Owning responsibility with honest answers

Mobile Phone DrivingTelly crime shows often feature a prematurely greyhaired man, handsome, kind, articulate, who stands up for his family against the cynical cops. Late in the show, he is revealed to be the guilty one. Instantly, his gentleness falls away, his Dracula teeth appear, and his motivation is seen to be slavering self-interest. Guilty, he is now a monster.

Who wants to be guilty? Especially when guilt is associated with court trials, judgement, punishment and humiliation. In prayers, it is a stain, a burden or a curse. Christian theology speaks of the guilt we inherit through Adam, even though we were not involved personally in his action. Guilt is heavy stuff.

But even if we don't want to mention guilt, we still need some words to explore our involvement in wrongdoing. After all, we spend much of our lives acting badly or dealing with the consequences when others have acted badly.

For example, I may have committed the most heinous crime of knocking down a cyclist when I was talking on my mobile phone. And, coincidentally, I may have inherited the wealth of my great-grandfather who built up his estate by murdering his neighbours and bribing the judges. I am involved in both these events. What am I to make of the different forms of involvement?

Rather than speaking of guilt, I would prefer to explore our responsibility in the face of wrongdoing. To be responsible is to be prepared to respond, to answer the variety of questions that these actions address to us.

We are called first to answer to the reality of what has happened. It may be tempting to believe our 4WD has bumped over a wombat, but this theory does not answer to the reality of twisted metal and something softer than wombat flesh. Similarly, we might like to believe our great-grandfather was an upright man, unjustly maligned. But the evidence may persuade us otherwise.

Once we have acknowledged what has happened, we are then called to answer to the reality of our personal involvement. This means acknowledging that I was driving the car when it hit the cyclist and that I was driving dangerously. It also means acknowledging that I was not personally involved in what my great-grandfather did.

At a deeper level these events invite us to ask who and what we are. I see what I am capable of. I may also see the evasions and compromises that led me to drive dangerously, and note that my first response was to ring my slick lawyer. I ask whether these actions, or the easily decent person I see in the mirror, represent my true image. When I reflect on my family's fierce attachment to the land and scorn for the descendents of its earlier owners, I may wonder how deeply our own capacity to see and respond to reality, and so our own humanity, has been weakened.

Finally, we are called to answer to the consequences of wrongdoing. I recognise that life is permanently changed for the cyclist I have hurt, and also for her husband, children and friends. I may also see that my great-grandfather's criminally acquired wealth has benefited me with wealth, education and opportunity. It has also diminished the lives and opportunities of the dispossessed family.

To recognise the consequences of wrongdoing in which I have been involved as actor or as beneficiary is only a first step. We are also called to answer to the people whom these actions have hurt. That means first seeing them as human beings like myself, meeting them, and entering into conversation about how the hurt they have been caused can be set right.

The concept of responsibility is a useful tool with which to analyse our involvement in wrongdoing, whether that be personal or as beneficiaries of past sins. It offers more flexibility than the concept of guilt.

But it does not replace the concept of guilt. Classical tragedies explore guilt by demonstrating how the effects of wrongdoing can systematically poison relationships within societies and remove any possibility of happiness. They suggest that if we confine our attention to individual responsibility we will be superficial in both the analysis we make and the remedies we bring.

Guilt is not the mark of being a monster. It is the mark of living in a world that can be twisted monstrously out of shape by what ordinary people do wrong individually. It can be mended only by what they do together.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.




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Existing comments

Bravo, Andy! Bravo! Your last two contributions have been models of hard ethical thinking wrapped in more temperate pastoral concern. In particular, I think you are on the money in your plea for truth-telling. We have become masters today at - as Hegel put it - evading the thing itself by giving ourselves penitential acts to perform precisely in order to keep at bay the terrifying prospect of confronting this truth. (I am often reminded of Freud's stories of those patients who babbled on and on so that they wouldn't have to confront the truth of their psychosis embodied in the analyst.)

Taking my courage in both hands, then, may I ask you what you think of Rudd's recent 'apology' in light of its refusal to confront white Australia with precisely this 'truth' of our prosperity on the backs of bloody dispossession and the illegitimacy of our national existence? How can truth-telling and responsibility (if not 'guilt') be reintroduced into public and political discourse? How, in other words, can the state thus begin to fulfill the moral or pedagogic function envisioned by Aristotle? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you again for your magnificent contributions.

