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Collective Responsibility

Sarah Palin’s video response to the shooting in Arizona was all over the news Wednesday. As I drove home I listened to her words aired over the radio: "Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own,” she said. “They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state..." Given that all indications point to this guy being eight shades of crazy, she may be right in this instance. But the generalizations she makes could not be more wrong, and extending this thinking is clearly destructive. 

Palin is essentially saying she has no responsibility for what happened, not even partial responsibility.(1) Making such a claim is understandable, since many people are blaming this incident on the conditions that exist in the current political climate, particularly on the heated rhetoric between ever more polarized and demonized extremes of the political spectrum, in which she has played a few hands. Specifically many are linking Palin and her cross-hair dotted house district map as contributing factors to this incident. Whether or not she, her map, or the current political climate is the cause in this particular incident, there is no doubt that there are times when we as a society are collectively guilty of attitudes and actions that have negative consequences for ourselves or others, and the effects of our collective actions can in fact lead to “acts of monstrous criminality.”

We have been reminded of at least one example of such monstrous acts by the other reaction to Palin’s speech: the discussion of the phrase “blood libel” and it’s relation to the Jewish holocaust. Many otherwise good people in the late '30's Germany gave silent assent to actions they would never, ever consider doing or directly approving. But mentally dehumanizing a different people group and allowing such things to happen was a corporate sin, of which that nation was guilty. 

This has all got me thinking of the conditions that exist in our country that foster the problems experienced by the least of us. The incarceration for black males in their twenties who did not attend college is over 20%.  36 million people in the US locked in hopeless poverty. Unfortunaley vast numbers of our children attend abysmal schools in failing districts with little hope for success. What are we doing to perpetuate the conditions that lead to these unfortunate statistics? Perhaps individual acts "of monstrous criminality stand on their own," but the small, individual decisions that make up the society in which we live add up to conditions "of monstrous criminality," that are brought about "collectively [by] all the citizens of a state." 

These discussions and the question of "what can we do differently?" reminds me of Ghandi's Seven Societal Sins. The very notion of a societal sin stands in stark contrast Palin’s idea that criminal actions “begin and end with the criminals who commit them.”

I am also reminded of Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," in which he writes, "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in [my comfy suburb] and not be concerned about what happens in [the blighted inner-city slums or the prison-industrial complex]. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Apologies to Dr. King for a few minor edits. Palin highlights our independence, while King highlights our interdependence. 

 As a teacher, I've long believed that one student failing a test is the student's fault. He should have studied harder. But the majority of the students failing a test is the teacher's fault. If most of the kids didn't learn it, then the teacher didn't do an effective job of teaching it. In the same way, one man going to jail for breaking the law is justice. 21% of men going to jail is injustice. If that many people are going to jail, we have to reexamine what conditions exist that lead to these problems, and how we are contributing to these conditions. And what needs to change.

We have to ask ourselves, "What aspects of our American culture - particularly actions by those of us in positions of power - create conditions that are a hindrance to the poor, to minorities, to children in the inner-cities, to families, not to mention those in other less developed countries?"

Dr. Cornel West said, “Being indifferent to other people’s suffering, especially the most vulnerable people’s suffering” is a behavior that contributes to the continued suffering of others. The flip side of this is that what we can do is cease being indifferent and become incensed. We can be outraged. And when the the awareness, and the outrage, and the shared suffering reaches a tipping point, our collective response will be to address the conditions that lead to such suffering. Elsewhere, Dr. West said that what we can do is “Bear witness. Speak the truth and fight for justice.”

As a Christian, I’d like to say that we need to embrace the philosopy and passion of Jesus Christ, who’s focus was often on loving and serving the poor, the widows, the orphans: on “the least of these.” Aknowleding that not everyone does or will believe in Jesus Christ as God, at least everyone can embrace the philophy of Jesus that is shared by other spiritual leaders such as Ghandi, Dr. King, and the Hard Rock Cafe. We can love all and serve all.


(1) No, I’m not accusing Palin of being directly involved or responsible for the shooting in Arizona. But I am arguing that our attitudes, actions, inaction, words, works, and beliefs have a real and far-ranging impact on others. And there are times when we can be collectively guilty while rationalizing an individual innocence. 

Posted on Friday, January 14, 2011 at 04:09PM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

It probably won't surprise you to know that I'm working on a blog post about the Tucson incident as well. :-)

I'll try to respond to your post too.
January 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woodward

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