Posted by: Dan | July 4, 2007

On Guilt and Social Responsibility

Every one of us who was attracted to the poor had a sense of guilt, of responsibility, a feeling that in some way we were living on the labor of others…

Many left the work… because of their own shame. But enduring this shame is part of our penance.
~ Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, 204, 216.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

He said, “Go and tell this people: 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
~ Isaiah 6.8-10.

Inevitably, when one speaks of social issues, of liberation, of exile, and of the poor, one is confronted with the issue of guilt. Specifically, when speaking of these things, one regularly encounters those who are quick to reassure themselves, and others, that they should feel no guilt.

I was reminded of this recently in an exchange on my younger brother's blog (he is a nurse at a health centre for street-involved people). In that exchange, one person wrote the following:

Adressing social issues doesnt always require you to turn you life upside down (although it might!) and those of us that dont shouldnt feel guilty for not doing so… I have noticed that people who tell me that I should feel guilty are usually trying to make themselves feel good, not cause real change. After all, me feeling guilty doesnt really do anything, the reality is that guilt isnt going to cause me to devote my life to poverty, however conviction that it is a valid issue will (hopefully) cause me to play my role, whatever that may be.

What I find so intriguing about this comment, is the way in which the commentator seems to assume, a priori, one should not feel guilty for not being more actively involved in “social issues.” Further, this commentator then goes on to create a distinction between “guilt” and “conviction,” the first, guilt, “doesn't really do anything” and the second, conviction, causes the commentator to play whatever role is appropriate to him. The commentator then goes on to explain that playing the role appropriate to him involves (a) paying taxes; (b) not being rude to the poor; and (c) not “looking away.” Thus, as long as s/he does does things, s/he, and I quote, “shouldnt feel guilty for not playing the same role as you [i.e. my brother and I] do”
(cf. http://nurseabe.blogspot.com/2007/06/always-with-us.html#comments).

I have heard arguments like this countless times from Christians. Christians tend to respect those who work with the poor in more “radical” ways, but they make no connection between that work and their Christian faith in general. Instead, they tend to turn it into an issue of “callings.” You see, they will explain to me, I really admire what you do, but I just couldn't do what you do; it's not my calling. Of course, the “respect” that is shown here, is often just a way of romanticising and/or glorifying those who live lives that are genuinely committed to the poor. However, because such people are “radicals” they are not the norm, and so the respect that is shown is a way of distancing oneself from a similar form of involvement.

But why is it, I wonder, that we are so eager to exculpate ourselves of all manifestations of social guilt and responsibility? How is it that guilt has become an individual, spiritual issue divorced from social realities?

How is it, for example, that an issue like pornography — wherein countless women and children are violently exploited — becomes about “every man's battle,” as though what is at stake is a struggle within the internal consciences of men, and not a struggle that wounds the physical bodies women and children? Do the Christian counselors who speak with men about pornography tell them about the streetkids that are forced into making pornographic videos so that they can have a place to sleep at night? Do they tell them about the women that are trafficked into the porn industry and raped in front of video cameras? Do they tell them about the women, like twenty-six women found in Vancouver, who are raped and then killed in the making of snuff films? When we think of these things, what role does guilt play in our understanding of “every man's battle”? Should one feel guilty because one struggles with inappropriate sexual thoughts? Okay. But should one feel even greater guilt because those thoughts reduce people to sexual objects and also contribute to structures that systematically kidnap, rape, and torture women and children? Absolutely. How dare we reduce such a profoundly social issue to an issue related to one's personal conscience. This battle is not only spiritual and taking place in the minds of men. It is physical, it is bodily, and I know girls (girls, mind you, not yet women) who have the scars to prove it.

But wait, I have gotten ahead of myself. I have mentioned guilt, and assumed that we should feel guilty about some things. True, I have chosen an analogy wherein most men I know actually do feel guilty, and I have argued that the issue is actually a social issue, but I have presupposed the appropriateness of guilt.

However, let me be clear about one thing. I want to talk about guilt, as it relates to social issues and social responsibility, not “in order to make [myself] feel good” (as the commentator on my brother's blog might suggest), but precisely because I know what it is to feel guilty. That is why I began this post with a quote from Dorothy Day: “Every one of us who was attracted to the poor had a sense of guilt,” yes, exactly. Do I feel as though I have participated in structures that “crush God's people” and “grind the faces of the poor” (cf. Is 3.15)? I do. Do I feel as though I have lived a lifestyle wherein both my sins of commission and my sins of omission have placed the blood of others on my hands (cf. Is 1.15; 59.3)? I do. Do I feel as though I have received that which has been taken from others (cf. Is 10.1-3)? I do. Even as I learn to live in new ways, and learn to journey alongside of those in exile, do I still feel guilty? Yes, I do. My shame has not been lifted, nor will it be lifted until the day when all things are made new. It is, as Day says, a part of my penance.

So, do I believe that others should feel guilty for living lives that are, in general, apathetic, self-absorbed, and damaging to others? Sure I do. I really do wonder about this aversion to guilt that we have — it is as though we believe that “accepting Jesus into our hearts” absolves us from all responsibility. But that is not the case. I am well aware of the fact that I am God's beloved, indeed, I have vividly experienced that love, but I am also aware of how complicit I am in corrupt social structures and lifestyles, just as I am aware of the responsibility I have towards my neighbour. Indeed, it is precisely the awareness of ourselves as God's beloved that empowers us to confront, and admit, how guilty we are. That so few Christians seem able to confront or admit their guilt, especially as it relates to social issues, suggests to me that very few Christians actually have been transformed by encounters with God's love.

This is why, when speaking of these things, I rarely mention guilt. Making those who do not know God's love feel guilty usually doesn't lead to significant social change (so, in this regard, I tend to agree with the commentator on my brother's blog). However, in recent reflections, I have come to the conclusion that we cannot, for this reason, refuse to speak of guilt. To refuse to speak of guilt because “it does not cause real change” is to allow our lives to be dictated by pragmatism, and not by faithfulness. Further, to speak faithfully as Christians today, is to speak of our guilt, and of our guilt as it relates to social concerns, as it relates to our neighbours, to the poor, to the dispossessed, to those in prison, and so on and so forth. However, by speaking in this way, we may very well be following the road laid out before Isaiah (the passage I quoted at the start of this post describes Isaiah's prophetic vocation) — we will speak and “make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes.” Now when people come to me and ask, “should I feel guilty?” I think that I will say this:

“Yes, you should feel guilty. But we, too, have felt, and often still feel, guilty. However, we have discovered something that enables us to walk a new path through our shame and if you come and journey with us, the community of the forgiving and the forgiven, you might also come to know that path.”

Guilt is a part of repentance, it is a part of the sort of conviction that leads us to turn our lives around, and to continue to live turned-around-lives (and if you want to tell me that you can experience “conviction” about social issues without feeling “guilt” then I would be inclined to think that your conviction is rather superficial — which is why the impact that “conviction” has on your life is also rather superficial).

However, as a final note, I should mention that this emphasis upon guilt is one that I usually reserve for those who benefit from, and perpetuate, exilic conditions. Those who suffer most under the conditions of exile are already well acquainted with guilt (after all, many of them are those who have, literally, been pronounced “GUILTY” in law courts, in society, and in the Church). When speaking with those who suffer most, the emphasis should fall on forgiveness.

However, all of us would do well to keep in mind these words from Augustine of Hippo:

He who says he has done enough has already perished.

Lord, have mercy. Amen.

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