Seemingly minutes after the tragic shootings, like the one in Baton Rouge on Sunday, the blame-game kicks in again. In this case, the blame is laid on police brutality, Black Lives Matter’s rhetoric, the National Rifle Association’s gun lobby, Hollywood’s glorification of violence, social media rants, Christianity’s otherworldliness, Middle America’s ignorance, conservative policies, liberal policies, Barack Obama, Donald Trump—and so on.
And then there’s the understandable distancing of every group: “We decry this violence! We have never suggested, ever, that our program/policies/agenda condones this sort of thing.”
In other words, it’s always someone’s else’s fault. Someone else’s problem. My friends and I are guilt free. My group or cause is not to blame.
We do this because we’re afraid. If our political and social enemies spot any fault, any weakness, we’ll lose power and prestige, as will our just and righteous cause. And we can’t let that happen. So we keep up the front that our side has it completely right and everyone else has it wrong.
But what would our country look like if instead of trying to find blame in someone else’s heart, we examined our own? And what if, in our self-examination, we found some reason to suppose that we may have contributed to the violence that now so commonly, regularly, like clockwork, characterizes American life?
I recently re-read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and was again taken with the religious philosophy of Elder Zosima and his disciple Alyosha Karamazov. It’s best expressed in one of Zosima’s speeches to his fellow monks. He says,
We are not holier than those in the world because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, but, on the contrary, anyone who comes here, by the very fact that he has come, already knows himself to be worse than all those who are in the world, worse than all on earth.
I wonder if what Zosima said to the monks is something he might say to the Christian church today. We are not holier than those in world. We have joined the church because we believe we are worse than all those in the world. One sign of spiritual maturity, if St. Paul is an example, is to come to believe we are the chief of sinners.
Zosima/Dostoyevksy then pushes the idea further:
But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth.
This suggests that, in some sense, we are responsible for police brutality; for the decay of the inner city; for police shootings; for lack of sympathy with law enforcement; for politicians and social activists, left and right, that have inadvertently fostered a culture of violence; and so on—“for all people and for each person on this earth.”
To be honest, I don’t quite know what this fully means. We are so locked into an individualistic worldview, that Dostoyevsky’s idea is hard to grasp. But I sense he’s on to something, and we hyper-individualistic Christians would be wise to heed it.
The story goes that early in the 20th century, The Times of London sent out a query to famous writers, asking, “What’s wrong with the world today?” The great Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton replied, “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G. K. Chesterton.”
I don’t believe we’ll make headway on the hateful, blaming rhetoric and the escalating violence until more Americans stop blaming others and start acknowledging our own sinfulness, and given the right circumstances, the likelihood that we might very well do the things we decry in others.
Abraham Lincoln is one model here. Because he was himself deeply imbued with humility, in his Second Inaugural Address, he refused to castigate either side in the Civil War:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.
As Lincoln’s presidency exemplified, the fact that we don’t judge doesn’t mean we don’t act. But when we do act, we do so “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” and so “strive on to finish the work we are in.” In other words, even as we speak and act for what we think is right and just, we recognize that in some sense we too are the problem, that we are responsible for all people.
I don’t have much hope that the ideologues who rant about the opponent’s shortsightedness, chicanery, and lies will revise their tactics anytime soon. How does one soften a hardened heart? (Then again, we must admit that with God all things are possible).
I have some hope, though, that Christians just might recognize the radical word of Jesus in all this. That radical word, which leads to the humility that Lincoln exemplifies, is repent. It was after all the very first word of Jesus’ public ministry: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And until that kingdom comes, that first word remains the first word.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.