Die Ziege (1920), woodcut by German artist Richard Seewald (1889-1976)
What if multitudes could live happy and fulfilled lives in a utopian society but only at the expense of the suffering and torture of one unfortunate child? This question is the basis of the 1974 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. In this allegorical tale, a child, nearly ten, is kept locked in a basement, shut off from all contact with the outside world, covered with festering sores, sitting in its own feces, oblivious to the beautiful city and happy world outside. The people in Omelas know the child is there. As difficult the truth is to accept, they know that their happiness depends on its misery.
This is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding; and most of those who come to see the child are young people, though often enough an adult comes, or comes back, to see the child. No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight. They feel disgust, which they had thought themselves superior to. They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations. They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.
It is a cruel reality that the few in society have to suffer for the good of the many. It’s true in economics. There have to be some losers, some poor people, to allow the best financial situation for the majority. Redistributing wealth to help the poor would stagnate the economy and make most people poorer. At least that’s what we’re told. The same could be said about health care. To maximize the quality of our health care system we have to let some people fall through the cracks. Rationing health care to make it available to all would degrade the overall quality of medicine.
Scapegoats. Every society has them, whether the neglected and abused child at Omelas or the urban poor in America. The idea is ancient—that one must suffer for the good of the many. In the Bible, a goat was chosen by lot and sent into the wilderness to atone for the sins of the Jewish people (Leviticus 16:10).
At the end of Le Guin’s short story, we learn that a few people every year are so overcome by shock and grief at the sight of the poor, tortured child that they simply walk away from Omelas. Nobody knows where they go. They give up utopia to live in the wilderness. They make themselves scapegoats, because they can’t live with the thought that their pleasure comes at the price of someone else’s pain.
We are never totally helpless in the face of injustice. If we cannot stop it, we can always walk away. Or we could become the scapegoat. But who would ever willingly do that?
Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).