Scott Stephens | 13 March 2008  

Re 'It may be tempting to believe our 4WD has bumped over a wombat.' Tempting? Isn't that shocking? How about a campaign to stop carelessness about road-kill? It is driving some species towards extinction. More careful night-driving in bushland could prevent so many orphaned creatures that other people then try to save, or don't.

A British man eats road-kill as his way of preventing waste.

It would be interesting to know how many thousands of drivers know they have driven over animals. Perhaps RACV could ask.

And what are people feeling is their own greatest collective guilt? There's a lot. Trillions spent on weapons of horrible destruction - by the 'goodies'? What do we do? Universal Guilt Day – making a real Day of Atonement - followed by...? Could we have a Peace Museum?

val yule | 13 March 2008  

I must admit to Val's reaction reading about the wombat. Then I realised few drivers could ignore such an encounter and many would come off the worse.
But the wombat is only a symbol in this piece. I believe that today more time is wasted on shifting responsibility to someone else than on any other discussion, especially in the workplace. This apology is only a long awaited acknowledgment of the wrong done. The real work starts now.

Magaret McDonald | 13 March 2008  

I think the publication of your two articles on "guilt" is a valuable addition to the literature. I think they demonstrate incisive and independent thought based on long reflection and marked with insightful distinctions which have not surfaced in those Moral Theology books I have used. As always what is understood is that this is an absolute affecting our relationship with our creator God.

Ray Lamerand | 13 March 2008  

Another Jesuit, William Barry, has written that, before we can face up to our own guilt and sinfulness, we need FIRST to have a deep sense that God "really does love us with an everlasting love...it is the experience of knowing that one is lovely and loved that precedes any real sense of having marred that loveliness" (God and You, Paulist Press, 1987, pp 47-8). This idea also seems to permeate the Gospels: it is only when people experience Jesus' love and healing power that they are brought to repentance.

I think this point is particularly vital because there are so many people in our society who have turned away from God precisely because their experience of Christianity has been one which emphasised sin and guilt rather than God's overwhelming love. Ironically, this overexposure to guilt, especially when one is a child, can also be the reason why people find it hard to take responsibility for their actions.

Why have Church leaders so often failed to communicate God's love, and instead focused on sin and wrongdoing? Is it to maintain their control over us? Or is it that the Good News seems just "too good to be true"?!

Cathy Taggart | 14 March 2008  

Thanks Scott for your generous remarks and also for the invitation to reflect on the Apology in the light of my comments on guilt.

From my perspective the Apology was a very good initial step, leaving much to be done. It had many good points. It focused on one set of wrong actions, namely the removal of children from parents on racial grounds, and described the human reality of those actions. It acknowledged the wrongfulness of those actions, and the consequences for the lives of those removed and for their families. It engaged representatives of those who were wronged and offered them a formal apology.

I found the symbolism of the apology powerful and moving. The rhetoric and the structure of the event both intimated more than could be put into words.

But the Apology was only an initial step in a long process, and so leaves much to be done. It left still to be acknowledged the broader enrichment of settlers through the dispossession of indigenous Australians. It leaves yet to be explored and recognised the way in which the wrongs of the past have diminished the moral insight of Australians and so have diminished our humanity. It leaves a conversation on many different levels, yet to be conducted between equals. That conversation must include compensation as one of its themes.

So the Apology left us in with a chance of a new beginning which previously I would not have thought possible. I hope that it will be built on.

Finally, I wonder, Scott, if the place that symbols have in our different theologies might colour our attitude to the Apology. In the Catholic tradition symbols are vital because they make room for what cannot be put into words. In the Reformed tradition symbols are valued, but also suspect because they
can promise grace on the cheap, and so avoid conversion of heart. Perhaps that might be a topic for another conversation.

Andy Hamilton | 14 March 2008  

Thanks Andrew for your refreshing perspective and prompting. It is ages since I enjoyed your lectures. I'm grateful for your gentle yet insightful wisdom again here - as I have in other publications from time to time. Shalom

Jen Pretty | 14 March 2008  

Thanks for your reflections, Andy. On one level, your final suggestions on the differing role of icons in the Catholic and Protestant economies is an interesting way ahead. (And it is a conversation I'll take you up on sometime.) But for me this is a very simple matter of the severely impoverished function that morality plays today. I am in complete agreement with you on the beauty and appropriateness of the words/symbolism of the apology held for Indigenous Australians. But what of the simultaneous act of absolving white Australians from guilt? That's my point. Of course, like all language and symbols, the apology was merely indicative and could never offer a full accounting for past wrongs. But what of the appeasement that this effectively offered to those who should feel more responsibility than they do?

Scott Stephens | 14 March 2008  

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