We’re not just playing bad guys.
My four-year-old slid up to me with a growl. “I’m a bad guy!”
“You’re not a bad guy,” I said, sounding less like his dad and more like a motivational speaker the first day on the job.
“I’m a BAD GUY!” he repeated, with boldness and the hint of an invitation in his voice, as if to say, “This is how we play now, Daddy.”
But we never play like this. I take great pains to sidestep any activities that involve picking sides or acting out certain stories. We shoot baskets, piece puzzles together, climb up ladders and coast down chutes. We chase each other around the house—for fun, not to settle scores or enact imaginary justice.
Every parent ponders when to initiate “the talk” with their child. I have sweated another conversation, the day I talk to my son about good guys and bad guys.
Why all the fuss? Kids have played good versus evil, white hats and black hats, cops and robbers, superheroes and arch-villains for what seems like forever. It seems so innocent.
But a clock ticks in my head. My son’s skin displays his African heritage. This sweet boy causes friends and strangers alike to stop what they’re doing and praise his physical beauty. Yet a day will come, sooner than later, when people stop piling up superlatives and view his physical presence as a threat, when they see him as bigger than his body. Although I don’t share his fate, everything I see and hear tells me stories of what happens to a black boy. Other kids use cruel twists of phrase. Other parents on the playground judge. Well-meaning teachers further the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Neighbors watch from the corners of their eyes. Fellow customers call the cops over nothing at all.
The ultimate expression of this fate found Trayvon when he was seventeen, Tamir when he was twelve.
Yes, a day is coming—no matter how vigilant I am, how hard I try to protect him, how much I trumpet his virtues—when someone will project their notion of a “bad guy” upon my boy. Playing that part as a game may seem innocent, but I don’t want him internalizing any degree of that persona a minute sooner.
God doesn’t make good people or bad people. He doesn’t create in the either/or. He formed two purely good people once—everyone since lives out the both/and.
No one qualifies as good or truly righteous except Jesus. We all harbor terrible secrets from birth. Whether or not we reveal them is a deeply complicated matter—an algebraic equation in which we know some of the variables while some remain a mystery.
People have trouble seeing this reality. We assume that there are a bunch of completely pure men out there and feebly defend their moral purity with phrases such as “not all men.” But there are no good men, no bad men, and no men-who-would-never. The only pure, good man is a God-man and the rest are “there but for the grace of God go I” men.
Most days I wish I could wrap my arms around those our world so easily pre-judges, look into their eyes until they hold my gaze, and tell them I see the good within them too. The disgraced pastor. The ex-con trying to fit a puzzle like a misfit piece. The immigrant parent resettled on the outside but unsettled on the inside. I want them to know the hope stitched into them—a hope which only works itself out from inside when their creator threads the needle.
There is good and bad in each of us. The constant collision between them weathering us, shaping us, animating us—in some cases, destroying us.
In episodes of Better Call Saul and The Wire, the songs of Bruce Springsteen and Kendrick Lamar, the poetry of Franz Wright, and the novels of John Updike, we confront the uncomfortable truth that we own no white hats or black hats. Instead we wear gray from head to toe.
Art imitates life, yet life forgets to return the favor. We fail to extrapolate from our stories and apply to our everyday lives a small difference in language that catalyzes an earth-shaking reality: there is no them, only us.
It takes more imagination to see life through the lens of the Bible than pen the most ambitious good-versus-evil epic. More imagination to fight for the humanity of gang members than build worlds or act out fantastical games. We must always imagine—then hold as truth—that we are three days, two circumstances, and one divine intervention away from living the life of the person we call “other.”
What I want to say to my son is don’t pick good guys and bad guys. Those categories help no one, and they don’t define you. Instead, know and believe this: We are built to carry around a divine spark. Those of us who fail to tend the fire—or stoke it in the wrong ways—will watch our fire die, and us along with it. But God, ever full of grace and imagination, offers us a Spirit who fans sparks into raging fires and keeps them burning through eternity. Knowing him means knowing what matters most about you.
Of course I say none of this. I say nothing at all. All these words are far too weighty to place at the feet of a four-year-old who wants to play. Instead, I redirect the game again and pray my son internalizes who God says he is before a playmate, a neighbor, or a stranger lays their falsehoods on him and tell him he’s a bad guy.