He couldn’t remember a span of more than a few days between times when his dad would take him into his study to play his “games.” His earliest memories were of them playing checkers. Dad would pull out the checkerboard and every time he captured one of his pieces he was “rewarded” with a kiss, hug, or "special" touch. All of this was very confusing. He did love his dad, and honestly—horribly—some of the touching felt good. It piqued his interest but he also hated it, and the secrecy, and the inescapable feeling that something was very wrong.
When he got older, his father didn’t bother with the checkers anymore. What they did together instead was drink. At nine or ten he remembers his dad mixing vodka and with orange juice so it wouldn’t burn his throat. The alcohol made it easier to make it through what happened next.
By the time he was 13, he was in the habit of picking fights with his dad so his younger siblings could avoid their father’s wrath. These moments reminded him why he hated his mother, who should have been there to protect them but had left the family years before. Although his dad never confirmed it, he had heard rumors that she overdosed not long after abandoning them.
At sixteen, he had had enough. He left a note with the school counselor informing her that his dad had been abusing him. Immediately after, he got scared, packed a bag, and ran away, believing that his father would have killed him as soon as he found out.
It wasn’t long after he left home that he made friends with a woman who taught him how to survive on the streets. She also introduced him to heroin, which had the magical ability to make him feel good and forget his past. That was nearly three years ago. He has stuck with her—and heroin—ever since.
In order to keep up with their need for dope, they turn tricks and rob someone when they are in especially dire straits. The hooking doesn’t really bother him but the robbery sometimes does. He isn’t proud of how rough he was with a woman they robbed recently. He just loses his mind sometimes when he gets dope sick. That’s why he’s decided to stick to the hooking. For him it is a means to an end. Even though the Johns reminded him of his father, they’re not all bad. They make it possible for him to get the dope that takes him to the only place where he feels no pain.
If you read last week's blog on judgment, you have probably figured out this story is about the same young man who played a part in that post’s vignette. If you were tempted to judge him before, hopefully you’re over that now.
Because there is a difference between judging a person and judging a behavior, we can say that humans in general have a moral responsibility to do good and still refrain from judging a particular person who does evil. We are able to do this when we understand that people can have very different understandings of right and wrong. For example, the young man in the vignette, because of horrific abuse and lack of loving care, is likely to have a distorted sense of morality compared to someone raised in a loving, supportive home. We need to remember that there are people who have no idea what is morally right or wrong and should therefore be judged differently than those who know better.
My first job in the mental health field was as a residential treatment counselor for severely abused children ages 5-15. It was in this setting that I worked with sexual predators as young as five years old. Yes, that is correct. I have worked with clients as young as five who have raped another human being (usually a younger sibling). Now, every single one of the child perpetrators I met was a survivor of horrific sexual abuse. I am open to the idea that some—if not all—of these children had a warped understanding of right and wrong. If this is true, I do not believe they were born with a perverted sense of morality; I believe their upbringing had robbed them of the opportunity to learn right from wrong. Do I think any one of us is capable of judging the hearts and minds of those children? No. Does their potential lack of moral responsibility change the fact that their behavior was wrong? No.
When I have personal and professional discussions about judgment and responsibility, I am commonly asked something like, “Are you saying we should let terrorists, murderers, and rapists off the hook because there’s a chance they didn’t know what they were doing?” No, absolutely not. If by “off the hook” they mean allowing them to freely roam about terrorizing, murdering, and raping, no way. It is not loving to let people hurt others. I believe there is a place for punishment and prisons. What I am saying is that when we have to do something drastic like imprison someone, we should do so with sadness and empathy for the person we put behind bars.
A Responsibility to Love
My hope is that we would all feel responsible for making the world a better place. When we accept this responsibility, it is not enough to love our neighbors, we must also love our enemies. Taking on this responsibility is not easy. We need to lead by example and teach others what it means to live a life of love by fighting for justice, being eager to show mercy, and never judging someone’s heart.