Criminal, Clergy, Situation

Perhaps you have seen Night of the Hunter, a 1955 film starring Robert Mitchum. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ve seen its effects. Robert Mitchum plays a serial killer who comes to town pretending to be a preacher. On his left hand is tattooed the word “hate.” On his right hand is tattooed the word “love.”

I bring up that movie because it perfectly exemplifies the point made by psychologist Lee D. Ross in his formulation of what he called “the fundamental attribution error.” This describes the human propensity to attribute the bad actions of people we don’t know to disposition and the bad actions of those we do know to situation.

Dr. Ross claimed that the difference between clergy and criminals is largely situational — clergy and criminals find themselves in different sorts of situations. And, as the movie Night of the Hunter points out, a criminal can pass himself off as clergy.

(Actually, the movie is based on a novel based on the actual life of a man named Harry Powers, a serial killer hanged in West Virginia in 1932.)

It’s fairly clear from the evidence that very few people are born bad. For the most part, clergy and criminals are identical, except for situation, circumstance.“Criminal.” “Clergy.” These describe situations. Not in-born dispositions.

When I lived in Chicago, I worked with a group on the South Side. The leader of our group had a saying: “Everyone is three meals away from a felony.” Everyone is three meals away from a felony. That’s a statement about situation — situations create felonies. When we get down to that last three meals, we begin to get desperate. When we don’t know where our next meal is coming from, expect bad behavior.

Now, reflect on how far away from your last three meals you are. Perhaps you have plenty of food at home. (Also meaning you’ve got a home.) Perhaps you have cash in your pocket. Room on your credit cards. Family. Friends. Perhaps you know where the food banks are and you can access transportation in order to get to them. Perhaps you know where the soup kitchens are and the days they serve food.

You may be a long way from your last three meals; a long way from not knowing where the next meal is coming from. Chances are, therefore, that you’re a long way from committing a felony.

Situation, not disposition. Clergy and criminals are merely in different situations.This is the essence of the Unitarian Universalist principle claiming “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Bottom line: I suspect that it’s impossible to respect the inherent worth and dignity of a person as long as we are essentializing — as long as we are assuming disposition rather than situation.

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