Responsibility and Community

The people, however, refused to listen to Samuel’s warning and said, “Not so!  There must be a king over us. We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battles.”

1 Samuel 8:19-20

It is not easy to be responsible for one’s own life, and so to be responsible to the One who has given us that life. We find countless ways to evade and avoid responsibility and to make or allow others to be responsible for us. Societal and cultural norms are one of the ways that we give over responsibility for our lives to others. We allow our cultures, or societies, and any of the groups to which we belong to tell us who we are and how we are to behave. We look for others, under the guise of love, to take care of us. We seek “strong” leaders, of our communities, churches and governments to take responsibility for our life direction. We readily use fidelity, orthodoxy, or patriotism to cover our own refusal to be responsible for our lives and world.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln declared that those gathered with him at the site of the battle, “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” According to the historian Garry Wills, Lincoln reframes the foundation of the United States, making the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution the founding document. At the heart of the Declaration is the assertion of  the equality of all human persons. This truth of the equality and so dignity of every human person, however, is not merely a right. It also implies responsibility. If all are created equal, then we all have equal responsibility. Given the reality of our ingrained acedia, we are always, to varying degrees, willing to give up the challenge and responsibility of self-governance.

This “laziness” of spirit is what we see in the Israelites in today’s reading from 1 Samuel. Even as Samuel warns the people that if they allow another to be king over them that person will eventually abuse that power and enslave them in various ways, they prefer this to the task of accepting their own responsibility for doing God’s will in the world. God has called the Israelites to be a light and a beacon to the nations. Yet, the demands of fidelity to that unique call and so to freedom is too difficult. They prefer the life of conformity to the demands of a powerful ruler that they see in those around them.

Our individual life, as well as our political and social lives, is a persistent living out of the tension between fidelity to and responsibility for our God given call, our equality and freedom, and our willingness to settle for the inauthenticity of a life and life direction handed over to others. It is the tension between living a distinctively human life or a merely typical one. The truth is that for most of us we vacillate between the dominance of one pole or the other. There are times and places where we assert our individuality and originality, but there are many times when we prefer to be directed or taken care of.

For most of our history, our religious congregation has functioned in a hierarchical way. There were selected or elected leaders who were to be responsible for the life of the congregation as a whole. There were provincials and local superiors who were to bear the responsibility for the life of the region or the local community. Then there were the majority of brothers, who were often referred to as “foot soldiers” in the ever recurring military imagery. Their responsibility was to do their own work well and to be obedient to their superiors. In fact, servile obedience to what one was told was seen as truly virtuous.

In recent times, however, we are coming to discover that, by design (for example the refusal to have clerical members in a church built on a clerical-hierarchical structure) we are a fraternity and not a hierarchy. In the words of Theodore Ryken, we are “a band of brothers who mutually help, encourage, and edify one another and who work together.” With such a sense of equality and fraternity, however, comes responsibility. If we are not to have a king, then we all must attend together to the call of God as it comes to us individually and communally, and then accept responsibility to live out that call. We are discovering, however, that to be a community in this sense requires a level of commitment and responsibility that we have, too often, avoided. The truth is, for all of the resistance to authority we have often felt, we like the freedom not to be responsible for the others that it gives us. No less than the Israelites, at the pre-transcendent level of our personalities, we prefer to let others be responsible for us, even at the cost of some degree of our human freedom and personal possibility.

This morning, albeit at a great distance from the United States, I awoke to the horror of the news of a racist rant from the President of the United States. This was not really surprising, for his character has been clear for more than some time. Nonetheless, it focused a question of responsibility. I am a declared citizen of a country that asserts that it is a government of, by, and for the people. That means that my government speaks for me. Now conflict and scandal in this regard is not new. I remember as a college student in 1970 experiencing an even worse horror as our government carpet bombed the neutral country of Cambodia. Similarly throughout the history of our government’s support of dictators and repressive and murderous regimes in Central and South America, Africa, and the Middle East and elsewhere, I felt the dissonance but also a powerlessness. When we have “kings,” in whatever form they take, we shall find ourselves less free and less human, more a willing or unwilling accomplice to the unacceptable.

On such a large social scale, we are always faced with the question of what is possible or not. Fortunately there is still freedom of speech and assembly, but perhaps the question at the personal level is how much do I use that to behave responsibly. In our own everyday situations, however, we are always living the tension that we read of today in the conflict between Samuel and the people. Far too often, I hand over to circumstances or to others the responsibility that only I have for my own life and call. If I am less than I am called to be, if I am failing to give to the world that small but significant gift I have been given, that is no one else’s fault but mine. As the years of life pass, the question of authenticity only intensifies in me. Am I living my life, or have I forsaken it for the sake of an easier way? Do I really exist, meaning does who I actually am “stand out” in the world, or am I but a cog in a wheel that is socially determined? In both what I do and fail to do, in my relationships and in my call to serve the world, am I responsible for myself? I cannot be responsible for others, I cannot be the task and call I am for the world, until I accept, as fearful as that can be, responsibility to God for my own life. For it is that life, and only that life, that is my mission to the world.

At this moment in history, some of us wonder if the American experiment has run its course. Is what Lincoln saw as government of, by, and for the people, a people who are all created equal, even ultimately possible? Or are we as human beings not capable of such a responsibility? Is it an unrealistic ideal to imagine a community of shared responsibility? To be human is, at least in part, to be sinful and lazy. It is to avoid the work, the tension, the inner and outer conflicts of responsibility for ourselves and for each other. Yet, sinful as we are, when as a band of brothers and sisters we “help, encourage, and edify one another and . . . work together,” we may be available together to receive the gift of community that we could never on our own achieve.

 

A religious life is a material life in a particular place, marked by particular material patterns and rhythms. Its goal is for the place it inhabits to be place in which certain realities become visible. It takes responsibility for the appearing of God; in doing so it equally embodies responsibility to God. It makes a bid to be fairly ‘tried’ as a narrative among others; and what it has to show is that it is indeed a distinctive place, not a version of some other discourse. So the religious person describing herself has to do so in a manner that somehow makes concrete the sense of replying to uninvited initiatives. And with due respect to Kierkegaard’s distinction between aesthetic and religious, this is comparable to what the creative artist will say of their ‘self-positioning’ by way of the realized artistic work: this is where I stand, not by my choice but because this is what had to be done or achieved. This is the appropriate response to how the environment and my embodied imagination have met each other.

Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (Kindle Locations 6112-6120)

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