For What Am I Responsible?
Reading sometimes brings uncomfortable challenges.
In the last couple of days, I have been reading several different items, all of which, either directly or indirectly, ask the question which I have chosen as my title.
The first is a book that we are reading for our bi-monthly Book Club Dinner and Discussion (though our meetings have recently been interrupted by Covid-19). It is THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: THE EPIC STORY OF AMERICA’S GREAT MIGRATION, by Isabel Wilkerson. The “migration” of the title is the movement of vast numbers of African Americans from the American South to the North. Of course, the reason for that migration was the horrific conditions African Americans experienced in the South, both before and after the Civil War. I grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, which is mentioned in the book, and I wrote my undergraduate thesis on William Faulkner’s exploration of our corporate responsibility for those horrific conditions.
The second is a story in the March 21, edition of The New York Times Magazine, “A Toxic Legacy,” the content of which is described this way: “It took decades for the United States to acknowledge the effects of Agent Orange in Viet Nam. Will it finally recognize the damage done in Laos?” This article provides extraordinarily gruesome details of the ongoing trauma in Viet Nam’s neighbor as a result of America’s efforts to defoliate the routes Viet Cong troops took on their way to attack Americans in South Viet Nam. Laos did not support the Viet Cong but it was as powerless to stop them as was South Viet Nam. And American bombing of its “ally” in that war continues to have devastating effects today. Two of my brothers-in-law served in the American army trying to thwart the efforts of the Viet Cong, one of them losing his leg – and almost his life – in that effort. Who – if anyone – is now responsible to assist with the costs of caring for those Laotians who continue to suffer from effects of the residual amounts of Agent Orange found in Laos?
The third item is, appropriately enough, the biblical Book of Revelation. This one is, of course, even “trickier” than the first two. But it is also the most relevant to contemporary Christians. Chapters fifteen and sixteen describe the seven plagues and the seven bowls of God’s wrath which will be (perhaps ARE BEING?) poured out on the earth. The precipitating causes of these judgments include such things as “worshipping idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk” (9: 30 – 31) and “sexual immorality” (14:8). Are any of us in any way “responsible” for the ongoing prevalence of such behaviors in our world? Even if we personally are not participating in such activities – just as we were not personally participating in Southern racism or in the dumping of Agent Orange on Laos – do we bear any responsibility for addressing the reality of such behaviors in our societies?
My understanding of Scripture is that we DO bear responsibility for addressing such behaviors. Please note my use of the word “addressing.” I do not use the word “eliminating” or even the word “reducing.” We all know Isaiah’s commissioning for prophetic ministry – he was warned that, in his lifetime, his prophetic warnings would be ignored (Isaiah 6: 8 – 13). But Isaiah was responsible to speak the truth . . .and he did.
That is our responsibility.
I must not ignore the evil I see in the world. I must speak up and out . . . and this includes speaking up and out about the lingering effects of “long-ago sin.” No more than Isaiah are we responsible for the results of our speaking. And we are NEVER to speak as though we have the omniscience of God. He surely knows the ultimate outcome of all people and events . . . but we do NOT. We address words and actions but never the spiritual state of the speaker or the actor. Speaking up and out is our permanent biblical responsibility. When we do this, we bring honor to the Lord. When we do either less or more than this, we bring Him DIShonor.
For further discussion of this subject, see my book, THE GOOD NAME: THE POWER OF WORDS TO HURT OR HEAL, New Growth Press, 2019.