Cain kills Abel, and God asks Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?” Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The retort serves not only as a refutation of any implied responsibility for the fate of another, but also as an accusation against God, who is, presumably, the keeper of us all. If God can neglect the cries of Abel, why can’t Cain? If God is not morally responsible, then neither is Cain.
For injustice to survive in any society it has to cloak itself in moral justifications. In the United States, for example, we perpetuate a myth about the land of opportunity: a just and meritocratic society whose inhabitants take comfort in the knowledge that those who have failed lacked the character and integrity required to succeed. In “The Rise of Meritocracy,” Michael Young observes that in the meritocracy a sinister new form of social stratification emerges wherein “those who did badly could then be regarded, and might in fact regard themselves, as having deserved no better.” As a result, no one should feel any responsibility for the poor. Indeed, if we help them, we will only reinforce their helpless state. There’s nothing to be done, they must learn through their suffering to help themselves. In order for injustice to hide in plain sight, we made a virtue out of self-interest.
Do the poor deserve their poverty? Or did society fail them in some way? The way we answer this question says a lot more about us than it does about them – conservatives tend to hold the individual responsible, while liberals prefer to hold society responsible. But Jesus rejected both paradigms in favor of making himself personally responsible for the evil that plagued his world. Instead of shifting responsibility on to another, a blameless man accepted all of the blame. What would it look like to follow in this manner, each of us coming to see ourselves as responsible for one another, regardless of the circumstances?
In Les Miserables, the protagonist, Jean Valjean, is sent to prison for 19 years of hard labor because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children during an economic depression. Upon his release from prison, Valjean is shown hospitality by a priest from whom he steals silverware. He is arrested and brought back to the priest, who admonishes Valjean (in front of the soldiers) for forgetting to take the silver candlesticks that he’d given him as well. The priest reminds Valjean of his “promise” to use the silver to become an honest man, and informs him that with this silver he has bought Valjean’s soul, withdrawing it from evil and giving it to God. By sharing in the responsibility for Valjean’s sins, the priest liberates Valjean’s soul from a cycle of retribution and condemnation, and captures him into a cycle of loving-kindness. Valjean goes on to become immensely kind and generous to everyone he encounters, even those who seek to do him harm.
We can all applaud the charity of the priest in Les Miserables, because the story makes it easy to identify with the humanity of Valjean, and to recognize the corruption of Valjean’s society. But how far should we take the logic of the priest? The notion of taking responsibility for the sins of the other is complicated, for example, if the other in question is a violent terrorist. What if we eliminated our national defense budget, and spent that money on humanitarian aid for those around the world who actively seek our destruction, instead of patrolling their skies with hellfire missiles? It would make us vulnerable, to be sure. If there were any price other than vulnerability that could secure the possibility of love and reconciliation, I’m sure we would have paid it long ago.
In the “Fragility of Goodness,” Martha Nussbaum observes that it is our openness to the world (i.e. our ability to trust uncertain things beyond our control) that makes it possible for tragedy to befall us. But the greatest tragedy of all is the attempt to guard against tragedy by closing oneself off to the world. She writes,
“Being a human means accepting promises from other people and trusting that other people will be good to you. When that is too much to bear, it is always possible to retreat into the thought, ‘I’ll live for my own comfort, for my own revenge, for my own anger, and I just won’t be a member of society anymore.’ That really means, ‘I won’t be a human being anymore’.”
In other words, if you try to save your life you will lose it, because the life you live for your own sake is of little value to anybody, including yourself. But if you are willing to lose your life you will find it, because only a life open to the demands of love is a life worth living. This is why, when we dehumanize others, we are the ones who become unhuman. Before his executioners, Socrates famously said that the only harm that could befall him is the harm he might do to his own soul.
When pacifists decry the use of violence in any circumstance, they are not taken seriously. Our society scoffs at the illogic of pacifism, the kind we see on display in Gandhi’s appeal to the Jews of Germany to respond with love, even as the fires of the Shoah had already been lit. In an open letter response to Ghandi, Martin Buber observes that loving one’s enemies is only effective when one’s enemies have a conscience. When dealing with tyrants, as with two year olds, turning the other cheek only reinforces their wickedness, and to do so is to abdicate one’s moral responsibility.
The Jesus who went willingly to the cross surely understood this. Even if his protest had been against merely the political and religious establishment of his day, propped up by the most ruthless empire in human history, he would not have accomplished much. But his protest was against nothing less than the indifference of a world that crucifies the innocent. Matthew’s Gospel speaks of an abandoned convict, bloody and beaten, hanging from a Roman cross, crying out against the darkness of the afternoon: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s an image that holds fast in the same moment both the futility of Jesus’ struggle against the darkness and the depth of Jesus’ faith in God.
The story of Jesus’ passion and death is a story about how faith in the God who is Love can be possible even in the darkest possibility, even amidst the fires of the Shoah. What could it mean for how we live in the world to have not just faith in Jesus but the faith of Jesus? Perhaps Buber was right about the Nazi’s lacking a conscience, perhaps the politics of Jesus are too idealistic for a world that is capable of the Shoah. But if the cost of our security comes at the price of our humanity, then what have we gained? If I’m going to err, I’d rather err on the side of imputing a fundamental goodness to my enemies, then to become an enemy to myself. Better to die believing in a God of Love who vindicates the oppressed, than to live long enough to see yourself become the oppressor.
Ursula K. Le Guin writes a story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In the story, Omelas is a utopic city whose inhabitants are both happy and intelligent. The city is immensely wonderful in every detail but one: for Omelas to prosper, a particular child must be kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery. Every citizen of Omelas learns this unpleasant detail upon coming of age. After seeing the child, most of the citizens are shocked and disgusted, but ultimately they come to reason that, even if they could do something, by this point “it would not get much good of its freedom.” Instead, they resolve to live happy lives so that the suffering of the unfortunate child is worth it. However, a few of the citizens, both young and old, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go.
Our prosperity and happiness in the United States is safeguarded by secrets just as terrible as the one tucked away in Omelas. The easier it becomes for us to use phrases like “necessary evil,” the harder it will be for us to distinguish ourselves from the kind of evil that we are up against. When prosperity is our highest collective value, turning a blind eye to the injustices that make it possible becomes our patriotic duty. We have to learn that there can be no lasting happiness for any of us until there is finally happiness for all of us.
Benjamin Boyd completed his undergraduate degree in Ottawa, Canada, studying Philosophy and Culture at Augustine College and Dominican University College. He just finished the first year of an M.Div at Boston College, but is taking this school year off to travel South America and read lots of books.