Moral Responsibility and the Value of People

Imagine, if you will, a young woman from your church. This young woman is active in the worship band, has volunteered in the nursery, and is a leader among her peers in the youth group. Then she gets pregnant.

Imagine a young man with a mental disorder. He does his best to take his medication, but the medication is expensive and it’s difficult for him and his family to afford it, because his condition makes holding employment difficult for him, and has been draining on his parent’s economic resources as well. He takes his medication, but even when medicated, he still sometimes struggles to interact socially and has occasional difficulties with more severe episodes of his particular disorder.

Are either of these people someone we’d be happy to see on our own time and schedule? Are either of these people someone we’d be happy to see in our church come Sunday morning? Are either of these people someone we’d be happy to see coming to join us at our table at lunch after the church service when we didn’t invite them?

Having grown up in the Church, I’ve heard a lot about personal responsibility for one’s actions (and I still do hear it on occasion). I’m all for personal responsibility for our actions. Owning what we do is an important step in the process of becoming wiser and more mature. However, the thing about personal responsibility that I’m not such a fan of is when it is used as an excuse to increase the pain and consequence that is already present in another person’s situation. Mistakes get made, and as a general rule, they don’t need any help from us to bring about consequences. Consider our young woman. As many who have children or have had children can attest, having kids changes the course of your life. You are no longer free to just go about as you please, your time is no longer your own, and some of the things you were wanting to do in your non-child life have to be put on hold indefinitely if not cancelled outright. If our young woman is lucky, her parents will be able and willing to help her raise the child and she will still have the opportunity to go to college, thus drastically increasing her ability to provide for the child. However, if she’s unlucky, then she will be in a community that will encourage her parents to punish her for her disobedience and recommend kicking her not just out of the church community, but out of the house as well. If we are that community, then we have stoned the young woman in every aspect but her body. We, as a people who worship and emulate a risen Savior who has overcome a world that is defined by sin in so many ways, have allowed sin to cover up the worth of this young woman and to cover up the relationship we had with her… and this sin that covers doesn’t belong to her. There is a time and place for discipline, but in a place with such drastic and life altering consequences, there are better ways to go about ensuring that good lessons are learned.

Then consider our young man. Time and time again within the Church, I’ve heard people talk about mental disabilities as a matter of willpower and prayer. “If they just thought about it hard enough, disciplined themselves, and wanted it badly enough, they’d be ‘fixed’ and able to live a good life.” I’m not a psychologist, but common sense empowers me to point out the error in this assumption. If the brain isn’t working properly (chemical imbalances, physical damage, etc.), then to rely on the brain to fix itself is probably a bad game plan (and if you still think it’s doable, I have a self-help book to publish and then sell you). As for prayer, it certainly helps, but generally not by producing a cure. As a belief system that affirms and believes in the miraculous, we have sometimes gotten into the bad habit of asking God to fill our stomachs when there is already food on the table and all we have to do is eat it. In this case, it’s a little less obvious because medical care and medication is expensive, and there is still much we don’t know about psychological disorders, but there is still treatment available. To reduce him to someone who is simply to be prayed for, or shunned and feared because we think his condition makes him more of a threat or a problem/inconvenience than a person, does not do him any good. Furthermore, he sees this fear and the stigma that’s attached to him. He knows what it is, and what it means. Mental disability doesn’t make someone stupid. He knows that you’re afraid, and it makes him afraid and it makes him hurt, because he’d probably give up a leg and kidney just to be able to form something that resembles some of the good relationships that he sees around him. Unfortunately, this social isolation generally increases the difficulties in dealing with the disorder. If we continue this isolation, then we have chained up this young man in the wilderness in every aspect but his body. We, treat this man like a leper, like the demoniac on the far side of the Sea of Galilee, and in doing so we tell him, you are not welcome at the table and deny him fellowship.

