What’s a Good Person, Anyway?

What’s a Good Person, Anyway? May 19, 2023

Sometimes I feel the urge to try to prove my “good”ness. Many times, I resist this urge and choose not to try. Other times, I do try, but I’m not very good at it. 

It’s a self-defeating endeavor. Because, really, what’s a good person, anyway?

It tends to be about how we are seen, more than who we are. It’s often an attempt to earn others’ love, attention, or approval. An effort to merit belonging. (Which, as I reflected on over here, cannot actually be earned.)

What Does “Good” Look Like?

Often, religious communities—and their leaders—have very particular ideas about what a “good” person looks like, and what a “bad” person looks like. 

Sometimes the “looks like” here is very literal: What someone wears. How they carry themselves. How much makeup she wears. Whether his pants sag. 

Sometimes there are racial undertones—not unlike when workplaces demand “professional hair” (read: white-person hair, or as close to it as possible).

Other times it’s less about appearance and more about fitting in with the community’s expectations around behavior. But still in a way that labels some people as good and others as not-so-good. In a way that draws boundaries between in and out. Good and bad. With us and against us. Like us and unlike us. A way that creates hierarchies and ladders, ranking people by how closely they conform to a particular set of expectations.

The Sheep from the Goats

illustrate sheep
We aren’t asked to separate sheep from goats / Photo by Qamma Farm on Unsplash

I think about this, and I think about Matthew 25. Jesus says that God will separate people from one another like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. 

This idea of separation makes me uncomfortable. And yet, the reality is that there will be some kind of judgment. (God judging, not us! But, still, judgment.)

It feels important, though, to note what this judgment is based on. According to Jesus, in this passage, God doesn’t care what kind of clothes people wear. Or how they present their appearance to the world. Or whether they swear. Or how closely they conform to all the (often racialized and gendered) behavioral expectations of their church. 

God does care that people share their food, their drinks, their homes, their clothing, their time, their attention. God cares that people regard others with compassion. God cares that people care.

Less Line-Drawing, More Invitation

I like this because it feels like about drawing lines between good people and bad people, and more about all of us being invited every day to do the things God created us to do.

It feels like an invitation, for all of us, to:

We want to consider what a good and meaningful life looks like for us and pursue it wholeheartedly. We don’t need to be in the business of judging others as good or bad—and writing the “bad” ones off accordingly.

Goodness Does Not Equal Obedience

Really, faith communities’ notions of goodness are often a little too wrapped up with obedience to churchy authority figures. Sometimes it’s a little hard to tell these things apart. 

But according to the prophets through the ages—the ancient ones and the more recent ones too—goodness often entails resistance. 

Dr. King called people of faith to resist what he called the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” John Lewis invited people to “get in good trouble.” Goodness is often not the same thing as obedience to authority figures. 

Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in her book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright 2021), comments on what she calls the “authoritarian tendencies of conservative evangelicalism.” For Du Mez, the tendencies she researched in one particular institution were really “part of a larger evangelical culture that celebrated patriarchal authority—a culture that dictated the values and directed the actions of ‘good people’ in ways that could displace compassion and justice with blind obedience to authority.”

In many strands of evangelicalism, “good people” are those who do what they’re told. No compassion or justice necessary.

What is a good person? Patriarchal authority figures will tell you. They have no qualms telling you what to do, what to support, what to protest, how to vote, who to be. 

But religious authorities are not God

Many of them have wise things to say, much of the time. But we get to filter what they tell us through our own experience and wisdom too. We are not “good people” just because we follow them. And we are not “bad people” if we don’t. 

The point, as Du Mez implies, is compassion and justice. This is our responsibility. Unthinking obedience doesn’t cut it.

Choosing What’s Good

We can make choices for good—choices toward compassion, love, and justice. And we can be patient and compassionate with ourselves when we don’t make these choices.

This is my hope for people of faith: Let’s care less about being seen by others as “good” people, and more about doing whatever good we can do in our communities and our world, however small these things might seem.

Let’s reexamine our ideas of “good” and “bad” people—which often just means people who conform to our expectations and people who don’t. 

Let’s be open to the goodness in people different from us. Let’s see what we can learn. 

And, certainly, let’s separate goodness from obedience. The goodness of our world for generations to come may just depend on it.

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