Slightly revised from remarks delivered at the 2017 CCL symposium in San Francisco, California
Sometimes the topics that the Center for Cultural Leadership targets might seem far removed from your life: D.C. politics, tax-reform legislation, the political correctness of elite Leftist universities, or Hollywood screenwriting worldviews. But today’s topic bores itself into our day-to-day life, into our family, into our very backbone. Responsibility is big a part of what it means to be human in God’s world. We were created in God’s image. God immediately gave our first parents responsibility: to steward the rest of creation, to exert dominion for his glory (Gen. 1:28–28). Think about that fact for a moment. God didn’t first draw attention to a mystical union between himself and humanity. He didn’t ask Adam and Eve to quietly contemplate the beauties of creation. He didn’t even command that they think lofty thoughts about him. He gave them a task for which he made them responsible. Man had the freedom to obey or disobey God. Man is a free, responsible being. God created us to be responsible.
Accountability versus Autonomy
Responsibility implies accountability. Man is created in God’s image. He’s responsible to God. This means that he’s accountable to God. God calls man to account for his God-given responsibilities. This also means that there can be no autonomy (self-law). Man is not a law to himself. He is responsible to God.
God is accountable
God himself is accountable. We don’t often think that way, but it’s true. God’s a free and unconditioned being, but he willingly binds himself to his people, and to all humanity, in covenant. In other words, God makes himself responsible. To whom is God responsible? He’s responsible to his own holy being and character. We read in Hebrews: “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself” (Heb. 6:13). A holy God makes himself responsible for his promises. God is accountable to his own stable, holy character.
Man’s relationship with God is one of mutual responsibility. Responsibility is woven into the fabric of the universe.
Sin and Irresponsibility
Man sinned, of course, and man’s sin includes an assault on responsibility. We all know that blame shifting — which actually is responsibility shifting — began in the Garden of Eden. Adam blamed Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. The serpent had already blamed God. Sinful man and woman immediately tried to shed responsibility. Blame shifting is tightly bound to original sin. Wherever there’s sin, there’s almost always blame shifting. Why? Man knows that if there is human freedom, there must human responsibility; and if he refuses to be responsible for his sin, he’ll blame somebody else.
This blame shifting, this irresponsibility, is at the root of our present apostasy from the Triune God, both personal apostasy and cultural apostasy.
God has laid out in his creational norms (nature) and in his written law (the Bible) man’s basic responsibilities. The fact that the chief responsibilities concern the family shows how important it is in God’s plan. The husband is responsible to love and cherish and provide for the wife. The wife is responsible to love and follow her husband. The parents are responsible to love and provide for and rear their children in the ways of the Lord. The children are responsible to honor and obey their parents. Adult children are responsible for their parents in old age. Individuals as individuals are responsible. We’re responsible for our economic decisions, our sexual activity, and our choice of words. We’re responsible for our property and our animals and the use of our technology.
We have specific responsibilities to others besides our family. We are responsible to protect the weakest and vulnerable — children (including, in particular, unborn children), widows, orphans, the sick and elderly. We men are responsible to protect women from assault and harassment and exploitation. We’re responsible to pay our honest debts. We’re responsible to promptly pay our employees. We’re responsible to honor another person’s property. We’re responsible to love and, if necessary, lay down our lives for our Christian brothers and sisters. Life is full of God-imposed responsibility. Without responsibility, there can be no sustained human life.
Blaming parents and upbringing
But recall that sinful man is almost always inclined to shift responsibility (Gen. 3). The greatest culprit of personal blame shifting of our time centers on one’s own history, particularly our parents and upbringing. It’s remarkable how often the first response to hearing about a gang member or rapist or fornicator or adulterer or drug addict or alcoholic or tax evader or sluggard is, “Well, he or she must’ve had a bad upbringing.” This tendency is one big example of the worldview known as behaviorism: we’re simply the product of our environment. This is a prominent aspect of an anti-Christian, blame-shifting worldview, even though it’s everywhere in our world today.
There’s no doubt that our environment affects us. The Bible recognizes this fact. That’s why, for example, it warns us about associating with evil people (1 Cor. 15:33). But environment is never an excuse for our own sins and faults and the consequences we suffer from them.
Moreover, if we step back, we might want to consider that all sorts of people had horrid, tragic childhoods and yet they didn’t end up as a criminals or degenerates or apostates. If we suffered from a bad childhood, we can, by God’s grace, overcome that influence. It doesn’t define us, and it’s never an excuse. Whatever our childhood, we are still responsible.
