Those lines from West Side Story’s rollicking song, “Office Krupke” have come back to tease me over the decades since I first heard them.
Are we depraved because we’re deformed? Or because we’re deprived? Some Christians, given their understanding of original sin and our fallen nature, would hold to “deformed.” I suspect that that’s an incorrect reading of the myth of Adam and Eve, and certainly a misunderstanding of what Jesus had to say when he called people to work for the Reign of God here on earth. It is also squarely opposed to what Buddhists hold to be the “human condition.”
Both Buddhists and Christians can agree with another line of “Officer Krupke”: “Deep down inside us there is good….There is good, there is good, there is good, good, good.”
But that “good” has been stifled by our being deprived.
Buddhists would agree. We’ been deprived. But of what? Buddha’s answer: Of a correct understanding of who we really are. Ignorance, not deformity, is the fundamental problem.
Marx would agree with Buddhists that the fundamental problem is not deformity. But he differs in pinpointing what we’ve been deprived of. For Marx, and I believe for many Christians, the fundamental cause of the hatred, violence, and “depravity” affecting our world today is that so many humans have been deprived of the material conditions necessary to live a full human life.
Terry Eagleton, with his usual clarity and precision, makes this Marxist argument in a passage from his recently published Why Marx Was Right:
If history has been so bloody, it is not because most human beings are wicked. It is because of the material pressures to which they have been submitted. Marx can thus take a realistic measure of the past without succumbing to the myth of the darkness of men’s [sic] hearts. And this is one reason why he can retain faith in the future
It is his materialism which permits him that hope. If wars, famines and genocide really did spring simply from some unchanging human depravity, then there is not the slightest reason to believe that the future will fare any better. If, however, these things have been partly the effect of unjust social systems, of which individuals are sometimes little more than functions, then it is reasonable to expect that changing that system may make for a better world. (pp. 98-99)
So Marxists, and most Christian liberation theologians and activists, would hold that if we want to change the “depraved heart,” we first must change the “depriving system.”
Buddhists, in general, would see it differently: if you want to change the “depriving system,” you have to change the “deprived heart.”
Which comes first?