If you’d like to understand a little more about what it feels like for him, watch this video:

Now for a little lesson on psychology and sociology (from a layman’s point of view; I am in no way a subject matter expert): our environment influences what we do. This does not remove personal responsibility for our actions. At the end of the day, it is us in control of our bodies. However, the combined impacts of social influence, emotional state, culture, personal history, immediate physical environment, and even how much we’ve had to eat recently (among many other factors that I can’t name off the top of my head) can tip the probability of our acting in certain ways so far in a certain direction that it is almost guaranteed that a certain set of actions and reactions will happen within us. This same idea is known and intentionally applied in everything from the police eliciting a confession to us causing someone else to laugh at a joke. These principles are present everywhere in our daily lives, though often on a less obvious and intentional level as we interact with others and even ourselves. What this means is that the proper combination of factors can lead someone to act in ways that are generally considered to be outside of their character, beliefs, and upbringing (for example, our young woman could very well be very firmly against premarital sex, but due to immense societal pressure on her to have sex, the cultural assertion that her value is based primarily in how she looks/functions as a sex object [in starting a topic for another day, this cultural assertion exists in our churches as well], lots of stress from high expectations, the natural and healthy human desire to be loved and accepted, teenage hormones, and particularly pushed emotional buttons can bring about a decision making process that leads to sex rather than what she has been usually taught to recognize as the “right choice”; or it could be that she just got sick of everyone always telling her what to do and how to think and dress and be). Again, somewhere in there is a choice, but it’s like trying to choose to drink the one part of a waterfall that is clean, fresh spring water when you are getting the entire deluge of a river filled with fish crap dropped on your head. You may seek the proper outcome, but the chances of you successfully bringing it about are pretty low.

FAILURE

The caption reads: “Failure, it takes a lot of work sometimes”

Now, understandably, part of the Christian value system is to stand against sin and encourage a sense of personal responsibility. We know that we are called to be a holy people, set apart for the purposes of God, but is “standing up” sufficient to accomplish these purposes? This question is answered well by N.T. Wright (a well-known Anglican Theologian) in his sermon “The Road to New Creation”:  

“Religion in the western world has been less and less about the renewal of creation and more and more about escaping from this wicked world and going to a better place, called “heaven” – going there ultimately when we die, but going there by anticipation in the present through prayer and meditation. This essentially other-worldly hope and spirituality has fought its corner robustly against the materialism which has insisted that the only things that exist are things you can touch and see and money you can put in your pocket.

But if you turn Christian faith into simply the hope for pie in the sky when you die, and an escapist spirituality in the present (emphasis mine), you turn your back on the theme which makes sense of the whole Bible, which bursts upon us in everything that Jesus the Messiah did and said, which is highlighted particularly by his resurrection from the dead. A religion that forgets about new creation may feel some sympathy for the battered and bedraggled figure in the ditch, but its message to him will always be that though we can help him a bit, ultimately it doesn’t matter because the main thing is to escape this wicked world altogether. And that represents a tragic diminishing and distortion of what Christian faith is all about.”

It often seems that in our never-ending struggle to stand against sin we like to bolt our doors and shutter our windows and in doing so pretend that the reality that is having insufficiency, shortcomings, failures, and simple not-enoughness will stay outside even though it is already in our house. These things have been inside for as long as we have been alive. Brokenness is a reality not only in our world, but in our own community and in our own lives personally. When we react to shun it, to push it away, and to deny its association with us, we fail to own the reality that is being in the world. As a balance to this, we have the ability to value people and to value the relationships we have with them even when shortcomings enter the picture. We are all in need of mercy and grace even still, and denying others a community where those things are embodied (in the many ways that we deny this to ourselves and others) prevents us from accomplishing the whole mission of the Gospel. If we were to place these values of standing against sin and valuing people amongst our others on a priority list ordered by what can best help us to accomplish the past, present, and future goals of the Gospel, with no priority sharing its place with another, which would come first? The maintenance of a particular identity for our community? Or an embodied community of people who have also screwed up, but are set apart in their never-ending search of moving toward the fulfillment of the Gospel in their lives and in the lives of their community? Are we going to be willing to address the powers and principalities that influence many of the struggles of humanity, or are we going to continue to focus on the symptoms rather than the source? It is not that personal responsibility is unimportant, it is that there are things more important than that which must be accomplished first.

