Perry Edward Smith was a violent criminal. His offense was so brutal that in 1969 the story of his viciousness made it into newspapers all over the country. Perry was incarcerated in Kansas, but through the morning paper an old acquaintance caught up with him all the way in Reading, Massachusetts. When Don read the appalling specifics of what Perry had done, he felt compelled to write him. He met Perry in the Army in the fall of 1951. In his letter, Don recounted fond memories of Perry and his personality. Perry always had a grin, but also entertained the others of their company with his somewhat “wild streak.” Don had become a religious man and his faith had moved his heart toward Perry despite or maybe more accurately because of his violent actions. Don ended his letter with this:
“God made you as well as He made me and He loves you just as He loves me, and for the little we know of God’s will what has happened to you could have happened to me.” 1
From day one, Perry was caught in a current of sick dysfunction. That did not excuse his actions. Many have had it worse, but what Perry did was partly (mostly) due to what had been done to Perry.
Through watching his own brother die of leukemia, Don had become aware that there are no guarantees in life. We all walk closely to trouble in some way or another whether we are on the “narrow path” or not. Yet we make distinctions between the types of trouble we find ourselves in. Perry’s ultimate circumstances were a result of choices he made. However, disease, like leukemia, just happens to us. So, could have what “happened to” Perry just as easily “happened to” us?
The mountain of relational, mental and emotional garbage that Perry would have needed to summit seems insurmountable especially for a child trying to navigate the path to adulthood on his own. Any of us who have grown up in at least relatively healthy environments can still attest to the complexity of crossing even a tame river of a marginally maladjusted family or parent. Yet, somewhere along the way, despite undue obstacles laid before us all, we must own personal responsibility. We can’t let Perry off the hook for his crimes because of his treacherous upbringing. Yet, when we fail to realize that what happened to Perry could have happened to us, we become morally arrogant.
You had no control over the family you were born into. If you were raised in a “healthy,” loving and even faithful environment, you were nothing more than lucky. Call it blessed or whatever you prefer. You had nothing to do with it. Children like Perry are unlucky (not blessed?). You had no control over the country you were born in. Some are born in relative safety, wealth and freedom, while others are born into danger, poverty, and oppression. Neither deserves what they were handed.
Moral arrogance leads us to believe that our familial, vocational, or mental health is due to our good and Godly decisions. Don made better choices than Perry and his life ended up very different. Yet, Don realized it is simply not that simple. The curses and blessings of life are not formulaic. He could have easily been born into Perry’s mess. Don may not have ended up making the same atrocious choices that Perry did, but there is no question that his life would have been very, very different.
Don’s awareness of this “luck of the draw” randomness of life, which he learned through watching his brother die from leukemia, gave him compassion for people that have to fight battles that they didn’t provoke. Conversely, some of the blessings he had were just as random and in no way were a result of anything he had done. It is as God warned the Israelites when he gave them the land that he had promised. He repeatedly reminded them to remember that this “blessing” had nothing to do with them or their righteousness. They weren’t righteous and yet they were still blessed.2
Moral arrogance leads us to treat the poor like they are such simply because they don’t try hard enough leaving us to conclude that we are rich simply because we did. Moral arrogance concludes that America is a Christian nation blessed by God and yet when the distressed and destitute attempt to flee poverty and violence, we hold them back because we claim to be a nation of laws. The morally arrogant act as if they fully keep the law and forget that their rights were simply handed to them at birth. We deserve freedom no more than anyone else.
So, let us be faithful. Let us make godly decisions, sow peace and live wisely. It matters. But, let us not think that our wealth is a result of handling our finances biblically, our emotionally and relationally healthy children are a result of our intentional parenting or that our joy is simply the fruit of our morality. There is much more at play here than just our choices. You could have easily been the welfare recipient, the illegal immigrant, or the criminal. Spiritually speaking, you are. Remember that “God made you as well as He made me and He loves you just as He loves me, and for the little we know of God’s will what has happened to you could have happened to me.”
1 In Cold Blood – Truman Capote pg. 261
2 Deuteronomy 9