Yesterday I read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a short story written by Ursula K. Le Guin, a popular sci-fi/fantasy writer (at least that’s what I know her as). The plot goes something like this: Omelas is a wonderful town, full of happiness, prosperity, and anything else a paradise would contain. It is almost perfect…except for one thing, a terrible secret that the town holds, the only thing that gives the town all the perfectness it has. One child has to live in darkness and filth its entire life. The children of the town learn this truth when they grow old enough to understand it. They are all shocked and appalled, but most of them are able to accept it and move on with their lives. However, and this is the big however, some of them cannot get over the shock, and so they stand up and walk away from Omelas. Nobody knows where they go or what happens to them, but they seem to know where they are going.
This story was meant to illustrate the foundation of utilitarianism, an ethical theory that is described as the “greatest happiness principal.” The right thing to do is always to do what is best for the most number of people. If the country calls upon a young soldier who is about to have a baby to war, the right thing for the soldier to do is to go to war…for the good of the nation.
Upon reading this story, I found a connection between it and Christianity, particularly with the Atonement. I thought about another story that I heard back in high school seminary, about the Atonement and donuts. Another seminary teacher wanted to illustrate the doctrine in a more real-world way and used a student in the class. The student was instructed to do 10 push-ups for each other student so that they could have a donut. At first, it was easy for the boy to do those push-ups, but as time passed, he had to struggle more and more. When the other students saw his suffering, most of them didn’t want to accept the donut the teacher gave them. Some of them even cried.
The boy was like Christ, the one that had to sacrifice himself so that everyone else could have something good. The students were like everyone else. The teacher said that those who did not want to accept the donuts were like those people that do not want to accept Christ’s sacrifice for us. And they are like the ones that walk away from Omelas.
Christianity, my own religion, is utilitarian in nature! I had never thought of it like that! Christ had to sacrifice Himself so that the rest of us could have salvation! Thinking about the child that had to suffer in Omelas and the man that had to suffer in Gethsemane makes me a little nauseous. I had always believed in Christ and His Atonement, but now that I see a correlation, I’m not sure if I want to be just one of the many people that accepts it and moves on. However, I’m not sure that just walking away would help anything at all, even in the story (although it could be their own personal protest against that kind of a society). The child still suffers even if some of the people walk away. And I’m not sure what is synonymous with walking away with the Atonement. It wouldn’t make a difference anyway. Christ had still suffered, and there is nothing we can do to change it. All we can probably do is to be grateful for His sacrifice.
However, there are a couple of differences between the Atonement and Omelas:
1) The child had to suffer all of its life, but Christ only suffered one night in Gethsemane and a day on the cross. Although it may have felt like forever to Him, and He probably went through so much more than the child could ever go through, we can take solace in the fact that He isn’t still suffering everything.
2) The child had no choice in the matter (at least, I don’t think it did), but Christ chose to make this sacrifice, knowing full well what kinds of things He may need to experience before He experienced them.
So in a way, the Atonement is a much better utilitarianism than Omelas ever was. I guess that’s something.