WHO OR WHAT IS TO BLAME?
A society which is averse to naming Christ in public debate is not doing itself any favours when it comes to addressing deeply rooted personal and social problems.
How responsible are we for our own actions? This ageless question tends to polarise people. For some we are inescapably in charge of our behaviour; for others, social and environmental factors loom larger. With the former position more commonly associated with the political right and the latter with the political left, it is difficult to offer an opinion on this vexed issue without being summarily labelled and dismissed as either too hard or too soft in the head.
The contemporary Marxist historian, Terry Eagleton, in his surprisingly entertaining volume ‘On Evil’ has described this as the right believing in original sin but not redemption and the left believing in redemption but not original sin. This is part of an engaging tendency to exaggerate: at one point in the book, musing on how God is presumed to use suffering to educate people, he asks ‘Couldn’t he have found some more agreeable way of testing our mettle than dengue fever, Britney Spears or tarantulas? I’m not sure I’ve read a similar gift for one-liners in Immanuel Kant, not that I spend my waking hours in his company. All the same, Eagleton has a point. Having divided right from left in theological terms, it seems quite in line to ask: isn’t it possible to believe in original sin and redemption, when thinking about this question?
The shocking summer riots of 2011 produced an initial reaction which understandably gave little ground to social factors. When our cities are burning more fiercely with each passing night, the need to establish order and to appeal to people’s sense of responsibility to their neighbour trumped all other considerations. The sentencing policy that followed has been consistent with this. Whether it has a deterrent effect in addition to an intentionally punitive tariff will be seen the next time disturbances erupt. It may well do. Leaving aside a worrying core of people who are prepared to trash the lives of those they live alongside, it was curious to hear how many rioters claimed to be swept up in events without giving much thought to the consequences for themselves and others. Next time round, some could be deterred.
At the heart of the Gospel is an irreducible sense that we are responsible before God for our own actions. Though we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to wriggle out of this responsibility when others claim we have hurt them, deep down most of those who believe they are accountable to God know they won’t have many alibis when they eventually stand before him. Redemption in Christ is made possible when we embrace the groundlessness of our excuses before the holiness of God.
Yet our reading of this redemption is often surprisingly individualistic. We imagine ourselves as standing and falling alone before God when he has instead made us densely connected one to another and profoundly influenced by others’ conduct. Christians who like the idea of St. Paul’s that we should be imitators of those we admire in the faith should accept the corollary: there are many malign influences in life which corrode us and others. Human beings copy one another shamelessly, all the while boasting of the strength of their independence. When a fuller account is made of the riots, this curious anthropological truth should be heard. Social networking sites are merely a mechanism for older, atavistic mob tendencies to assert themselves.
There is a wider question about social factors which should be faced with an unflinching commitment. To say that there are causes for people’s behaviour is not to excuse them of their acts. We are not controlled by others like a so-called zombie computer where a hacker takes over all functions of another hard drive. Yet to claim our environment (physical, cultural and economic) fails to shape us at all is to peddle a futile myth. Study after study has shown how people behave differently according to the situation they are placed in. We can fairly say, in the same breath, that people are responsible for their actions because they interpret their environment as much as they are shaped by it.
Perhaps it is idealistic to think that a narrative of personal responsibility can be allied to one about social conditions to forge a consensus in modern public debate. Yet a Christian response to the complexity of human society demands no less. There is a more inspiring story to be told about sin and redemption in Christ than we are hearing, which applies both to individual people and the fabric of their community.
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