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‘Good guys,’ ‘bad guys’ politics


My 3-year-old grandson, Joey, lives in a fantasy world divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.” This division is, of course, not based on his actual daily life, his experience with his mother, father and older brother Nicolas, friends and relatives. Rather it is derived from television, from war and “spacemen” games and toys that reflect television programs.

Once I overheard him with several such toys in his hands muttering about “good guys” and “bad guys” and I remarked to him that people really were not divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.” Rather people were mixed, some parts good and some parts bad or not so good. He looked at me uncomprehendingly. Clearly Grandmother did not know what she was talking about. He had it on good evidence (from television and the toys he held in his hands) that the world was indeed divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.”

Our public political culture is also divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.” The political rhetoric of President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft speaks unhesitatingly of “bad guys,” implying that most Americans or at least themselves are unswervingly the “good guys.” When asked why various people have been jailed without charges or access to lawyers and other basic elements of due process, we are assured that they don’t deserve such niceties because they are “bad guys.” The worldview of the television and war toys of my grandson and that of the top political leaders of my country belong to the same mentality, indeed are manufactured by the same cultural production. This is frightening.

Such a primal dualism is disturbing in a 3-year-old, but one can hope that he can be educated out of such a view by the time he is 6 or 7. But when it is reproduced in the leaders of the mightiest military and economic power in the world, it is a danger to human survival on earth. How has the United States, a country of fairly educated people, come to swallow such a worldview passively and with little protest and indeed to feed it to their children from the earliest age?

As Christians we have to reckon with the ways our religious worldview has helped to produce and socialize us into such a dualism. I count it as one of my first moments of theological reflection when I began to wonder about such a division of humanity. The moment when this occurred is still vivid in my mind. I must have been about 13 years old. I was standing at the trolley stop in Washington, D.C., waiting for a streetcar to take me to school, Dunblane Hall, a Catholic school I attended from first grade. I was casually observing the surge of humanity crossing the street as I waited.

As I watched this crowd of humanity on its way to work, school or other errands, it occurred to me that there was no way one could divide these people into “good” and “bad.” They were all “mixed bags.” That being the case, there would be no way that God could divide them at the end of the world into those who deserved to go to heaven and those who deserved to go to hell. There must be something wrong with this picture of the ultimate end of humanity.

That experience of questioning the theological picture that was presumed in my religious education has stayed with me as a foundational beginning of examining the social implications of religious symbols.

I wonder how much the religious division of humans into saved and damned, those destined for heaven and those destined for hell, stands behind the secular division of the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” and makes this division appear acceptable to those who are older than 13. Yet we continued to reproduce such a division of humanity among those who are old enough to know better and even to make it a primary pattern of our culture from the war toys and TV dramas that teach our 3-year-olds to the political rhetoric of our leaders. Our American worldview remains stuck at a preadolescent level of simplistic thinking. The result is ongoing massacre of our fellow humans.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002