A second blame shifting strategy derives from genetics: “I was born this way.” The father of the young Norwegian who slaughtered over 70 people, including children, at an island retreat a few years ago, explained that his son “must be” mentally ill. There was no other possible explanation. The idea that his son was depraved, and that his son was responsible for his actions, was an explanation apparently unavailable to him.
Have you ever noticed in the Bible how God never excuses or even explains man’s sin by recourse to ancestors? If anything, God does just the opposite: he holds children accountable for the sins of their fathers. Children often persist in their parents’ sin, and God judges them: “Just as your fathers were sinful, so you are” (see Is. 65:2–7). God calls us to break with the sins of our parents, not justify our sins by blaming our parents.
Learn to blame yourself
Amid this personal blame shifting, our calling is clear: take responsibility for our words and actions (and silence and inactions). I’ll be eternally grateful for an aphorism my father drilled into me as a child: Learn to blame yourself. If you spend your life blaming other people for your problems, you will always have a rationale never to change. People who learn to blame themselves, however, have a rationale for changing the way they are, for overcoming their hardships. They can grow in character. Blame shifters never grow in character.
If you consistently don’t get a promotion at work, you might want to ask what you are doing wrong instead of always blaming your employer.
If your academic record is mediocre, perhaps it’s because you’ve been doing mediocre work rather than that your teachers are conspiring against you.
If you persistently lack money, consider that the reason is not that your employer doesn’t appreciate you enough to pay you better. Maybe it’s that you don’t spend wisely or haven’t worked to improve yourself in order to get a better job.
Learn to blame yourself.
Don’t allow your young children to shift blame. Children don’t need to be taught to shift blame. It’s built into their sinful DNA. Weed out this tendency early. They’ll blame their mistreating of their siblings on their siblings prior actions. Don’t let them blame their failure to do their chores on their tiredness. Don’t let them blame their substandard schoolwork on their allegedly mean teacher. Remember: blame shifting always creates a rationale for the status quo. No one ever changed for the better by blaming somebody else. Teach your children: Learn to blame yourself.
“If you are wise, you are wise for yourself, [a]nd if you scoff, you alone will bear it” (Pr. 9:12).
This is the imperative for personal responsibility. Then there’s cultural responsibility. And personal irresponsibility leads to cultural irresponsibility.
Deep State or Deep Culture?
We hear a lot about the Deep State today. Deep State describes the vast government bureaucracy that tries to bypass elected officials in getting its way. Sometimes it’s backed up by conspiracy theories, sometimes not. If all Deep State means is that unelected bureaucracies like to wield power irrespective of elections or political parties, there’s nothing new or surprising about it. Lifelong bureaucrats like to keep their jobs. Conservatives have known about — and complained about — the Deep State long before they heard of that language. Unfortunately, by concentrating on politics, they miss the massive foundation on which politics sits: culture. Here’s another well-known metaphor: politics is downstream from culture. By culture I mean man’s interaction with God’s creation to bring it to higher levels in bringing glory to God. Human hair is creation, but a burr haircut is culture. Water is creation, but irrigation is culture. A sparrow is creation, but a Boeing 747 jet adapted from the sparrow’s flying abilities is culture. Advanced culture includes music and art and economics and literature and TV and movies and other technology. When this culture is dominated by apostasy (a departure from the Faith), the apostasy filters down to politics. This is what’s going on today. In the words of Mark Steyn:
If the culture’s liberal, if the schools are liberal, if the churches are liberal, if the hip, groovy business elite is liberal, if the guys who make the movies and the pop songs are liberal, then electing a guy with an “R” after his name isn’t going to make a lot of difference.
Nor should it. In free societies, politics is the art of the possible. In the 729 days between elections, the left is very good at making its causes so possible that in American politics almost anything of consequence is now impossible….
What will we be playing catch-up to in another 28 years?
If (for example) you want to know why we have such a massive government today, it’s because individuals and families and churches and businesses were irresponsible decades ago. They outsourced education and childcare and healthcare and elderly care to politics, and now they complain about a huge, intrusive federal government. Families and churches were culturally irresponsible, and now they’re paying the political price.
Same-sex “marriage” (SSM) didn’t win in June 2015 with the Obergefell decision. It was only legally formalized then. It won out in the living rooms of ordinary Americans, with gay characters on the TV screen depicted as wise and witty, and opponents of homosexuality portrayed as cruel, stupid, and unfair. SSM won in the lecture halls of major universities, where it was deemed just another form of equality that America must stand for. SSM won in the churches, where even evangelicals refused plainly to declare biblical sexual ethics. Because SSM won in the living rooms, the lecture halls and the pulpits, it was easy to win in the courts. The fact that it won at the ballot box in almost every state where it was voted on didn’t matter in the end. Culture trumps politics.
