Yes, I understand and support the actions taken to address larger issues of race and class, but…
What about Michael Brown shoplifting/walking down the middle of the street/reaching for the police officer’s gun?
What about Rasheen Aldridge, a Ferguson Commissioner, shoving a police officer to try to get into City Hal?
What about the people who threw jars of urine and burned down buildings?
Without getting into the specific details and debatable accuracies and inaccuracies of each situation, the core issue in each is: “What about personal responsibility?”
It’s an excellent question. At the core, it is a question about sin.
Sin is whenever we put anything other than God and God’s dreams for us (love God and love our neighbor as ourselves) at the center of our lives. Sin occurs whenever our actions come out of anything other than that radical ethic of love and instead create distortions or breaks in relationship.
As followers of Jesus, we believe God forgives sin but that it is not cheap grace. There is a process of reconciliation of relationship – one that involves self-examination, confession, repentance, and amendment of life before absolution is finally offered and received.
As someone who hears confessions, much of my priestly job in that sacramental rite is holy listening. It is walking with people through that self-examination and helping them discern what is sin, what is not, and what the role of personal responsibility is. When sin is identified, personal responsibility is key. We were created in God’s image with freedom of choice, and our choices matter greatly. We cannot receive absolution and restore right relationship unless responsibility is acknowledged, damage is repaired and a commitment to a changed life is made.
But sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Context is critical.
Is it living into God’s dreams for us to punch someone in the face? No. That is not love of neighbor. That is sin. But is there a difference between walking up to someone who has done nothing to you and punching them in the face and the teenage son punching in the face his alcoholic father who has once again come home drunk and angry after beating him time and again to the point where he has to say, “no more!” Yes.
Sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sin is messy and embeds itself in the webs of relationships that are our lives. It doesn’t mean that personal responsibility goes out the window. But it does mean recognizing at least two things:
*First, as Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) We never talk about sin only with a finger pointed toward another. We talk about sin as sinners and that means we only talk about it not in judgmental tones but in humility, gathered together at the foot of the cross looking at the one who bears all our sins.
*Second, we first talk about sin with a mirror held up to ourselves, as Jesus bids us “take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5).
In other words, if we are going to have the conversation about personal responsibility – and we should – we don’t start with Michael Brown and Rasheen Aldridge and the rioters. We begin with ourselves.
Our theological tradition identifies two primary types of sin – things we have done (sins of commission) and things we have left undone (sins of omission). A more contemporary confession adds, rightly, “the evil done on our behalf.”
If I am to look at the acts of Michael Brown, Rasheen Aldridge and the Ferguson rioters after the grand jury announcement, before I get to the question of their personal responsibility for whatever they might have done, FIRST, I have to ask these questions of myself:
What evil have I done?
What evil have I allowed to happen by my inaction?
What evil has been done on my behalf and from which I have benefitted?
Those questions convict me … and they should.
Sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sin begs the question “why?” … not as excuse but seeking understanding so that reconciliation and healing may occur for all of us.
The truth is, just as the boy who has been pushed to the limit by his alcoholic father is much more likely to punch his dad in the face than my son is to punch me in mine, people are much more likely to do things like shoplift, or shove or even burn down a building if they have been oppressed and pushed to the limit themselves. This does not absolve them of personal responsibility but it is cause to examine how we all share in that responsibility.
Let’s take the most egregious of the sins I have been asked about … the rioting and burning of buildings. I have heard many people hold up the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his commitment to nonviolence as an example in shaming those who did such things. And yet King, while resolute in his stand against violence, recognized that sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum and in fact there is deep shared responsibility.
King said, “I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
Sin is at times “the language of the unheard.” It is the same way that teenage boy punching his father was the only way he felt he could say “no more!” in a way that would be heard. And those of us who have been and are still the unhearing need to recognize that as a call to look for logs in our own eyes, not as a substitute for helping our neighbor taking the speck out of theirs, but as the first step Jesus demands before we search for those specks.
So should we talk about personal responsibility? Absolutely. And I need to start with me.
I need to look at the choices I have made – the things I have done and left undone – to widen or at least not close the education, economic and opportunity gap between white and black in St. Louis and our nation. The things I have done and left undone and the evil that has been done on my behalf to increase a culture of hopelessness, solidify the school-to-prison pipeline, and encourage an environment that screams Black Lives DON’T Matter … or at least they don’t matter as much as mine.
If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I send my kids to private schools and have opted out of the public school system when I know the thing that changes schools more than anything else is committed parents and families.
If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how much money and time I spend south of Delmar and how most of the businesses I patronize are white-owned.
If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how my church has several million dollars in endowment and we don’t invest one dollar of it in helping community development in local minority neighborhoods.
If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I have spent most of my life being silent about racial profiling and have failed to hear and act on the cries coming from black mothers and fathers as their children have been treated as criminals without cause and over and over again died in the streets.
If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I and my family have generated personal wealth over the last 100 years primarily through property appreciating in value … a wealth escalator that people of color were almost entirely left off of.
If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I have benefitted from systems that discriminate on the basis of race (among other things) but have never been discriminated against myself and have done little if anything to call attention to this fact.
If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to realize this list is just getting started.
This is not bleeding heart self-flagellation. This is the sacrament of reconciliation. This is honest self-examination and confession of my sin as a necessary first step toward even beginning to help another do the same.
And I can’t stop there. I have to commit to repentance – how am I going to do the best I can to repair the damage done by my sin?
And I can’t stop there. I have to commit to amendment of life – how am I going to, with God’s help, “go forth and sin no more.”?
This is not a neat and tidy process. I don’t think we need to wait until we have completed it perfectly before we lovingly hold each other to account for sin … before we try to point out the speck in the other’s eye. But we do need to engage in it deeply enough that we are aware of where our own contributory role in this sin is and are actively engaged in our own process of repentance and amendment of life before we begin to point our finger at another.
Is personal responsibility important? Absolutely. It is at the heart of reconciliation from sin. But repentance and reconciliation is never something we order someone else into – which is why I personally regret that repentance and reconciliation was expressed and experienced quite differently at the clergy demonstration I was a part of at the Ferguson Police Department in October. It is ground we ascend ourselves first and then invite the other to join us. It is why the last words I as a priest say in the sacramental rite of reconciliation are: “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.”
Is the question of personal responsibility for Michael Brown, Rasheen Aldridge and those who rioted in Ferguson important. Yes. It absolutely is. But if I am to follow Jesus, I can only invite them to see the speck in their eye if I first do what I can to take the log out of my eye. And that means first instead of judging them, I need to listen to them … not in supporting their actions but recognizing them as the language of the unheard.
Recognizing that it was the unheard that Jesus time and again stopped to listen to.
Recognizing that the most important personal responsibility is my own.