My erstwhile mother-in-law was a heavy smoker and adamantly cared more for her freedom to smoke than for accepting responsibility for the ill-effects of her second-hand smoke. A powerful memory for me is watching my uncoached toddler walk up to her while she drew on one stick of her 2-3 packs per day. He waved his hand, made a face, and said, “Yucky, GranGran.”
I don’t recall her words of rebuke. I do remember the long draw on the cigarette, the pronounced exhale of her smoke, the movie-classic hand and arm of how she held the cigarette prior to pulling on it again, and her face: cold, narrow-eyed rage. It is an ugly memory of sheer irresponsibility, exercised in the name of personal choice, and disregarding the health of a child barely old enough to speak. She insisted that, if we were to visit her, we had to breathe her smoke.
Two instances (there are more, but I’ll stay with these two) of misusing the word “responsibility” in public disturb me today.
The claim to be exercising personal responsibility during a pandemic while dismissing concern for the health of those around you is irresponsible. There are several reasons why an adult might decline the vaccine. That choice may or may not be responsible. I have regard for those who are immune-compromised and fear a severe allergic reaction. But I would then assume a person who declines the vaccine would protect themselves and others from spreading the virus. Here, I think, is the moment of social responsibility, that companion to personal responsibility: doing one’s part to diminish the spread of the virus. A person seeking to be responsible would limit their contact with the public. And, they would mask.
In fact, masking is perhaps THE marker today of who accepts or rejects the claim made by multiple religions and philosophies: human beings are social beings, community is every bit as essential and important as the person when considering what responsibility means. This is not to say that everyone who masks in public is religious, but maskers understand they are connected in some way to everyone they see—at least that we all are breathing each other’s exhaled air.
Individualism without social regard is a heresy. The claim to absolute freedom to do as one pleases without regard to the effects on others is idol-worship.
The other problematic claim to be exercising responsibility comes from elected leaders. I don’t know whether to call this time of national and Christian racial reckoning a weather system or a new climate. Time will tell. But in this season of racial reckoning, the question arises regarding what the present living generation should do about past wrongdoing. This question comes up in regard to reparations, in particular, but also in regard to non-monetary forms of social repair.
Often, I hear a confusion between responsibility and guilt, as one can read in anti-critical race theory legislation (in Oklahoma, that would be House Bill 1775). The claim to be not guilty of, say, what one’s family did 150 years ago spills into the stance that “and we, especially we who have benefited from racism, are not responsible for racism today.” The first claim is legitimate. The second claim does not follow.
When I became president at Phillips in 2009 (a role I served until 2018), like any elected leader of an organization of any size, I inherited treasures to steward and problems to be addressed. (One could, in fact, think of one’s generational role in a family or a society in the same way: treasures and problems.) I could accept no credit for the treasures and no guilt for the problems. However, it was my job to accept the responsibilities to steward, to reckon with, and to do whatever I could to leave the school in better shape than I found it.
For the good that happened during my tenure, I could accept some credit. For the problems I addressed insufficiently or which I created, I must accept guilt. Credit and guilt for what happens on one’s watch and for how one handled one’s inheritance are companions for anyone who serves an office. What one does in one’s tenure becomes the next leader’s inheritance and their responsibility to address.
The fact that the generation who is guilty of Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre has passed from the scene is irrelevant to the reality that a debt—financial and social—was incurred that has been passed, irresponsibly, from generation to generation of the city’s civic leadership. The fact that the Boomers and Sooners are long gone, except as college chants and mascots, does not cancel the debts owed to the native peoples forcibly displaced.
The nation racked up huge debt to “pay” for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without raising taxes on the war generations. The nation will be paying for those wars for many years, and every family dealing with death by combat or suicide of a veteran, or PTSD or traumatic brain injuries have incurred debts. As Greta Thunberg forcefully reminds her audiences, generations of decision-makers have passed the debts incurred by a fossil fuel economy onto her generation.
Future generations will not be guilty of what our generations have done. That guilt is ours. But they will be responsible to address what they need to, for their being and well-being. Just as was and is the case for us. Today.
There are good moral reasons to decline to feel guilty about the actions of past generations. There are no good moral reasons to reject responsibility to do what one can to address the debt which otherwise just keeps rolling forward.
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.