By Harold Sala
Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. James 4:17
I was in Liberia with a missionary friend when a young man began to verbally assault us for the injustices which had been perpetrated on blacks by the slave traders long ago. After a few moments, I pointed to the missionary with my thumb and said, “Excuse me! But I don’t think you know why this man is here. He’s working at the ELWA radio station. Nobody pays him. He raised his own support to come here. He and his doctor friends at the hospital are delivering your babies. They are saving the lives of your people. He’s here to help you. I’m here because I love people, and I’m responsible for myself, not for what my forebears did 200 years ago.”
Photo by Garrett Coakley, used via Creative CommonsIn recent days, I’ve thought a great deal about that issue of responsibility and who has to pay for the sins of another generation. I’ve listened to excuses for rioting and burning which go something like, “I don’t like the way people treat us,” or “This was the only way we could make a statement.”
Of course, Adolph Hitler made a statement, as did Joseph Stalin. Jesus Christ also made a statement. So did Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Every person makes a statement with his life, whether it is peaceful or violent.
The fact is, I am responsible for myself, whether my conduct is that which reflects kindness, love, and generosity, or hatred and violence. Who says so? God does, and what the Almighty laid down centuries ago has been the foundation of civilization ever since.
The issue is who was responsible for what started in the Garden when Adam tried to blame Eve for taking the fruit. It was because Adam knew right from wrong and chose wrong, that he faced the consequences of his actions. Early in the story of humanity, God again made it known that we are completely responsible for our actions. To Noah, God said, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6); but it was the prophet Ezekiel who gave us a long discussion of personal responsibility. Make a note of chapter 18 of the book that bears his name, as Ezekiel quotes the words of God, saying, “The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20).
To acknowledge that you are responsible–before God and before your families and society–is one thing, but to go one step further demands accountability. And it is here that some of us have failed our children so drastically. No dad can hold his teenager accountable when he has walked away from his family. No mother can be effective in teaching her children, who does not mirror what she says in her personal life. To teach by our example that nothing is wrong unless you get caught doing it teaches irresponsibility, which destroys the fabric of society itself.
Question: To what degree am I responsible for the wrongs of society? Answer: To the extent that I can do something to change it, using my influence, my voice, or even my fountain pen in writing strong letters of rebuke and censure. I am responsible for how I treat my neighbor, including the tone of my voice and the non-verbal looks which I communicate. I am responsible for myself, and frankly, it’s a pretty big task keeping myself right with God and my fellow man, so much so that I have no time to criticize my neighbor who fails in his responsibility.
I am responsible, and I am accountable. God says I am, and that, friend, is the foundation of civilization all over the world. Think about it.
Resource reading: Ezekiel 18:1-24