I saw an interesting social media exchange earlier today. One person was outraged at what a well-known football commentator had said about a particular political issue. They’d then described the person as “despicable”. Someone else had interjected to say “No, you can’t call them despicable. We describe the actions as despicable.”
There’s something important and helpful there in terms of how we best deal with wrong behaviour. In general terms we do well to address behaviours rather than labelling people. This avoids the totalising of an identity and protects against shaming.
However, it isn’t completely correct to say that we separate out the behaviour from the person. We do link the two together. If someone does heroic deeds then we describe them as brave and call them a hero. If someone is found guilty of a crime then we describe them in terms of the crime committed. Someone who murders is a murderer, a person found guilty of breaking into houses is a burglar. We would also call someone who is prejudiced against other ethnicities a racist.
The Bible’s understanding of sin is that not only are we people who do wrong things but also that we are sinners. Reformed theology talks about this using the term “total depravity.” The doctrine of Total Depravity does not mean that we are monsters and that our every action is despicable, rather it is a way of saying that the Fall and original sin affects every aspect of our lives.
I think one reason why modern society is reluctant to talk about the person is that it sees behaviours as changeable but people and their character as not. There’s a lot of inconsistency around this of course because we also want aspects of our identity to be fluid and malleable. Yet when it comes to the problem of evil, we decide that some people are monsters, that their sin does identify them. We then believe that there is no redemption, no atonement possible for such shame. This is why we have cancel culture.
This is why the Gospel is such good news. It offers the possibility not just of overlooking behaviour or reforming it. Instead, in Jesus Christ our identity is changed, we become new creations. In Christ I am no longer despicable me, I’m justified me.