Modern Christianity could learn a lot from Kurt Vonnegut. This is a bit ironic because Vonnegut was a Humanist who at the best of time might have been Agnostic. But the morals in his novels might as well have been included in the Biblical canon.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Kurt Vonnegut, in addition to being a Humanist, he survived the firebombing of Dresden, Germany as a prisoner of war in World War 2 and then became a bestselling novelist.
I am currently re-reading his book, Mother Night, and I wanted to share some thoughts. It doesn’t take long for Vonnegut to tell you what a book is going to be about. Often, he gives his own spoilers in the Introduction. But you don’t read his books to find out “whodunnit”, you read them because he was a brilliant writer who understood the human condition and he cast light on “the least of these” in the most humanizing ways possible.
Mother Night is a first-person portrayal of American Nazi war criminal, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who is on trial for his crimes against humanity in Israel. Campbell claims early on that he was acting as a secret agent on behalf of the Allies while at the same time actively working in propaganda for Nazi Germany. The book is Campbell’s memoir as he awaits the verdict of his trial.
This is from the Editor’s Note at the beginning of the book:
Before seeing what sort of a book I was going to have here, I wrote the dedication–“To Mata Hari.” She whored in the interest of espionage, and so did I.
Now that I’ve seen some of the book, I would prefer to dedicate it to someone less exotic, less fantastic, more contemporary–less a creature of silent film.
I would prefer to dedicate it to one familiar person, male or female, widely known to have done evil while saying to himself, “A very good me, the real me, a me made in heaven, is hidden deep inside.”
I can think of many examples, could rattle them off after the fashion of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. But there is no single name to which I might aptly dedicate this book–unless it would be my own.
Let me honor myself in that fashion, then:
This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of this times.
I love that line, “a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly”. I also completely understand the concept of someone doing evil while assuring themselves that they are good deep down inside.
Now, contrary to popular belief, Humanists don’t believe that people are inherently good. Rather, they believe that humanity is capable to both good and evil. Christianity differs here in that they say that humanity is inclined toward evil and goodness can only be accomplished with divine help.
In the preface to the book, Vonnegut writes:
This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Christianity would disagree and say that there are plenty of people who pretend to be good, but are quite evil inside. And while that is true, Christians also shouldn’t be worrying about the evil inside of other people. God is the only one with the authority and knowledge to judge accurately in these cases. Besides, I don’t think Vonnegut is writing with these people in mind.
Mother Night is more of a warning to people who do evil in the name of good, not the other way around. And there are probably a lot of Christians out there who are willing to treat people in less-than-loving ways because they are sinners. But does the Bible really tell us to be mean or treat people badly because they are sinners? Doesn’t it tell us that we should do good to those who hurt us? Doesn’t it say that we should love as Christ, a guy who hung out with prostitutes and turncoats, loved?
Anyway, I know that there are some areas that Humanism gets wrong, and I’m more than prepared to admit that Vonnegut wasn’t a saint, but there is this to say for him that can’t be said of the Modern Church: He loved people without judging them.
I only hope I can do the same.