Anyone Can Choose to Do Good

The six Polk County inmates who saved their deputy

The six Polk County inmates who saved their deputy

On June 12 a Polk County, Georgia, sheriff’s deputy started going down. And this wasn’t a good time for that. You see, he was overseeing six prison inmates who were out on work detail sprucing up a local cemetery in preparation for Father’s Day.

But go down he did. He suffers from a rare brain malformation, and the Georgia heat that day was too much for him. As he lay unconscious on the grass, the inmates had access to his gun, his cellphone, and his van. They could have made a run for it.

Instead, this story has a happy ending.

You see, he was their deputy. They spent five days a week, seven hours a day with him out on work detail. When they saw him go down, they knew what they had to do.

Doing the right thing

Anything could have been done. Anything could have happened. But all the right things happened, and that’s what makes that whole day just so much better.

That is one of the inmates speaking. And another inmate:

When that happened, in my opinion, it wasn’t about who was in jail and who wasn’t. It was about, you know, a man was going down and we had to help him.

What they did was to rush to his side, turn him over to make sure he was okay, and then remove his gun belt and bulletproof vest in case he needed CPR when the paramedics arrived. They fished his phone out of his pocked and called 911. Here is the local news coverage on the event:

And you can read all about it here: “Sheriff to cut sentences of inmates who helped fallen deputy.”

Good deeds have good consequences

For these nonviolent offenders who did the right thing, their good deed had good consequences.

Of course, the most important consequence was that thanks to their quick action, the officer recovered and is doing fine.

But their good deed also led to good consequences for the six inmates. Yes, the pizza and dessert party thrown for them was great! But even better, their sentences will be shortened in recognition of what they did—and didn’t—do on that day. Polk County Sheriff Johnny Moats said:

Any time we have a trustee or inmate crew that goes beyond normal duties, we cut them some extra time off.

It all goes to show that no matter who we are and no matter what our situation may be, we can always choose to do a good deed instead of a bad one. And when we do, things will go better in so many ways!

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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27 comments on “Anyone Can Choose to Do Good
  1. Adam says:

    That’s awesome! Wow, I’m impressed. It shows the Lord is always working through us, no matter our situation, as long as we are receptive to it.

  2. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    Are there ever instances in which something like selflessness becomes twisted in terms of evil, while still being an act of selflessness? Imagine someone who goes out of their way educate others to do evil because they feel it will bring them pleasure, perhaps due to the pleasure that they themselves receive from it. Or someone who wishes to see more evil in the world because that’s just how it ought to be, in their eyes, and helps further the cause of evil without actually seeking something for themselves in return.

    These are especially, unconscionably evil things to do, but are they still technically selfless, because the person is not after personal gain? Selflessness is not charity, though it’s essential for *charity* to be charity. Does selflessness have any value in and of itself, and can it be married to either good or evil?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      I can’t offhand think of anywhere that the Bible talks about “selflessness.” It talks about loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. It talks about “charity,” or doing good deeds out of love for our fellow human beings. But “selflessness” and “altruism” seem to be more modern inventions.

      The commandment of the Bible is not to be “selfless,” but to:

      Cease to do evil,
      learn to do good.
      (Isaiah 1:16–17)

      And that:

      Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:47)

      Regardless, then, of whether your theoretical person was being “selfless” about educating others to do evil (which, I think, is probably a spiritual and psychological impossibility), it would still be evil, wrong, and destructive.

      • Rami says:

        Oh ok, so do spiritual laws just not work that way? Because there are times when people can and do help others to do evil things that they don’t necessarily believe to be evil that are still in a sense acts of kindness (like my earlier example of the men in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when the men set the virgin up with a prostitute), but ‘lovingly helping others to be evil’ just seems to be inherently contradictory?

        • Rami says:

          I think a better scenario to drive at what I’m asking would be something like this: imagine two friends who are both murdereds, and as a ‘surprise,’ one friend gets the other someone who they can kill because they would enjoy it. It’s a horrible atrocity, but also in some hideous way a technical act of kindness between friends.

