer.” Lane, age 18, had been tried and convicted. On Feb. 27, 2012, he shot and killed three of his fellow students and wounded three others at his Ohio high school. What shocked Schultz, and everyone gathered in the courtroom to hear the sentence, was Lane’s blatant insolence, contempt, and vulgarity. Before anyone could stop him, he stripped off his shirt, exposing the word “KILLER” hand-written on his undershirt. He smirked during the victims’ testimony and punctuated an obscene remark with an obscene gesture. Even his attorney was shocked and mortified.
In her column Schulz wrestled with her own attitude: “I wanted Lane to be a broken boy, sobbing over the damage he could not undo. At the very least, I wanted him to be the silent, dazed defendant we’d seen before. Instead, he did everything he could to incite our hate.” But a hateful response must be resisted, for “absent self-vigilance, we can become the monster we claim to condemn.”
Now, that’s a stretch. She doesn’t allow that those seething tweets and Facebook posts are expressing righteous anger, however unrighteously, and it’s unlikely that any of the tweeters and posters will ever shoot up a high school cafeteria. Responses to the column praise her sense of morality, despite the fact that most societies, past and present, would not consider her position “moral” at all. Lane would deserve all the venom he received, as a rotten apple who could spoil the barrel if not called and castigated. The punishment should fit the crime—this is moral.
But at the same time, her view reflects Christianity without Christ, a temple robbed of its riches and sterilized to a hospital where everybody is a patient. She’s right about her own vulnerability to the criminal’s vicious spirit. There’s obviously something wrong with him, but there’s “something wrong” with all of us, and we sense it.
“What do you do with your guilt?” Ravi Zacharias likes to ask. Law-and-order conservatives pile it on the perpetrator; bleeding-heart liberals spread it fine as dust across the population. One preaches God’s justice, the other God’s mercy—but God Himself takes our guilt and places it on the thorn-crowned head of his Son. “Righteousness and peace kiss each other” in the cross (Psalm 85:10), and guilt has its answer.