Posted on: October 18th, 2010 Good Guys & Bad Guys?

Bella: “Daddy, I don’t want to go outside and play in the front yard because I’m afraid that the bad guys will get me.”

Daddy: “Sweetheart, who are these ‘bad guys’ you’re talking about?”

Bella: “You know, the bad guys Auntie M. told me about, the bad guys on the news who kidnapped and did real bad things to that little boy last night. I saw it on the news, Daddy.”

Daddy: “Sweetheart, those people should not have done those bad things, and we must be careful and aware of our surroundings, but do you remember last week in the playground that you spit on your friend when she took your Hello Kitty ball away from you?”

Bella: “Yeah, I’m sorry I did that, Daddy.”

Daddy: “I totally forgive you, Sweetie, but since you did that, I mean, since you hit her and spit on her, does this make you a ‘bad guy?’”

Bella: “No, Daddy! I’m a good girl!”

Daddy: “But at that moment your heart was just as angry and hurtful as some of the people you see on the news.”

Bella: “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Daddy: “And, guess what else, Bella?”

Bella: “What, Daddy?”

Daddy: “I once knew a man who got thrown into jail for stealing a lot of money. That’s bad, right?”

Bella: “Right.”

Daddy: “Well, did you know that that same man loves his little daughter just like I love you?”

Bella: “How do you know, Daddy?”

Daddy: “Because that man is your Uncle ‘S.’”

This dialogue is typical of ones I have with my seven year old daughter, Bella. What I’m trying to do here is to show her that, in a sense, there is no such thing as “good guys” and “bad guys.”

With one exception, I tell her, and that is the case of characters in stories. Characters in stories can be good or bad. So for example, Saruman in the Lord of the Rings is truly bad, with no qualifications.

I would argue that something similar holds for the story of Holy Scripture which finds its climax or fulillment in (the paschal mystery of) Christ, which is one reason I have a different take on the role of narrative for the Christian understanding of violence than those who argue that there is no place for violence in the Christian story or in Christian theology.

What I want to show in the rest of this essay, however, is that, in another sense, there is such a thing as “bad guys.” The moral tradition of Christian virtue teaches that man is a functional concept. That is, the human being, created by God for a concrete and specific end or telos, is analogous to a human-made tool, for example, a hammer. A hammer can be said to be a good hammer if it successfully drives nails into pieces of wood. Alternatively a hammer (or a clock or a chair) may be said to be a poor hammer (or clock or chair) if it fails to fulfill its telos, the purpose for which it was made, properly.

According to the Christian tradition, rooted in Holy Scripture, the telos of humanity is to glorify God or (alternatively stated) to participate in the mystery of the triune God. To the extent that a person does this well and properly, she is a good woman. To the extent that a little boy or girl or grown-up fails to do this, he or she is a bad person.

Where does this leave us? It leaves me with a tension, a dilemma which might be undecideable. When forming the character of my seven year old, I want to discourage her from viewing the other (in particular those who are different from her) as “bad guys.” I want her to examine her heart and to verify the biblical truth that “all have sinned,” that “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, who can know it?”. I want her to pluck the beam out of her own eye first.

I think this posture is biblical and consistent with the spirit of Jesus, for whom the only “bad guys” were the power-mongers of religiosity of his day.

Since, like my seven year old, I have the capacity (even the tendency) for violence in my own life, I’m not really justified in speaking of others as bad guys.

And yet, I must admit that the moral tradition of Christian virtue ethics also maintains that there is such a thing a “good guys” and “bad guys.”

At the end of the day, am I myself a bad guy? In my view, that is for my (Christian) community to judge.

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5 Responses to “Good Guys & Bad Guys?”

  1. Collins aka Boo Says:
    October 18th, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Nice, Matt. You don’t write like this often enough (I wish you would). I agree with everything you say regarding the truth of some as “bad” and some as “good” (while obviously understanding that all “do” bad, and all “do” good–let’s not parse about justification by works/faith, I think you know what I mean). And I agree with your teleology, but I am a little tripped up when you first use the comparison of the value of a hammer to a human and then say “or to participate in the mystery of the triune God” (seems almost as if two different kinds of concepts). Maybe it’s me, but when you say participate in the mystery of the triune God, as an “end”/”teleos”, I have in my mind a harmony and integration, what I am thinking of is beauty. But when you mention a hammer working properly, I think of utility. Granted, there can be a beauty in the execution of a tool/act (but that particular “beauty” is not about results as much as it is about performance–kind of like an amazing diving effort by a football player that still falls short, it was beautiful, but it still “fell short”).

    Can you please explain this to me?

  2. matt Says:
    October 19th, 2010 at 7:03 am


    The analogy does not hold in every possible sense.

    The basic point is that all creatures (God made or man made) have a purpose for which they were made & designed. (One way to view the history of modern philosophy, BTW, is as a vitriolic reaction against this idea, with movements such as Radical Orthodoxy & Virtue Ethics – a la Alasdair MacIntryre – reacting against that reaction.)

    So, take any “object:” a clock, a hammer, a car, a book, a computer. Each of these has a specific purpose.

    The same is true for a person, as well as for humanity as a whole. In this case, though, the telos / purpose / end has to do with the Triune God, and is variously named & described: “to enjoy him;” “to participate in the “dance” of Father, Son, Holy Spirit;” in the Eastern Church they call this “deification” or “theosis.”

    So “man-as-a-functional-concept” is analogous to any other created thing in that he has a purpose / telos / end, which he can either live into and fulfill well or poorly.

  3. Jason Says:
    October 29th, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Very cool Matt.

  4. Libby Says:
    February 7th, 2011 at 12:18 am

    I love this!

    I would like to know more about this: “the role of narrative for the Christian understanding of violence.”

    Indirectly you seem to be saying that the Bible has “good” and “bad” characters because it is literature, and that this dichotomy doesn’t directly translate into real life. Then you say that in another sense this dichotomy does play out in real life, through the lense of Xian virtue.

    I’m curious about 1) how do we allow Scripture to inform our lives, while allowing for this “literary” difference, and 2) how do two planes of “Scripture as literature” and “the Xian tradition of virtue” (i.e., the two different senses in which we can talk about people as being good or bad) interact?

  5. matt Says:
    March 15th, 2011 at 11:21 pm


    Having been swimming (drowning?) of late in Milbank & Pickstock’s _Truth in Aquinas_ (one of about 4 books I still need to finish before turning to Blond) I am now better prepared to answer your question above.

    You are correct to locate our divine participation in desire (wh for Augustine & Aquinas is always desire for the Beautiful).

    So for me this helps me see & embrace the integrity of Thomas’ analogy b/t man and a hammer (both what MacIntyre calls “functional concepts”). Not only is the proper working of a hammer unto its telos (for Aquinas) beautiful (and in this way like God as well as God’s and image man, and thus a fulfillment if desire, but it is also good & true. In all 3 ways the hammer exactly like man-as-participating in the triune God.

    That’s not to say that there is no place for utility (both in the case of the hammer and of man). Aquinas wd have agreed with Aristotle’s treatment of this in terms of efficient causality (the only causality, of Arototle’s four) which is acknowledged by modernity.

    It’s just that efficient causality is rather banal.

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