          Not a pleasant analogy, I know, but is this an example of how love can be horribly corrupted by evil while still being an act of love? I ask because good and evil in Swedenborg’s work seems characterized by being focused on the other or on the self, but it seems to me that anyone who takes pleasure in hurting others would destroy their ability to do good for others, and that includes any and all acts of kindness, which means that all gestures become self-serving ones.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          It’s possible to come up with all sorts of theoretical scenarios that turn things on their heads. And though it’s theoretically possible that such a thing could be “an act of love,” every society on the face of the earth knows and teaches that it’s wrong to murder people. Yes, there are complications, such as in a state of war. But basically, people know it’s wrong to murder, and if they are murderers, they know that what they are doing is wrong. They just do it anyway. So the same principles I stated in the previous response apply. Our job is to stop doing evil and to do good instead.

        • Rami says:

          Hi Lee,

          I might be inclined to go a bit further and reject the idea that anything of the sort could be an act of love. There’s a logic to love, and love doesn’t do that. Evil is evil because it castes harm, to ourselves and to others, and love doesn’t bake you a poison pie and tell you it’s delicious, even if you the other person wants it.

          It may be an act of friendship, but it’s one that’s warped around ugliness, and friendship alone is not heavenly.

          But like you said, there are complications, both in terms of circumstance and the consciences that we form through our experiences, and I think the way movie ‘Fury’ has a scene that reflects both, where Brad Pitt basically forces a new soldier to execute a prisoner of war against his will, simply because he has, as a hardened veteran, developed his own code of right and wrong.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          If they truly don’t know it is wrong, then it’s possible that they will not be held culpable. However, we do have a responsibility to learn what’s right and wrong. And even if people do evil with good intentions, it is a very low level of good intention, because it is steeped in darkness.

        • Rami says:

          Is there a spiritual equivalent of ‘tainted love,’ where love becomes wedded to evil and just becomes ugliness?

          I ask all this because good and evil are polar opppsites and correlate with selflessness and selfishness, but I’m trying to get a handle on scenarios in which incredibly evil things still have what is technically a hint of goodness in them,

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          It is possible for someone to have been instructed so falsely that they believe that evil is good, and good is evil. And if nothing disabuses them of their falsity, it is possible for them to in good conscience do evil things with good intentions. And especially in the case of milder evils, this happens all the time. We are not held guilty of things we did that we were taught are the right thing to do, and about which we’ve had no effective opportunity to learn otherwise.

          However, evil tends to show itself as evil, and if we keep acting in a way that is obviously destructive, justifying our actions and refusing to see the damage we’re doing that’s right in front of our eyes, then we begin to be culpable for the evil we do even if we had been taught it was not evil. Once again, we are required to learn what is good and evil, and that is an ongoing thing.

          If we continue to mix good and evil, or love and evil, then we are likely to fall into “corruption” or “profanation,” which is a very serious state to be in, and basically eats us alive spiritually from the inside out, so that there is very little life left in us.

          And in general, most of us have many opportunities to learn what’s right and wrong. If we persistently don’t take advantage of those opportunities, we can be held responsible for evil things we do from “good” intentions even though technically we weren’t taught that they were wrong.

          In practice, people generally know whether what they’re doing is right or wrong, and plead ignorance as an excuse, without any solid basis for excusing themselves.

        • Rami says:

          Hi Lee,

          Thanks for the clarification. I admit it’s sometimes difficult, with the sheer varieties of evil in the world, no neatky map it all to the dichotomy of selfishness or selflessness- that you either love yourself or others. I believe everything does indeed boil down to this, though they appear outwardly more complicated than that.

          A guy finds out someone slapped his sister, so he goes out and beats the guy up thinking it will make her happy. It’s evil, but it wasn’t selfish. So how does that work?

