friday’s guilt, saturday’s solidarity :: thoughts on responsibility

This post continues a converation I’ve been in over the last few weeks. See more here and here.

I was born into a rich (by global standards) white family in the hills of Colorado. I began existing in this world in 1981. I emerged into a part of the world (into a structure) where people live in privilege, (for the most part) unknowingly on the backs of others. I didn’t come to realize all the links in the system (and I still don’t know most of them) all at once. Through high school and college I learned more and more.

Am I ontologically guilty by virtue of being born into privilege? I don’t think so.

I am responsible for what I know. Once I know about oppression, and especially once I know about my indirect role in contributing to that oppression, I am responsible to do what I can to stop it. And if I do nothing, I am guilty. Furthermore, I’m responsible to learn more and more so that I’m better able to avoid contributing to the injustice. I’m probably also responsible to my neighbors to help them understand their place in the structure and how it all leads to the oppression of others. If I don’t act on that responsibility, I am guilty, and I need to ask the forgiveness of my oppressed brothers and sisters.

I am guilty. I ask for forgiveness. I repent. Again…

I am responsible. What can I do? I’m responsible for so much these days! If climate change and ecological injustice doesn’t kill the world’s poor, nuclear proliferation and escalation of militarism in the world will, and if we all survive that, transnational mega-corporations want to sell us a vision of “life” so paltry that we’re all looking for more of their products to plug into all our holes. Furthermore – the ecological, militaristic, and economic devastation is all linked together in mutual reinforcement, like three enormously grotesque ogres dancing about in a circle holding hands, “Ashes, ashes all fall down.”

That doesn’t even raise the questions of sexual violence, human trafficking, racial inequality, gender bias, endangered species, political corruption, and on and on. All of it is connected, all of it is woven together. Taken as a whole it is overwhelming. It can’t be taken as a whole. None of us are capable.

What do I do? Withdraw from the system, grow vegetables on a quiet acre, live in a one-room cabin without phone, TV, electricity, or anything else that would connect me to a structure whereby I would be oppressing my neighbor. Perhaps some people are called to that answer. But the structures don’t go away when we ignore them. Bonhoeffer: “The question for a responsible person to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live.”

The enormity of the problem does not absolve me from the responsibility for a solution, but it does necessitate focus. God does not ask every person to respond to the same range of issues in the same way. I think that it’s perfectly appropriate to have climate change people, feminist people, anti-corporate people, etc. All of us are responsible. But you and I need to find our area of responsibility, connect with the right people, and apply ourselves relentlessly to the task of service. We need to listen and work together with people who care deeply about other issues. And we need to help one another see which issues really do (and do not) need addressing.

What can I do with this knowledge, with this responsibility?

I have been given a lot of opportunities that other people have not. Should I repudiate the education, the relative financial stability, the loving family, the wonderful and talented wife? Or should I take what I have been given and use it for others. I have a reasonably bright academic mind (to balance my many deficiencies). Should I express my solidarity with those with similar minds and no chance to use them by turning down the opportunities in front of me? Or should I use my mind as best I can to help others see the connections that will help them live more authentically? Am I merely justifying my own ambition with a pretense of charity? Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy.

At this point in my life, that responsibility means living a counter-narrative to the American dream. Pronouncing the difficult syllables, “enough” more often than the TV tells me to. Opening my doors and pockets to the people with open hands and no doors. It means volunteering here and there. It means sending part of the loan money we live on to charities. It means using opportunities as they arise both to listen to voices I don’t usually hear, and to speak for them in other contexts. I don’t want to build a monument to my own self-righteousness here – believe me I feel the lack and deficiency of these efforts far more than any congratulatory ego-rub. This responsibility also means studying theology – because bad theology kills people.

At this point in my life, I think that teaching theology is the way in which I can best contribute to the shalom of the planet in an occupational sense. I’m going to continue on that path until enough of you tell me it’s a rotten idea (or that I’d be no good at it anyway). The theology I hope to teach is the story of the God who knows all the broken places; who lives in the broken places. The story of the abandoned God, for whom there was no room left on the earth (so they pushed him off it, onto the cross). The story of the God who hates our violence enough to absorb it into his own human body.

