How Not to Take Responsibility for One’s Actions

There is churn in the news these days about “responsibility” and “accountability,” about how words from one person influence the actions of others—or not.

The Bible contains numerous comments and stories related to matters of responsibility. One such comment is: “…fathers, do not provoke your children to anger” (Ephesians 6:4). The verse only makes sense if the words of one party can influence the behavior of another.

The Golden Calf, painting by Arthur Boyd. 1946, oil and tempera on composition board, 84 x 89cm. Art Gallery of Ballarat Collection. Purchased with funds from the Colin Hicks Caldwell Bequest and the Ferry Foundation, 1995.

The Golden Calf, painting by Arthur Boyd. 1946, oil and tempera on composition board, 84 x 89cm. Art Gallery of Ballarat Collection. Purchased with funds from the Colin Hicks Caldwell Bequest and the Ferry Foundation, 1995.

One of my favorite biblical stories is the Golden Calf, a story that could be known as “the leader who refused to take responsibility for his actions.” According to the story in the book of Exodus (chapter 32), Moses is on the mountain with God, receiving the commandments. It took a long time, 40 days. God had a lot to say.

There were the Ten Commandments, plus hundreds of others and a massive number of instructions for everything related to the people’s life with God. In the camp, the people, never a ruly bunch, grew dangerously anxious. The people, perhaps exuding a mob’s energy, approaches Aaron, who is Moses’ brother, left in charge during Moses’ absence. The mob demands action. “Make us gods.”

Aaron replies like one with a plan rather than one taken off-guard. “Take off all your gold and bring it to me.” Aaron proceeds to: collect the gold; build a melting fire; form a calf mold to receive the melted gold; pour the gold into the mold; break the mold when the gold cooled to release the calf. The people proclaimed the calf to be “the gods who brought them out of Egypt.” (How one calf turned into gods, or why the people thought they could make gods with their jewelry—great questions for another venue.) Aaron then builds the altar for the calf and proclaims a festival.

Moses returned to camp from the mountain, steamed.  Before leaving God, he talked God out of vaporizing everyone for breaking the commandments which, by the way, the people had not yet received. But any fool should know you can’t make a real god from nose, ear, and finger rings.

Aaron is up to his armpits in this caper. But you would not know it by his response to Moses. When Moses asked his brother what happened, Aaron’s response, basically, was this: “I don’t know! The people wanted a god, I took their gold and threw it in the fire, and out came this calf!”

Ah, Aaron, you did a whole bunch more than that to give the mob what they wanted. Chalk the Golden Calf incident up to a lesson on how NOT to take responsibility.

A second biblical story on responsibility, or how to evade responsibility, is about the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The biblical stories about Pilate’s decisions regarding Jesus do not true-up to what we know about Pilate from historical sources, namely that Pilate was so brutal his bosses judged he was unfit for office. And this decision from a government that lined the way to Rome with crucified bodies.

In the Pilate story told in Matthew’s gospel, Pilate wants no responsibility for Jesus’ death. After Jesus is passed from the temple guards to the high priest and then to Pilate, Pilate turns to the crowd. According the Matthew’s telling, the crowd was not just a headless mob but a mob with instigators, who had a plan.

When Pilate asked if the crowd wanted Pilate to spare the life of Jesus or of the insurrectionist Barabbas, the instigators yelled for the latter. Done, said Pilate, assigning Jesus’ death to the crowd and washing his hands, publicly, of the whole matter. Historians and biblical scholars attribute to Pilate the decision to crucify Jesus. Only the Romans could crucify. But, in the gospels, Pilate does his best to duck responsibility. And those who pushed Jesus into Pilate’s attention also washed their hands.

Mature adults are not perfect. They made mistakes and bad choices. But when they make a mess, they clean it up.

When we take responsibility, the water, soap, and towel come at the end, after the mess is cleaned up and it is time to wash the dirt off one’s own hands. Washing off dirt after cleaning up is much different from washing off dirt from responsibility shirked. “Really, I don’t know what happened. I tossed their contraband jewelry into the fire, and out came this calf.”

The words and deeds of leaders matter. They paint pictures, make maps, tell stories that ferment feelings, open windows, close doors, signal “stop,” or “go,” or “proceed with caution.”

Years ago, when I had long drives on Oklahoma roads with few radio stations available, I would listen to a conservative talk show host. She asked a signature question after listening to her callers’ attempts to evade responsibility for their actions. The form of the responsibility dodge was, “And then something happened.” The radio host retorted, “Did something happen—or did you DO something?” That is the responsibility question.

That would be a great question for every present-day Aaron to answer forthrightly, and publicly.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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