          I think it’s essentially selfish because he’s still acting from this idea that someone else’s wants and needs are more important than another’s, and more important than behaving with love and kindness. So what he’s serving here is selfishness, even though it’s not his own.

          Take The Godfather films. These are truly, evil gangsters who are also devoted family men and charitable members of their communities who commit all kinds of crime in their benefit, which is the exaltatibg of group of people over another.

          So I think it’s not merely having love and acting in accordance with love that’s important, it’s what you’re ultimately serving with it.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          On your point about the Godfather films, people—especially selfish and greedy people—commonly think of their families as an extension of themselves. Therefore loving their family members is really just a broader version of loving themselves. Our real character is shown by how we treat people who are outside of our tight circle of family and friends.

  3. Rob says:

    But what about what you said in an earlier post, where you said the gang member who died could be in heaven because although his life was outside the law, he was loyal to his fellow gang members and therefore showing charity? Remember?

    • Rami says:

      Hi Lee, Hi Rob,

      Just to kind of set this question within the context of a larger question, where does charity toward friends and family rank on the scale of charity? It’s certainly easier to show love toward those who are closer to us, and it’s also easy to see in them something that reminds us of ourselves, but obviously familial love is not a self-centered kind of love, if for no other reason than to refuse charity toward those close to us would be evil. How does this kind of love factor into our spiritual development?

      • Lee says:

        Hi Rami,

        Love for family members isn’t qualitatively different than love for non-family members. The difference is that, as you say, family members are closer to us, and are a constant presence in our lives whereas our relationship with non-family members is usually not as close and constant. Still, both are part of the “neighbor” that we are commanded to love.

        Parents do have a special responsibility to love and care for their children because parents are responsible for bringing their children into the world. That responsibility largely ends when their children become adults, but the strong relationship built up over the years commonly remains.

        Raising children can also be a key forum for spiritual growth. It requires people to think of the welfare of others (their children) even before their own welfare, which means it provides a continual exercise in loving others as much as, if not more than, oneself.

        Where parenting becomes toxic is when parents consider children to be mere extensions of themselves, and tools for their own wellbeing and glory. When parents have this attitude, they tend to do a bad job of parenting, raising their children to be narcissistic and overly attached to the parents. Parenting then becomes a forum for becoming even more selfish and materialistic instead of for becoming more loving and spiritual.

        Good parenting involves thinking not only of the short-term and physical well-being of children, but also their long-term moral and spiritual wellbeing. See: “How Can I Raise My Children from a Spiritual Perspective?

        In other words, the quality of parental love, and of parenting, depends on the quality of the character of the parents. Selfish, greedy, materialistic parents will not benefit from parenting, but will pass on the burden of their warped character to their children, who may or may not break out of it in their adult lives. Thoughtful, loving, spiritually oriented parents will gain great benefits from parenting, and can pass on their values to their children—who will also be able to choose in their own adult lives whether to continue on that path or choose a negative path.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      Life is complicated. Some people are truly confused and misled. And if they are truly attempting to care about at least some of their fellow human beings as best they know how, then yes, God will accept that even if their version of “doing good” is very twisted from an outside, more objective perspective.

      However, my own opinion is that that’s the exception rather than the rule among gang members. Most of them, I think, know very well that what they’re doing is immoral and wrong, and they just don’t care because they are interested mostly in money and power for themselves, and don’t care if they hurt and kill lots of people to get it.

  4. Rami says:

    HI Lee,

    Is the spirit of this article to say that an impulse to do good can penetrate beyond any circumstance and state of mind, even if it’s little more than a faint glimmer? If so, are you also saying that salvation is therefore available despite circumstance for the same reason that it’s possible to do good?

    There are countless people who are born into, or conditioned by, circumstances that are by and large beyond their control. Children can be recruited as child soldiers and trained to commit horrible atrocities; children and young men can be indoctrinated by extremist ideologies and taught that committing acts of violence against others is not only their duty but a divine commandment. Or there are even more commonplace circumstances, like people who grow up in harsh, impoverished inner city environments, where things like theft and violence are a part of every day life, and even looked at as a means of survival.

