“Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” This question is part of the opening number in the musical, Wicked, by Stephen Schwartz. I love this musical. I bought the Broadway cast CD when it first came out in 2003 and learned all the words to every song. I didn’t actually set out to learn all the words, I simply listened to it so often that memorization was inevitable.
But this question of whether people are born wicked or have wickedness thrust upon them has stuck with me for these past 14 years. In the first place, the concept of wickedness being thrust upon someone can mean more than one thing. Are these people actually not wicked, but simply declared wicked by others? Or perhaps do they become wicked because they find themselves in circumstances in which they can see no other way to thrive or even survive?
To be wicked is to be morally wrong. It is to intend to harm or be capable of harming someone or something. Well, okay, but seriously aren’t we all capable of harming someone or something? Maybe we don’t intend to harm, but sometimes that is result. I know a certain fourth grader who has used the defense, “But I didn’t mean to.” To which we are forced to reply,maybe you didn’t mean to, but you did and there are consequences. We do not, however, pronounce him to be wicked.
I can’t help but wonder if pronouncing someone wicked in a way that sticks and stigmatizes them does as much or more harm as anything they could do themselves, and if it might actually drive them to behave, well, wickedly. I do believe that there is a difference between defining someone as wicked and defining their behavior as wicked.
There is no denying that some people do bad things, unacceptable things, wicked things. They do things that need to be called out, corrected, and sometimes punished. The best result would be for them to understand and admit which they have done and to make appropriate amends.
The prophet Ezekiel declared to the people of Israel that the Lord God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
Perhaps those people (or whole nations) who do wicked things need to be punished, but God isn’t demanding their death whether that is their physical death or the death of their reputation or power or wealth, or their removal either permanently or temporarily from the rest of the community. What gives God pleasure is for that person or nation to see the error of their ways and for them to turn back toward God and the path God would have them walk. What gives God please is for them, and for us, to live – to be truly alive and seeking God’s will and the power to carry that will out.