Saturday, July 15, 2006

Whither Personal Responsiblity?

A few days ago I had my say about Evangelical Christianity and the American ideal of self-reliance. Last night as I lay in bed, I began to wonder about a certain related ideal, the ideal of personal responsibility. It too is touted by Evangelicals; it too is an American ideal. (You're most likely to find it in the mouth of a Republican, but it is not unique to them.)

Calls for personal responsibility are calls to take personal responsibility for what we do. Thus they are not the really quite trivial claim that we in fact are responsible for what we do. They are rather calls to acknowledge that we are responsible and to act as if we know it.

(Before I continue, let me say this about the 'personal' of 'personal responsibility'. It adds nothing more than emphasis, for of course all responsibility is of necessity personal. The only beings that act are persons - groups act only in the sense that the persons who make them up act. But only those beings who act can be responsible for what they do, and so only those beings who act can take responsibility for what they do. Thus I'll drop the 'personal' from 'personal responsibility' in what follows. I'll say only 'responsibility'.)

What has the call to take responsibility to do with self-reliance? First we must say that they are not one and the same. The fact that ones takes responsibility for what one has done in the past does not imply that one was then self-reliant; one can take responsibility, for instance, for one's lack of self-reliance, for one's reliance not upon oneself but upon others. But surely the two are related in a way. Indeed in the minds of those who think both important, they are inextricably linked. What is the nature of that link? Here I think it helpful to distinguish a past-directed call to take responsibility from a future-directed one. The past-directed call is a call to accept whatever consequence might be associated with one's past mistakes. The future-directed call is a call to take charge of one's life, to make it one's own. How do I at present act in such a way that I might take responsibility for a day to come? Insofar as it in my power, I quite deliberately decide how best to act and invest myself fully in the fulfillment of my plan. But if I do this, I am self-reliant.

Thus we find that a call to take responsibility, if understood as a future-directed call, is one and the same as the call to self-reliance. But if this is so, the Evangelical belief that we ought to take responsibility for what we do is subject to the very same objection that I made in Can a Good Christian be a Good American? Evangelical Christianity is a religion of non-self-reliance. It is a religion of reliance upon Christ. Thus it cannot be a religion of responsibility for our future. It is on the contrary a religion of Christ's responsibility for our future.

The Evangelical will of course protest. She will say that, though my conclusion has a kernel of truth in it, that kernel is wrapped in falsehood. The kernel is that through Christ and Christ alone are we able to keep His commands. If left to our own, she will say, we are quite incapable of obedience to the law. But that this is so, she will say, does not imply that we can take no responsibility for our future. For Christ will not come to our aid if we do not ask Him, and if we do not ask we will stand quite justly condemned. Thus there is one thing that we must do. We must ask for Christ's aid. We must admit our weakness, our sinfulness. We must acknowledge Christ's rightful place as our ruler and we must submit to him.

But notice just how weak is this move. We are left with a drastically attenuated type of responsibility. There is only one thing we ought to do, only one thing we can do, and it is to ask for help. If the call to take responsibility is only this, how very thin it is.


Dave Reiter said...

Christianity is indeed a religion of reliance upon Christ. As I understand it, the essence of it is that I rely upon Christ for righteousness (and I am acceptable to God only because of this righteousness, which is imputed to me). However, this does not negate other forms of responsibility. For example, according to Paul, I am responsible to work (otherwise, he says, I should not eat). I am held responsible for figuring out what work I should do, and then for doing it, and for providing for my family, as best I can. Am I falling into incoherence here?

Tim L said...

Philosophically, I understand what you mean (I think). However when has faith and reliance on Christ not also involved action? I can pray to God all I want for food but its unlikely to fall to me like manna (sp?). I need to do something. But my action needs to be in line with Christ and I need to follow his example on how to live.

I am off the point now.

Here is what bothers me about self reliance and "personal" responsibility. The fact that many Evangelicals have not heard the call of responsibility to the poor and that they feel that if someone is not self-reliant then they are not deserving of help.

This is not a conservative or liberal issue. The solutions can be conservative or liberal but the responsibility to feed and clothe the poor are not.

I am a bit on the more conservative side to addressing this issue, therefore I am saving to make contributions 1% of my income to Opportunity International and another 1% to something local (I am thinking of Individual development accounts).

Yes, it is only 1% each, but imagine if everybody did it.

I highly recommend the book "Rich Christians in a time of hunger" by Ron Sider.

Franklin Mason said...


I think you're dead right. Many conservatives will say that those who are poor deserve it and that we thus have no obligation to help them. This of course follows from the belief that the U.S. is a land of boundless opportunity and that any who will simply work can (and will) succeed. So perhaps here too is another way in which the American ideal clashes with Christianity.


I well understand the worry. Christianity is a religion of other-reliance - that seems non-negotiable to me. But this does seem to me to lessen the responsibility for the wrongs we do. If as Scripture says we cannot fulfill the law on our own, how can we be held responsible if we do not fulfill it? Perhaps there's a middle ground here. Perhaps Christianity is a religion of partial other-reliance. I'll have to give it some thought.

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