FAITH & REASON: Original sin and the hounding of Mary Bell

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The baying against child killers and paedophiles reveals our urge to locate sin always outside ourselves. But even Sun journalists need to look elsewhere, argues Andrew Brown

THE DIFFICULT thing about original sin, when you come to think of it, is deciding where it stops and starts. It is not hard to discover that cruelty and misery are fundamental features of the way the world is, and of how we are. If the 20th century had one lesson, it was that this cruelty and misery is ineradicable. We can perhaps make terms with it but we cannot hope to eradicate it; and all the various Utopian attempts to do so look ghastly in the muddy light of Pol Pot's funeral pyre.

However, the Utopian impulse is not long to be suppressed. Now that left- wing systems are out of fashion, there is a countervailing Utopianism which suggests that, if only we could take account of individual wickedness, then we could design a system in which it would in any case not be amplified. Perhaps original sin is something that only people do, not societies. This is the sort of belief, it seems to me, that has led to the hounding of Mary Bell.

It leads to a chain of reasoning something like this: she as an individual did something evil. This was something for which she alone was ultimately responsible - in so far as a child can be responsible for anything. No doubt she had a terrible childhood, maltreated by a ghastly mother and even some of her prostitute mother's customers. But other children have had childhoods just as bad and not committed these dreadful crimes. So (the Sun might argue) any attempts to exculpate her by drawing attention to this are in themselves wicked.

Yet original sin must mean something more than this. It is not a doctrine that says that wicked people are responsible for their own wickedness: the startling power and originality of the doctrine is that it says that everyone has the capacity for real evil. Nicholas Lash, the Cambridge theologian, says: "What is needed is the reasonable patient quiet recognition of just what messed-up monsters all of us are."

The purely individual view of sin swiftly slides almost at once into cruelties almost as great as Utopianism can produce. Once evil has been - rightly - located in other people's conduct, we tend to think it is safely located there too, and there is no real need to examine our own. This confidence leads to the pursuit of elderly paedophiles around the West Country by baying mobs. It has also led to what looks very like the destruction of Mary Bell's life, and that of her daughter, by the press and its readers.

There is an important distinction between what she did and what they - we - have done. Though journalism may be morally equivocal, it is not murder. Individual journalists hardly ever kill anyone, or even, as individuals, murder a reputation. What happens instead is that the pack takes over. In this instance it was the Sun which identified Mary Bell - at least to anyone who knows her, if not to the vast majority of its readers. But I'm sure some of its rivals would have done the same if they had had the chance. This does not mean that there is anything particularly repulsive or sinful about journalists, though I believe that what the Sun did was both repulsive and, if the term has any meaning, sinful. It was just unexceptional, too. part of what the theologian Rowan Williams calls "the way that acts and persons grind together to destroy and erode everything".

What gives it a peculiar horror is the disproportion of the consequence to the wrongness. This disproportion is the social dimension of original sin. It is part of the ineradicable wrongness of the world which the doctrine also means; what the Pope called "structures of sin". What is true and right about the Gitta Sereny approach to evil is that even the most evil among us need to have these tendencies brought out by the course of our lives; and most of those who are evil have had childhoods so ghastly that it is possible dimly to imagine how we might crack under such strain.

The trouble is that the notion of original sin sounds absurd because the Genesis story in which it first appears is unhistorical. There was no Adam. There was no Eve. There never was a garden. The wrongness in the world was not all brought here by human beings. But with all that said, there is still sin to explain; and at least the old doctrine was right to say that it will persist for as long as the world does.

Comments