For as long as I can remember, I’ve known I was a sinner. But, I didn’t understand what that meant until the summer I attended the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for International Studies.

One of the professors taught a course about the war and genocide in Bosnia during the 1990s. His class was a memorable experience. He did not spare the 17 year-olds and made it clear there would be no emotionally fragile “snowflakes” in his class.

We read about atrocities that had happened only a few years prior. Hundreds of old men and young boys were forced to march into the woods and dig their own graves before being systematically shot. Next-door neighbors and life-long friends betrayed each other. Rape was a central strategy for “ethnic cleansing.” They did things to women that are too grotesque to mention here.

The Bosnian “conflict” was like the Holocaust. I’d thought Hitler was a leader of monsters that we’d beaten and I was certain the world would never again permit such atrocities. So, I wondered, “Why weren’t adults like my parents marching in the streets and demanding an end to it?” Of course, genocide and crimes against humanity are happening all the time: Rwanda, Darfur, and in Xinjiang, China, among others.

Our professor believed if we wanted to champion peace and justice, we needed to know what we were up against. He quietly and insistently asked, “How did this happen?” A few sadists might be found in any group, but how could ordinary people participate in such brutality?

They were afraid.

And fear is as dangerous as hate. Opposing the violence meant certain death, or worse.

I was forced to ask myself, what would I be willing to do to protect my little brothers from torture and death as I tried to imagine myself in a situation people had faced. Soldiers enter my neighbor’s house, rape the mother and shoot her small children when they cry. The soldiers march the father to my house at gunpoint. It’s a test. If I believe in the cause, I must prove it by shooting my neighbor. They’re going to kill him anyway, but if I pull the trigger, they’ll know for sure that we aren’t “traitors,” and they won’t have to torture and kill my brothers while they force me to watch.

Am I capable of murdering a neighbor and friend? Once I’d killed someone, would the militias force me to cooperate by using my home for “official business” or put me in charge of some other equally evil task? Before you know it, I would be an active participant in genocide. Perhaps the path would be simpler. Maybe protecting my family would mean staying silent as the soldiers moved unchallenged through my neighborhood, doing their bloody work.

The seeds for murder are in my heart even if they haven’t been activated. I don’t have stronger morals or more innate goodness than anybody. The core of who I am is no purer than the people who run death camps.

While I’m not saying that every person is capable of monstrous crime, if you listen to enough stories about how evil takes over, you’ll see how sin could settle into your gut and turn you into someone you don’t even recognize.

Of course, we’re not helplessly destined for evil — we make our own choices. But we’re particularly vulnerable to sin when we think we’re above it. If you believe that you aren’t capable of hate, racism or abuse, you won’t watch for those things, nor will you heed the warning signs when they’re taking root. While you’re blissfully and self-righteously unaware, you allow time for the devil to get a foothold, lay a foundation and erect an entire fortress.

Early on, Serbs didn’t believe their leaders, friends, brothers and sons were capable of mass murder and rape camps, so they denied the troubling warning signs. They didn’t want to see what many were becoming: they couldn’t bear to face the reality that they weren’t ‘good’ sinners after all.

What’s growing, unexamined, in your heart because you don’t think you’re truly capable of evil?

When I’m called out as a sinner, what is there to defend? I’m not afraid to face my sin or uncover ugly truths about myself, because I already know that I’m a sinner. I am no longer shocked when I learn about cruelty in the Church, the United States, or around the world.

I’m grieved, enraged, and determined to fight it, but not surprised.

We are, each one of us, sinners. However, Grace abounds all the more.

Leah Blankenship Brown grew up in Danville attending First Baptist Church. She writes a blog at www.what-the-blank.com.

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