It is perfectly sensible to take a stand as a community against systems of injustice and bent thinking that leads to a slow self-destruction, but we need to remain aware of the bigger picture. We have been set apart to proclaim a Gospel in which Jesus, the Risen Savior, is the one who defeats sin. We do not accomplish these things by hiding ourselves from both the shortcomings and the people that have them, because we’d only be hiding from ourselves. Our relationships allow us the chance to hope and bring about a reality in which we can be not enough, and still find hope in the Gospel in spite of that not enough. Sin is best resisted and shortcomings redeemed in a community that is willing to see the shortcomings within itself and move to bring the person of Christ into the reality of that insufficiency.

Notes:

At least among the Wesleyan community (and this is one of the many places where the applicability of my statements may fail in regards to the whole of the Christian community) we hold to the value that all people are made in the image of God, and that some of that image remains intact. Following that idea, the ways we treat people and encourage grace are important. The importance of the restoration of the image of God is what brings about our stand against our fallenness without having to resort to social isolation on the occasions of evident sin or disability.

People can act in singular instances in ways that are inconsistent with their usual character. Probability based on social, societal, cultural, emotional, and psychological influences can almost doom a person to a particular course of action. What is more important, being against sin and encouraging responsibility for one’s actions, or valuing people and embodying the love that was first shown us in our own insufficiency? Where do those fit on our priority list? How do our actions help/accomplish our goals? Do we address the realities at hand? Are the powers and principalities ones that we can see?

(Part of that idea [the stand] is rooted in escapism and pie in the sky, denial in the present; we like to act as though if we can lock our doors and shutter our windows then sin will stay outside and not be involved in our lives)

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3 thoughts on “Moral Responsibility and the Value of People

  1. much here to ponder. it is a struggle to live in the world and balance between materialism and trying to be so separate from the world. both ways reduce our effectiveness to be a witness and help those in need.

  2. I hope I will get around to responding more thoroughly to this later (I’m about to go to bed–early day tomorrow), but what are some ways that the Church is reacting positively to the sort of message you are blogging about here? I know of the ways you have told me before. Any ideas for implementing your point in real life (do you know what I mean here?)? Embodying Christ. As I have come to understand it, sin essentially = breaking of relationship with another being. You have made a good point of that here.

    • Some of that has been many churches tossing out the idea of exclusion being effective from a community standpoint, though it still happens on individual levels (the Church is made up of humans after all). I don’t understand what you mean by implementing this in real-life. A lot of what I talked about here was ideology, which generally isn’t reflected on a grand scale in people’s lives (usually it manifests in smaller ways). If you are asking how this can be done on an individual level, I’d say be a better human being. There seems to be a common conception of human decency, it just isn’t practiced, often times with politics or religion being given as an excuse (along with a whole host of other things). The other thing would be to stare reality in the face rather than avoid it. There is a proverb about an old Indian man talking to his grandson. “There is a war going on within me between two wolves. One wolf represents anger, hate, and malice, the other goodness, justice, and love.” The grandson asks, “Well which wolf wins?” The man replies, “The one I feed.” We all deal with that battle, but a lot of times, pretending that the “bad” wolf isn’t still there after Jesus comes into our life is still in fashion. We have these bad wolves within ourselves and within our communities. We should feed the good wolves. As always our goals need to be explicitly set as right relationship between humanity and God, right relationship between humanity and itself (this can also be understood as us being in right relationship with ourself and us being in right relationship with others), and right relationship between humanity and the rest of creation.

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