Rod Dreher is back from his visit to Istanbul, and he has an amusing story posted of his encounter with a Turkish shoeshine man. Though the story itself is light and entertaining, I found it to be food for a great deal of thought.
For one thing, Mr. Dreher is Mr. Crunchy Con, and is always extolling the virtues of the small, local, old, and particular. I don't disagree with the notion that there's much about the past that's worth preserving; but it does amuse me to reflect on the irony that this shoeshine man is probably very 'crunchy' in many ways, and quite possibly is operating the same scam on Mr. Dreher that his father used on American visitors in the sixties or seventies, and his grandfather may have used on credulous American troops passing through Istanbul on their way to the trouble spots of the East in the thirties or forties. Not all the customs and traditions of the past are worth preserving, in other words.
But there's more to this, really. We Americans have a tendency to think of poorer countries or cultures as being backward, innocent, naive, while we, with our great technological advances and our wonderful institutions, have passed beyond the old world's ways. This encounter between a Dallas Morning News writer and a man who shines shoes (scamming at least some of his 'customers,' apparently) shows quite clearly that the situation is the opposite of what we tend to think it is: it is the American, nice, friendly and naive, who picks up the shoeshine man's brush; it is the shoeshine man, cunning, sharp, and opportunistic, who works his scam, takes the American's money, and comes out with all the dubious 'honors' of the situation.
We forget, we young Americans, how old the world is, how old sin is, for how much longer than we can imagine the reality of the Fall has been affecting the world.
And we also forget, seeing daily the worst fruits of the sins of the world, the rot of the flesh, and the hatred of the devil, that the first sin was more like the actions of the shoeshine man than the murder of Abel by his violent-tempered brother.
The serpent in the Garden tempted our first parents to disobey, to gain for themselves an advantage, to become more like God. He lied, of course. But he did trick them, and they were self-interested and self-absorbed enough to fall for it.
And immediately Adam and Eve turned to thoughts of concealment, to an attempt to cover up their culpability. When God (who already knew what had happened, and what they were up to, of course) came walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening, He found them hiding. I can almost imagine Adam trying to say that of course, nothing was really wrong, they'd just realized they were naked, no big deal, they were forming a task force to deal with the problem and planned to hold weekly staff meetings and issue status reports until they could come up with a solution.
Man has, since the Fall, resorted more often to trickery and concealment, to scams and excuses, to lies and deceptions, than he has to murder and mayhem. We view the bloodstained past and see the blood because it's vivid and graphic and gory; but we don't see all the petty little crimes and sins and harms done by neighbor to neighbor, partly because they don't stand out in violent and crude relief like the really big sins do; but partly because they are so familiar, so normal, so much a part of our own lives that they seem unremarkable and nearly innocuous.
They're not, though. It's easy to see that the serial killer's soul is in jeopardy, but the serial liar is teetering on the edge of ruin, too, however much we may want to excuse the behavior. The man who robs his neighbor is clearly at fault; the store owner who cheats in tiny ways may not be as visibly wrong, but he is wrong. The punk who knifes a man is obviously bad; the gossip whose knife is just as sharp, but invisible and bloodless, is bad too. Clearly there are differences in the degree of wrongness; but taking comfort that our sins are less wrong than the sins of others is a clear sign that we lack the sanctity we should be striving for; the saints felt sorrow at the slightest fault, for their measure was not the evil that other men do, but the goodness that God is, the radiant love and mercy expressed to the world with every beat of His Sacred Heart.
So the shoeshine man is not, perhaps, the worst man we will ever encounter. The person who tricks us, who exploits our willingness to be nice, or kind, or good, doesn't really harm us, unless he provokes us to anger or unless we aren't willing to forgive him. But we shouldn't take comfort from the fact that we are not the shoeshine man--we are. Our own petty sins might not involve tricking credulous strangers out of handfuls of coins, but they are just as ugly and mean, stripped of all our excuses and rationalizations. We share with the shoeshine man the heritage of the Fall, the stain of Original Sin. That first sin wasn't the murder of Abel, violent, crude, and horrible--and easy to distance ourselves from; it was a simple act of self-serving disobedience, followed by the first attempt ever to excuse one's own faults and blame the whole thing on someone else.