Today’s politics is rocked by scores of charges (many credible) of sexual harassment, groping, and assaulting women. People’s heads are spinning: “How could this have happened?” The answer is easy, and it’s not a political answer. It’s another fruit of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s, in which women are treated as sex objects and playthings, in which feminists, who claimed to defend women’s rights, defended to the hilt Bill Clinton, a political playboy if there ever was one. The irony: feminists of the 90s made it safe for politicians (both parties) to treat women as sex objects. It was the Left who for the last few decades gave male celebrities like Jimmy Page, Roman Polanski and Chuck Berry a pass on sex with underage females. They unleashed the Sexual Revolution, and now their successors are horrified at Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken. Pray tell, what did they expect?
These aren’t principally political problems at all. They’re cultural problems that have been commandeered by politics. Our problem isn’t so much Deep State as Deep Culture. Habits of irresponsibility have burrowed themselves deeply into our culture. They’ve been normalized. To say that the government should not provide health care seems callous. To hold that homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to marry one another appears unfair. To suggest that people shouldn’t sleep with whomever they want seems just plain weird. Irresponsibility has now been normalized. This is Deep Culture.
This isn’t a conspiracy, for the simple reasons that the deep culturalists are quite happy to tell you what they’re up to. They could resonate with Marx and Engels’ words in their Communist Manifesto: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.” The Deep culturalists aren’t hidden. They’re right out for all of us to see. And their program is built largely on blame shifting.
The most prominent example of cultural blame shifting today is identity politics (or identitarianism). What is identity politics? It’s when people of the same “gender” or race or social or economic status bandwagon together by interpreting all political (and other) issues though the only lens available on their own bandwagon.
Identity politics is easy to spot: When gays vote only for candidates that advance the LGBTQ agenda. When feminists support only candidates that advance women’s interests. When whites or Blacks or Hispanics bandwagon with their own race to support policies that help only their own race.
Identity politics erodes a culture because it throws overboard the commonwealth. A commonwealth is a political community united around a common good. Christian-influenced nations like England and the U. S. were once commonwealths. What’s most important isn’t what benefits a particular “class” or group, but what’s best for the nation as a whole. There’s a sense of the shared good: we’re all in this together. The individual works for what’s best for everybody else. Identity politics destroys the commonwealth, the common good.
Patriotic Christians of all people should oppose identity politics. Christianity is based on an ethic of love for the Triune God and our fellow man. We should support what’s best for everybody, not just a select group, including Christians.
Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto begins: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Whenever you hear the word “class” introduced into political discussions, you’re often hearing Marxist rhetoric. As in, “This tax policy will harm (or help) the working (or lower, or poor, or upper or wealthy) class.” Note that the goal isn’t what’s best for the commonwealth, but what’s best for one or another “class.”
Grievance politics and Libertarian Marxism
Almost all identity politics is guilty of blame shifting. We call it grievance politics. The white working “class” blames legal or illegal working “class” Hispanics for their squalid economic state and opioid addictions. The black lower “class” blames the white working “class” for their broken families and low-paying jobs. The white middle “class” blames the upper cognitive class for their own stagnant wages and for “not paying their fair share” of taxes. The upper cognitive “class” blames Donald Trump and the white working “class” for impeding their grand vision of social justice. This is grievance politics, the fruit of a grievance culture. It shifts attention from personal responsibility to class warfare. It is Marxist to the core (I call it Libertarian Marxism), and it eats away at a base of a society like termites eat away at a home’s foundation.
Let me end with an exhortation: don’t blame anybody else for your life’s present hardships or roadblocks. Don’t blame your parents. Don’t blame your childhood. Don’t blame your business partner. Don’t blame genetics. Don’t blame the bank. Don’t blame the insurance company. Don’t blame Barack Obama or Donald Trump. As long as you blame somebody else or some group or “class” for your bad situation (real or imaginary), you’ll never have the incentive to work to get out of it. Find out from God’s revelation what you’re responsible for, and do it.
Don’t identify yourself with a race, or a “gender,” or an economic or social “class.” Identify yourself as God identifies you: as created in his image and responsible to him. No less importantly, as a Christian, identify yourself as a member of Jesus Christ’s body. In his covenant love, the Triune God has made himself responsible to you, and you are responsible to him.
Work with me and with CCL to get rid of a grievance culture and revive a responsibility culture. God has called us to victory, and victory begins with seeing ourselves as God sees us and fulfilling our responsibilities before him. There can be no godly change, personally or culturally, if we refuse to take our God-given responsibilities. Let’s work daily to be responsible people.