In 1973, American Ursula K. Le Guin wrote “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a short plotless story about a city brimming with happiness and delight. The utopian tale begins by depicting a summer festival with children riding horses in a race as part of the celebration in Omelas.
“The air of morning was so clear that the snow still crowning the Eighteen Peaks burned with white-gold fire across the miles of sunlit air, under the dark blue of the sky. There was just enough wind to make the banners that marked the racecourse snap and flutter now and then.”
The narrator even gives readers room to customize the bliss of Omelas for ourselves. Despite the well-being and joy already revealed, we’re allowed to mold our own vision of what this utopia should be.
“Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.”
Why so happy and at peace? The narrator gives one reason (of many): “A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer; this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”
When humanity violated the moral freedom God had given it, only the death of One equal with God could pay the penalty.
Amid the pleasure of Omelas, the narrator concedes that in the cellar of one of “the beautiful public buildings” a small child is locked away in wretchedness where it has been kept for years in isolation from any human touch except for an occasional kick by the warder. The dark room of captivity is empty but for “a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads,” which the child fears. The imp’s age is hard to tell because its growth has been stunted. The child hadn’t always lived there; it can even vaguely remember sunlight and its mother’s voice.
“The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, ‘eh-haa, eh-haa,’ and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.”
The people of Omelas know that the child is there, that it has to be there, and that “their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”
Hence, Le Guin’s utopian tale of Omelas, a place so much better than what we experience here except, that is, for the unfortunate child upon whose wretchedness all Omelasian joy, prosperity, and peace depended.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a poignant example of the “utilitarian calculus,” the notion that we can justify any deed by the amount of pleasure or good, in contrast to the amount of pain or evil, it causes. “The greatest good for the greatest number,” that idea, which, though it sounds reasonable, proves how deceptive reason can be.
After all, wouldn’t this calculus justify enslaving 1 million people for the peace, happiness prosperity and joy of 25 million? Or 100,000 slaves for the peace, prosperity, and joy of 50 million? Ten thousand for 50 million? One thousand for 100 million?
Plug in the numbers yourself. Which work for you?
This thinking is common because it sounds reasonable, sensible, so, well, utilitarian. It’s nothing new, either. “Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish,’” (John 11:49, 50).
Though not a bad calculus itself (one man for an entire nation) the numbers get better because, as John says, Christ’s death wasn’t for the whole Hebrew nation alone, but for “the scattered children of God” (John 11:52), that is, for all people who will be redeemed.
In reality, instead of our hope dependent upon a wretched child locked in a basement, according to the gospel our hope is dependent upon Christ wretched on the cross. Ellen White wrote, “It was to redeem us that Jesus lived and suffered and died. He became ‘a Man of Sorrows,’ that we might be made partakers of everlasting joy. God permitted His beloved Son, full of grace and truth, to come from a world of indescribable glory, to a world marred and blighted with sin, darkened with the shadow of death and the curse. He permitted Him to leave the bosom of His love, the adoration of the angels, to suffer shame, insult, humiliation, hatred, and death. ‘The chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.’ Isaiah 53:5.” (Steps to Christ, p. 13).
When humanity violated the moral freedom God had given it, only the death of One equal with God, Christ Himself (John 1:13), could pay the penalty for that violation. Though the narrator never explained why the child had to suffer for the sake of Omelas, Scripture is clear about why Christ had to suffer: “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). “‘He himself bore our sins’ in His own body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by whose wounds you have been healed’” (1 Peter 2:24).
The gospel is Christ in the basement of Omelas for us. Only unlike the child, Christ went voluntarily; and unlike those who, finding out about the child, leave the city (they are “the ones who walk away from Omelas”), the Lord—having computed the “utilitarian calculus”—knew that the suffering of Christ on our behalf was more than worth it.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is out now from Pacific Press.