    In all these cases, we’re dealing with deeply ingrained mindsets that would appear to stand between someone’s outer self and connecting with the inner self from which the drive to do good springs. Is it possible that even in the most brainwashed terrorist is an inner voice that’s telling them what they’re doing is wrong? My understanding is that the purpose of this physical life is to basically set our orientation for our eternal lives, but for some people fulfilling that purpose seems much more difficult due to circumstances that had nothing to do with.

    So is salvation- in the way that you (and Swedenborg) describe it- something that is equally available to everyone, everywhere, and in this life? And is everyone equally culpable for the rejection of that opportunity?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Before I respond, please give this article a read:

      Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)

      If any of your questioning still stands after reading it, please ping me again either there or here.

      • Rami says:

        Hi Lee,

        I recall reading about the conscience-based idea of salvation in some of your other articles, in that as long as one abides by what they *think* is right, salvation is still possible for them.
        But I think the purpose of my question was to ask if we have an inherent sense of right and wrong, and from where everyone- regardless of circumstance and mindset- experiences an impulse to do good?

        We read in Romans 2:15 that the law is written on the hearts of Gentiles, which is taken to mean that even unbelievers have an innate, basic understanding of what’s right and wrong, which is something we might commonly understand as a conscience. This idea of a conscience as something inherent strikes me as standing somewhat apart from the idea that a conscience is essentially formed from our experiences, upbringings, and factors outside of our control, which would then be more akin to ‘conditioning.’

        So if we each possess an inherent sense of right and wrong, is everyone regardless of circumstance 1.) able to do good, and 2.) culpable for not choosing to do so?

        I’m inclined to make an exception when it comes to moral capacity and culpability for things like extreme indoctrination and brainwashing, because those states seem more akin to mental illness than a conscious rejection of an impulse to do good.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          That is really a very big question, and deserves a whole article or series of articles on its own. But I’ll at least give you a short version for now.

          If humanity had not fallen (as described in Genesis 3 and in its spiritual meaning), humans would indeed have an innate knowledge of what is good and true, though it would really be a knowledge of what is good and true flowing in unimpeded from God through heaven. But since we have fallen, and are born into tendencies toward evil, what flows in through heaven from God by an internal route is cut off or corrupted, so that we are not born knowing what is good and true, nor do we “naturally” learn or develop it without being taught.

          We therefore must be taught what is good and true by parents, teachers, spiritual leaders (as found in the various cultures), and so on. What we have is the ability to understand and accept what is good and true when we hear it, and to some extent even an inner sense, when we hear it, that it is right—though that is quite variable and not at all reliable. So basically, we must be taught what is good and true from the outside, and what we are taught will vary according to the culture and family into which we are born.

          However, as we look around at the various cultures of the world, we see there are some rules that are pretty constant, such as not lying, stealing, killing, committing adultery, and so on. These basic laws of good and truth, and of right and wrong, are for all intents and purposes universal in human society, even if there may be some highly corrupted pockets (such as gangs and organized crime families) where they’ve been nearly destroyed.

          When Gentiles have the law “written on their hearts,” then, it is not from some internal, instinctual source, but from the basic moral laws that exist in all decent cultures everywhere, and that in the Judeo-Christian world are expressed in the Ten Commandments.

          So no, since the Fall we humans no longer possess an inherent sense of right or wrong. But nearly all people in nearly every culture around the world grow up being taught the basics of moral law. And since nearly all humans have been taught these basics, we do become culpable if we choose not to abide by them.

          But yes, there are exceptions for extreme indoctrination, brainwashing, major mental illness, and so on. If those who were supposed to teach us right from wrong instead fill us full of horrible and errant falsity, or if we simply don’t have the mental capacity to distinguish right from wrong, then we are not held responsible for actions engaged in under those circumstances, because they don’t come from our own will, but from circumstances beyond our control.

