Responsibility to the Then and Now

The Bible is a remarkable collection of documents. It provides its reader not only with a spiritual guide to life but a historical document that can be pretty reliably used to see the Levant of Antiquity. The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible also acts as a people’s history for the Jewish people, with the remarkable addition of it depicting il Buono, il Brutto, e il Cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is actually an Italian film). This is unusual for any people’s history, which usually attempts to depict their people as the bee’s knees (gotta stay hip with the groove as the kids say). The reason the Bible is written in such a fashion could be to depict a people who were truly under God. That is to say an entire society not under a god-emperor or semi-deified chieftain or petty king, but under fallible men who do bad things.

The story of Judah and Tamar is one such example that can be retrieved from this venerable text. It’s not flattering, to say the least. The story is found in Genesis 38. Faced with the prospect of catastrophic public embarrassment, Judah opts to do the right thing and takes on the responsibility for what he has done. It was not “I’m sorry” or some other variant thereof, but a full acceptance of what he had done. He had slept with Tamar, treating her as a mere prostitute. He had denied her her right to children.

Not all instances of taking responsibility are so clean-cut and fair, however, there are many instances wherein you have to take responsibility in cases where it is remarkably unfair. When children do something wrong to someone else, the child may receive the discipline, but their actions still fall upon the shoulders of the parent. They are a reflection of you; fair or not. This of course is a good lesson for children in the manner in which you honor your parents, but perhaps this is best left for another piece. This responsibility is not left to just a parent/child dynamic, but even more broadly to all organizations and institutions.

On the morning of June 6, 1944, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower made the critical decision to give the go-ahead with the Normandy landings and, thus, the invasion of Europe. The weather was atrocious. The success of the landings uncertain. But Eisenhower took the correct gamble to send in the troops. After he took said actions he sat down at his desk to pen out a letter accepting full responsibility for its failure if such an event were to pass.

When President Trump departed in shame in the face of not only his own actions but the actions of his followers. Commentators throughout the Conservasphere made defenses of Trump’s rhetoric by pointing out, correctly, that he had told his followers to march peacefully and patriotically. His followers apparently did not get the memo. In the end, he still bears the responsibility for the actions of his followers. He dialed up the rhetoric, he upped the ante. How far this responsibility goes is debatable. Not every single deplorable action can be linked back to the man on top.

This leads us rather nicely into the issue of national and religious responsibility. The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre stated

From the standpoint of individualism, I am what I myself choose to be. I can always. if I wish to. put in question what are taken to be the merely contingent social features of my existence. I may biologically be my father's son; but I cannot be held responsible for what he did unless I choose implicitly or explicitly to assume such responsibility. I may legally be a citizen of a certain country; but I cannot be held responsible for what my country does or has done unless I choose implicitly or explicitly to assume such responsibility. Such individualism is expressed by those modem Americans who deny any responsibility for the effects of slavery upon black Americans, saying 'I never owned any slaves'. It is more subtly the standpoint of those other modern Americans who accept a nicely calculated responsibility for such effects measured precisely by the benefits they themselves as individuals have indirectly received from slavery. In both cases 'being an American' is not in itself taken to be part of the moral identity of the individual. And of course, there is nothing peculiar to modern Americans in this attitude: the Englishman who says, “I never did any wrong to Ireland; why bring up that old history as though it had something to do with it?' (p. 220, After Virtue)

What MacIntyre is arguing here is that if you are part of a society, a community, that you must necessarily take the sins of that community as part of your own. If we are to claim a society or identity more broadly, then we must in turn take on the responsibility for some of society’s sins. If we are to claim the triumph then we must also claim the fall. Is this level of responsibility too much? Deuteronomy 24:16 states, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” This can undoubtedly extend into a broader discussion on the responsibility of the citizenry.

The problem with responsibility is that it never ends, which is undoubtedly for the better. Humans and humanity need something to stand for and to stand by. Whether this is just a simple desk job or raising a family, without these things we tend to just let ourselves go. However, the question still remains, how far out does this problem go? I don’t know about you but this author has never owned slaves. Nor, beyond buying goods made by slave labor in places like China, benefited from slavery. If I am to be held responsible for the actions of my ancestors then how far would that extend? I am part English, do I bear some responsibility to the Celtic genocide conducted by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes that make up the English ancestry? Perhaps that is too much of a strawman. As far as this author can tell, every society/religion/organization has its shame. Fathers who fail their sons should not be surprised when those sons turn out bad. (See the story of Judah above) However, all too frequently the horrors of the past become a crutch to hand the responsibilities of the present off too.

How does a society deal with its collective guilt? Well, in the Christian tradition it is to acknowledge the failures, mourn those failures, and then turn from those failures. Or to be more flippant; if you feel bad about owning slaves you must first acknowledge slavery to be a sin, then free said slaves, and try to rectify the damage done. But how long is it till it becomes a method of virtue-signaling for the slave owner and a crutch for the formerly enslaved? How many generations must pass before the sin is either forgotten, becomes irrelevant, or those involved are reconciled?


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