Ethics & Christian living

The line separating good and evil

Trevor Huddleston was an English monk and priest who lived in South Africa during the 1940s and 50s. He became famous for his opposition to apartheid and his outspoken criticism of the South African government.  He would later become a Bishop and Archbishop.

As a white, Oxford-educated priest, his presence and commitment to racial justice in South Africa at that time was hugely significant. Huddleston was held in huge regard by key activists like Desmond Tutu and Oliver Tambo. Tutu said:

‘If I had to choose one person who got the anti-apartheid movement onto the world stage, that person would be Trevor Huddleston without a doubt.’

And Nelson Mandela said:

‘No white person has done more for South African than Trevor Huddleston.’

Huddleston’s work for racial justice won great admiration – not least because of the constant criticism and even death threats it created.  He was brave and incredibly committed to the cause over his entire life and ministry.

Inspired?

If you did not know much about Trevor Huddleston then you may be impressed and inspired by what I have shared about him so far.

But what happens to your view when you find out he also faced serious accusations of paedophilia?

Complaint

In the 1970s, Huddleston was Bishop of Stepney and lived on Commercial Road in the East End. He ran an ‘open house’ for local children to come in and play. But in 1974, a local mother complained about Huddleston’s behaviour towards her two boys.

Robin Dennison’s (very sympathetic) biography of Huddleston, published in 1999, records:

‘What exactly is the substance of the complaint is not known. That it involved sex is certain.’

The accusations caused Huddleston to have a breakdown and he withdrew from public life for 6 months. The Police wanted to press charges on 4 counts of gross indecency but the Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to pursue the case. For more see this BBC article.

Complacency

Denniston’s biography is in itself an example of how badly safeguarding and abuse was discussed in the recent past. An obvious example is shown in the choice of cover: a picture of Huddleston with two young children. 

But also the book discusses these complaints purely from Huddleston’s perspective.

We are told how supportive the Bishop of London was (he phoned Huddleston every day while he was off work), but there is no attempt at exploring the truth of the accusations or the impact on the children or families involved.

Painfully inappropriate

In addition, Huddleston’s predilections are discussed in a painfully inappropriate way:

‘Huddleston’s love of small and beautiful boys had never been a matter he had kept to himself, and indeed it would continue undiminished  and unashamed well into old age.’

When Huddleston returned to work, there is no indication that he sought to modify his behavour:

It was a remarkable recovery by any standards, with Commercial Road soon full of children, and Huddleston arranging trips to the pantomime for them at Christmas.’

Accepting dual realities

There is no doubt that Huddleston had rare conviction and courage on matters of racial justice. But the evidence shows that his behaviour towards children was deeply inappropriate and almost certainly abusive.

We need to accept this dual reality. The simplistic divisions between ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ is not real life. People with great talents often cast long shadows.

And some of those most famous for contributing to positive social change often have great weaknesses. Gandhi treated his wife appallingly. Martin Luther King was serially unfaithful. Jean Vanier coerced and sexually manipulated women for years.

Accountability

The tribal judgmentalism of popular culture finds it hard to accept this. Often, it seems we either want to revere and adore, or condemn and cancel.

However talented, inspiring or influential, everyone is human. To varying degrees, all humans do wrong: whether through weakness, negligence or our own deliberate fault.

Structural and personal

The reality of wrong-doing and evil affects humanity radically, down to our roots. It is both structural and personal: embedded both in unjust legal, social and economic systems (such as apartheid) and in the hearts of those who coerce and abuse the vulnerable.

To quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn again:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”

11 thoughts on “The line separating good and evil”

  1. Excellent article Jon. Jesus said that ‘no-one is good but God alone’ by which he meant not that no-one is capable of doing some good things but that no-one is without the need for a saviour to atone for their badness and enable them to show genuine evidence of a redeemed life. That goes for whether we are Ghandi or Goebbels, Vanier or Voltaire. And even ‘saved’ people need vigilant accountability to avoid serious sin causing harm to others.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a myth that only men sexually abuse children .Women also abuse children. What’s needed are robust safeguarding procedures, which are followed by organisations and individuals in order that children and vulnerable adults are protected.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the problems, in my experience, is that Christians themselves love a hero. And putting people on pedestals is never healthy. We then get indignant and feel betrayed when we discover that the ‘hero’ is a sinful human being, when we of all people should be realistic about the reality of sin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes – completely agree. I had included more on this tendency in an earlier draft but had to chop it. I think this is seen especially with Vanier where he was treated like a saint and venerated too much – and more recently with Mark Driscoll where those around him tolerated for too long the toxic elements of their character because they believed that the good outweighed the bad. But this is wrong-thinking – we need to assertively challenge the bad without it meaning we disregard the good they do. In fact addressing the bad stuff enables the preservation of the good.

      Liked by 1 person

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