  5. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    But certainly human beings have not fallen so deep into depravity so as to have no inherent connection to even the most basic, most fundamental moral laws? I’m sure many of us have been on the receiving end of a teaching that just inexplicably doesn’t sit well with us. Teachings that are basically evil of which we just have a natural, instinctive reaction against. Likewise, we find ourselves with an opposite reaction to morally upright teachings that just naturally ‘click’ with us as right (and I’ve experienced this many times when surveying Swedenborg’s writings). After all, why else did earlier moral teachers who have helped to propagate these lessons to our species so readily accept them in the first place? I feel inclined to be there’s just something essential against which basic teachings- both good and evil- are weighed.

    I admit that what I’m describing as an instinctive reaction may just be the influences of other teachings that we have received along the way. If you indoctrinate a child from day one that it’s okay to hurt others to get what you want, odds are that’s going to persist unchecked into adulthood (even then, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to believe that some kind of inherent moral fiber kicks in at some point to try and steer that now adult away from that kind of behavior).

    But do we really have nothing to connect us to basic truths besides our moral teachers?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      I do think that there is an inherent tendency in us to accept what is good and true, and even to believe in God. It’s just that it is commonly countered by our inborn tendency to think of ourselves and our own pleasure, power, and possessions first. And that can cause us to seize on teachings that are false and regard them as true because they support our selfish and materialistic desires. This, I believe, is the ultimate source of all religious and Christian heresy. (But that does not mean I think everyone who accepts heresies is evil and selfish. Many, if not most of them just accept those false teachings in sincerity because that is what their teachers and preachers have taught them.)

      So it’s not that the instinctive reaction doesn’t exist. It’s that it’s not necessarily a reliable indicator of what’s true and false because we also have inborn tendencies that prompt us to embrace things that are not good and true.

      I do think that as our spirit is opened up more and more by actually living according to the moral and spiritual rules we have been taught, we are able more and more to recognize what is good and true when we see it, without having to engage in all sorts of fancy reasoning and scholarly studies. It is not our intellect, but living a good, loving, and charitable life that gives us the greatest ability to “instinctively” recognize what is good and true.

      • Rami says:

        Hi again Lee,

        One distinction I know you repeatedly emphasize is that between ‘evil’ and ‘sin,’ where evil is an objective reality, and sin is relative to what our consciences tell us is good and evil- and I would generally seem to agree with this.

        However testing this notion in a real world setting might leave us with some implications we would have a hard time accepting. To draw from your example of gang members in a previous post, imagine a gang member who is indoctrinated with the idea that it’s his sworn duty to avenge the death of a fellow gang member by killing his rival. And it’s not too hard to fathom this as realistic. But if that person decides to shirk on his sense of duty and loyalty for reasons like apathy or self preservation, that gang member is in effect acting against his conscience. This would seem to imply:

        -the gang member sinner by not killing his rival.

        -the right thing for that person to do was to kill his rival.

        Again, I think we would all have a hard time entertaining these conclusions. That’s why I feel compelled to believe that however distant we may have grown from our primordial connection to God, that there is a basic sense of right and wrong that the human conscience would never advise against/fail to impel us toward.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          It’s important for us not to spiritually impose our own morality on others who have grown up with a very different morality.

          It may very well be the case that a gang member who failed to kill a rival was sinning. The rival gang member he failed to kill might then go on to kill some of the apathetic gang member’s own gang, so that the apathetic gang member failed to protect his “family.”

          What if, instead of gang members, we talked about soldiers? What if a soldier fighting in a war against an invading army decided that he just didn’t feel like killing the enemy? What if he conveniently lost his weapon when on the front line with his fellow soldiers? And what if his failure to shoot and kill the enemy resulted in their position being overrun, his fellow soldiers being killed or captured, and his side losing the battle? What if the enemy army then swarmed into the cities and towns he was defending, killing everyone who resisted, looting everything of value, and stripping and raping all of the women and girls? This result of defeat in war is not too hard to fathom as realistic because it has happened many times throughout human history, and continues to happen even today.

