The Bible teaches us that we are all sinners, capable of cruelty, injustice, and selfishness. David’s behavior toward Bathsheba and her husband Uriah did not border on the criminal; it was criminal. Not all of us cross the line over to behavior that identifies us as a miscreant. Synonyms for miscreant include scoundrel, felon, criminal, sociopath, and psychopath.
In my credo, when I say I don’t want to be known as a miscreant, I am saying I don’t want to go beyond the pale, crossing the line from being a good-willed person who stumbles to being a bad-willed person who is cruel and selfish. I want to be a person who has a sense of justice, tolerance, and empathy. The Biblical bar for this is set pretty high.
Cultural and religious norms determine what behaviors are considered miscreant. Cannibalism, torturing enemies, painful executions (crucifixion, drawing and quartering), infanticide, chattel slavery, and genocide are or have been legal and even encouraged in various cultures, including our own. Just because something is legal does not mean it is not miscreant behavior.
Circumstances also determine what behaviors are acceptable or not. War changes the rules, for example. Behaviors that would be considered criminal in Peoria, are not only allowed but medal worthy on the battlefield. This is why innocent young men go off to war and have difficulty returning to civilian life. War changes people. Of course, even in war the lines can be crossed, such as at Mai Lai in Vietnam.
So how does one avoid being counted among the miscreants? You can’t always rely on the law. Laws are often made by the powerful for the powerful. Justice is not always a consideration. Just because something is allowed, does not make it decent. All you have to do is look on Face Book to know that free speech does not mean nice speech. The important thing is to remember the Golden Rule; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Operate with a sense of justice and empathy.
When I think of empathy, I think of Lincoln, who gave us the phrase, “our better angels.” Lincoln had a great angel. He was without question America’s most compassionate President. He often frustrated his generals by pardoning many of the soldiers who were sentenced to death, charged with cowardice in the face of the enemy. He called them his “leg cases.” He said that if a good-willed man was cursed with a cowardly pair of legs, he ought not be condemned for running away in battle. He didn’t see them as being miscreants.
Of course, from a Biblical point of view, believers are not called to avoid miscreant behavior. If the best that can be said of you is that you are not a scoundrel, you really fall short of what is defined as righteousness. There’s a Yiddish word, mensch. A mensch is a person with a exceptional degree of honor and integrity. A person of such kindness and charity as to border on the heroic. I hope that when I say I don’t want to be counted among the miscreants, what I really mean is that I aspire to be a mensch. I’m still working on that.