Today, Holy Saturday, we remember the God who stands in solidarity with the God-forsaken. No one can get further away from God than Jesus has been. There is no experience on earth that Jesus can’t fathom. There is no depth of hell, no condemnation beyond Christ’s presence. What can we fear, if we follow such a God?

2 Replies to “friday’s guilt, saturday’s solidarity :: thoughts on responsibility”

  1. Eric,
    I resonate with much of your poignant reflection, but wanted to express particular agreement with your statement: “The enormity of the problem does not absolve me from the responsibility for a solution, but it does necessitate focus.” Katy and I have also these past several years been parsing our own complicity in a wide and painful variety of sin: consuming the products of exploitative globalized commerce, failing to advocate for those who suffer at the hands of the government that provides us with security and prosperity (I’m thinking of something like Guantanamo here)… and the list goes on. I think we’re both in agreement that our faith calls us to a radical practice of orthodoxy in what may resemble something as countercultural as monasticism. But our enthusiasm to pursue a just vocation can be paralyzing at times as well, given the scope of the injustice suffered. The scope is crucial! I think this also underlines the value of praxis… as it is my firm conviction that such focus of our own “vocation” as individuals comes from the guidance of the holy spirit and surely not just from inductive pondering. I wonder too, if this gives us some freedom to grow close to our Lord and savior as a part of the very act of justice itself. This is of course, as long as we have due urgency guiding us throughout. I wonder also if scope can involve investment in a particular local community such that our action is expressed in relationships within that community, in tension of course with a more globalized perspective (as it’s not all bad after all, eh?). Wendell Barry has been reminding me of this especially recently… thanks again for your reflections.

  2. Jeremy,

    Thanks so much for stopping by… and thanks for your own meditation in return. The connection between real justice and knowing Christ is one all too often forgotten. This post is one more attempt to deal with some of the questions my friend Casey has been raising for me – we’ve been knocking back and forth a bit about exactly this: just how much is the particularity of knowing and following Jesus connected to the realization of true justice on the planet. It’s a conversation well worth having.

    I need to throw in a few words that I came across today on exactly this point:

    According to this understanding, justice then is not about ensuring that we receive what we are entitled to (i.e. our “human rights”). Rather, justice is living out the gratitude that is proper to those who are recipients of grace! Furthermore, since Christians are those who believe that they receive grace from a divine benefactor (God), justice could more concisely be defined as worship — and this should lead Christians to argue that any definition of justice that is not rooted here will be deficient. Suffice to say, this understanding of “justice” has significant implications for how we go about pursuing justice today.

    The writer’s life-commitments only make the statement all the more credible.

    The other thing that has been rattling around my mind in this regard for the past little bit has been the way that Bonhoeffer deals with responsibility. In a passage of Ethics (292-93), he connects the scope of our responsibility directly to our vocation. He’ll say it better than I can:

    The question of the place and the limit of responsibility has led us to the concept of vocation. However, this answer is valid only where vocation is understood simultaneously in all its dimensions. The call of Jesus Christ is the call to belong to Christ completely; it is Christ’s address and claim at the place at which this call encounters me; vocation comprises work with things and issues as well as personal relations; it requires a ‘definite field of activity,’ though never as a value in itself but only in responsibility to Jesus Christ. By being related to Jesus Christ, the ‘definite field of activity’ is set free from any isolation. The boundary of vocation has been broken open not only vertically, that is, thorough Christ, but also horizontally, with regard to the extent of responsibility. Let us say I am a medical doctor, for example. In dealing with a concrete case I serve not only by patient, but also the body of scientific knowledge, and thus science and knowledge of truth in general. Although in practice I render this service in my concrete situation – for example, at a patient’s bedside – I nevertheless remain aware of my responsibility toward the whole, and only thus fulfill my vocation. In so doing, it may come to the point that in a particular case I must recognize and fulfill my concrete responsibility as a physician to longer only at a patient’s bedside, but, for example in taking a public stance against a measure that poses a threat to medical science, or human life, or science in general. Vocation is responsibility, and responsibility is the whole response of the whole person to reality as a whole.

    Now, Bonhoeffer seems to be getting some pretty good mileage out of a static Lutheran concept of vocation. He’s pushing helpfully in the direction of social action and responsibility. I must admit that’s music to my ears.

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