          Wouldn’t we condemn the apathetic soldier for not killing his rival (the enemy), and thereby allowing many innocent people to be brutalized by the invading army?

          Not killing members of rival gang members who are attempting to move in on his gang’s turf may look exactly the same to a gang member as a solder not killing the invading enemy looks to us.

          Of course, in a civil society we still must impose law and order. We can’t let gangs go around killing each other with impunity. Not if we want to preserve the peace of our cities and neighborhoods. So although a gang member may not be sinning by killing a rival gang member, it is still the duty of a civil society and its police force to arrest, prosecute, and punish the killer.

          And the hope is that through this experience, at least some gang members may rethink their morality, and realize that the violent life they’ve been living is wrong. Then they can readjust their conscience to a better standard to guide their lives going forward.

          For more on this, see my article, “Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)

        • Rami says:

          Ok then, Lee: my hope was to emphasize the counterintuitive implications that come from the idea of following your conscience if a conscience is, as you say, forged through instruction and the way humans process their experiences, and has little or no direct connection to God.

          It seems you believe that anyone abiding by their conscience- however off the mark it is from what is objectively good and true- is eligible for salvation. But does everyone on this earth get a fair shot at getting it right during their time here? Are we really just stumbling around via a conscience that may or may not be informed by truth with no God-given opportunities to correct our misjudgements we either inherit, or make on our own because we’re fallible humans who can’t process every experience perfectly?

          I think I may have used this example in the past, but in the movie Fury, Brad Pitt’s character forces a reluctant new soldier to execute an unarmed, defenseless prisoner of war pleading for his life. Why? To avenge the deaths of their fellow soldiers, and out of a hatred that steadily develops as they endure more of their wartime experiences. While it is obviously against the rules of war, they ignore that for the same reasons that many criminal organizations reject social laws: they have their own ethical code.

          But afterward, Pitt’s character expresses a private, tearful remorse over his actions. Maybe he lamented the murder he participated in, maybe he’s mourning the loss of his own humanity, or both. But in any case, here we see an expression of conscience, which means 1.) it was still able to penetrate all the horrible layers of his experiences, and 2.) he is (or was always) culpable for knowing and acting better.

          I don’t think real world examples like this are uncommon, and that’s why I feel compelled to believe that the human conscience is more than a collection of instructions and experiences for the same reasons I believe that human beings are more than just bags of meat and bones. 🙂

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          God does not leave us without guidance or instruction. Every nation and culture on the face of the earth has (at least historically) some religion and some teachings about right and wrong that are regarded as coming from God, or from a spiritual source. People in the various cultures who pay attention to those teachings can develop a reasonably sound conscience as a guide to living their life. And that provides them with a pathway to heaven.

          The examples we’ve been throwing around, of gang members in the midst of gang warfare and soldiers in the midst of war, are of extreme circumstances that go beyond what most ordinary people experience most of the time. And they do stretch the boundaries of conscience beyond their usual limits.

          In the movie example you mention, however, Brad Pitt’s character knew very well that what he was doing was wrong and contrary to the rules of war. But he did it anyway. This is not an example of faulty conscience. It is an example of violating a reasonably sound conscience. That’s why he later regretted his actions.

          Further, as I suggested in my previous comment, our conscience can be and often is modified over time. One of the problems with a faulty conscience is that quite often it doesn’t work well in practice. Gang members who shoot rival gang members tend only to create more and more violence, and they tend to either get killed themselves or, better, get arrested and charged with murder. And when our behavior pursuant to our conscience leads to adverse effects that “weren’t supposed to happen,” that may give us pause to rethink our notions of right and wrong.

          In the mix of that rethinking will be what God has revealed to us about right and wrong in the various sacred books of humanity, and through the various holy men and women who articulate to human society a divine ideal of human life. In various ways, and through various means, God is always seeking to reshape and hone our conscience into something that is more in harmony with spiritual and divine truth.

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