Collective Responsibility as a Spiritual Practice

Navigating Election Day and its aftermath this week, I was struck by the assertiveness of the “us and them” mentality.  And I’m not talking about Republicans versus Democrats.  I’m talking about the American public versus our politicians.  This week featured a great deal of talk about what “they” have or have not been able to do for “us”, and what the newly elected “them” will or will not be able to do for “us” over the next two years.  “We” seem ready and willing to blame “them” for our national problems, but there doesn’t seem to be any sense that “we” bear some responsibility for the mess in which we find ourselves.

For a democracy to work, all of its participants must share responsibility for our national life.  It is not enough simply to vote out of a sense of anger and outrage, and expect that those elected will simply fix things, and then enter another cycle of anger and outrage when things don’t get fixed.  We complain about the tone of our national conversation and the endless infighting amongst politicians, infighting which generally leads to nothing being done, and yet we don’t seem to realize that this behavior mirrors what goes on in the larger society outside of Washington.  If we imagine that Washington serves as a mirror of our national life, what does this say about the state of our society as a whole?

The reality is that politics is what it is today because our society as a whole has largely lost any sense of interdependence, any understanding that we have a responsibility for one another, that we are all in the same boat.  We have fallen victim to the illusion that there is an “us” and a “them”, defining “them” either as politicians or people we don’t agree with or whose life choices or mode of being are simply wrong or unacceptable.   With all the lip-service that many people pay to Christianity in this country, we have forgotten one of the most fundamental teachings of Jesus, exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan:  that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and that the person who is our neighbor is simply the person we meet who is in need.  This was Jesus’ way of saying that we are responsible for each other.  On a national level, this means that we are responsible for our national life.  We can’t hand over that responsibility to others and pretend that our behavior — from the way we speak and carry on our debates to the causes we choose to support to the votes we cast — doesn’t have any real consequences.

This idea of taking responsibility for our own actions, as well as responsibility for the welfare of our fellow human beings, is a key concept certainly in the Christian tradition and also in the other major spiritual traditions of the world. The reason for that is simple:  from a spiritual perspective, all of the things that separate us fall away.  From a spiritual point of view, there is just one human family from which no one is excluded and no one is therefore isolated from that which affects someone else.

In the Jewish tradition, one finds the idea of tikkun olam, which in Hebrew means, “repairing the world”.  While this concept has a long and complex lineage, an important part of that lineage is the idea that to be faithful means to take responsibility for helping to repair the world in an ethical sense through the performance of good deeds, what one might call acts of mercy or compassion.  It is an idea that appeared in the early rabbinic period.  It is an idea that I think Jesus would have found great merit in.  It is yet another way of talking about loving one’s neighbors, another way of talking about our shared responsibility for the world.

Today, much of our political energy seems to be directed toward enhancing the suffering of others.  That may seem like an odd thing to say, but I have come to believe that it is true.  Most of the time, I don’t think we realize that this is what is happening.  We think we are setting out to ease the suffering of others.   But the presence of so much anger, name-calling, distortion, intolerance and just meanness points toward the truth of what our politics has really become.  Our political discourse is largely directed not at attempting to repair the world for everyone, but at inflicting damage on those whom we oppose.  It has become all about who has power and can keep it — not about how that power might be used in the service of others.

It is this kind of attitude toward power that we see at work in the image of Jesus being crucified.  Those who killed Jesus – politicians both Jewish and Roman –  were not concerned with repairing the world, but with who had power and could keep that power.  And in the midst of that monstrous use of power for its own sake, Jesus says, “Forgive them…for they don’t know what they are doing.”   We don’t know what we are doing, either.  We throw around angry words and angry votes, we gather around the crosses of those being crucified and cheer on those who are pounding the nails.  What we fail to realize is that we are not just doing injury to others but to ourselves and to the whole of our democracy.  For we cannot succeed as a nation unless we recover a sense of shared responsibility, unless we recover a sense of interdependence, unless we realize that we are all in this together.

The politicians are not some strange strain of alien life.  “They” are “us”.  We are them.  They reflect what we have become.  Our response to that truth should not be anger, but rather a deep soul-searching and a commitment to find a better way to fulfill our responsibilities to one another, to repair the world that we have damaged so deeply.

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