As human beings we like to justify ourselves by avoiding responsibility for unpleasant matters. Being a human being I certainly share in that tendency, perhaps even more so than others because my greater ability to reason often means more ferocious justifications. Be that as it may, occasionally my interest in the question of responsibility intersects with my larger musings on divine providence as well as philosophical questions of causality. And so today I would like to talk about mixed responsibility and how multiple causes means that responsibility is greater rather than lessened at all.
This afternoon after lunch I was pondering the question of responsibility as it pertains to one of the supposed “difficulties” of the Bible, the conspiracy of Hoshea, the last king of an independent Israel before the Assyrian conquest. (There were, of course, independent kings of Judah after this.) 2 Kings 15:30 reads: “Then Hoshea the son of Elah led a conspiracy against Pekah the son of Remaliah, and struck and killed him; so he rained in his place in the twentieth year of Jotham the son of Uzziah.” Pekah, of course, is most famous for being responsible for the effort to put a puppet king on the throne of Judah and fight against the Assyrians with the help of Rezin king of Syria (see Isaiah 7, for example).
The Bible assigns the responsibility of overthrowing the smoking firebrand of Pekah, the son of Remaliah to Hoshea, the son of Elah, who became a puppet king of Assyria until he entered into a conspiracy with Egypt and was imprisoned by the Assyrians, after which Samaria was besieged and taken into captivity. The Assyrians claim credit for it, claiming as Nebuchadnezzar claimed of King Zedekiah (the last king of the Davidic line before the Babylonian captivity) that Hoshea was a ‘king of their choosing.’ And so he may have been. Whatever the responsibility of Assyria in supporting Hoshea as a more pro-Assyrian puppet king to the harshly anti-Assyrian Pekah, it does not absolve Hoshea of his responsibility in overthrowing Pekah in a coup. Nor does either of those responsibilities absolve God of His own design in bringing up Assyria to judge an unrighteous and flagrantly rebellious people Israel (see Isaiah 8:1-10).
The point is that many people can be responsible in some way for a particular action. The fact that others are involved does not make any of them less responsible. This is the problem with the idea of “collective responsibility,” where if you get enough people together no one is responsible. In fact, every single person remains responsible, regardless of what other people are doing or what private conspiracies they are engaging in. The activities and plans of others do not absolve us of our own personal responsibility in actions. They merely make other people responsible in addition to ourselves, perhaps in different ways.
Let us take the example of Hoshea. He himself was culpable for overthrowing his sovereign, and bearing whatever spiritual or eternal punishment exists for rebellion in the eyes of the sovereign of the universe. Likewise, the rulers of Assyria, whomever may have supported Hoshea’s conspiracy, also bear responsibility for the murder and rebellion that they supported. And indeed, God Himself takes responsibility as well for establishing and tearing down kings and other leaders according to His plans (Romans 13:1-7). Sometimes leaders are raised in order to punish a wayward society, or to show the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of a given society. These are not our plans and designs, and so we must accept that some responsibility is above our heads, even if some of it clearly belongs to us.
This same situation is true nowadays. All too often we want to play pin the tail on the donkey. We want to fix responsibility for a given problem in society, be it our moral decay or lack of stability or growth or whatever it may be, on a single person to serve as a scapegoat for the community. We want to blame Satan for deceiving us. We want to blame our friends or family or lovers who have betrayed us and acted disloyalty (and certainly many of us, myself included, have seen that happen to a great degree). We want to blame those in charge for not doing their jobs, even if we have been culpable in seeking to prevent them from doing their jobs. Nonetheless, we have culpability to the extent that we fail to meet our own responsibilities, and to the extent that we enable or encourage others to do what is wrong. There is always more than enough blame to go around, and fortunately none of us are responsible for making sure that everyone receives their just desserts.
Likewise, the fact that God is ultimately responsible for allowing us to act according to free will, for all its destructiveness, does not mean that we can escape blame for abusing the gift of free will and whatever talents are on loan from God that we have while we inhabit this earth. Just because all things work together for good, and for the working out of God’s plans does not mean that all things are good. God takes the responsibility for Himself to work things out for good, including very horrible things, but that does not absolve us of our own requirements to do good and not evil, to be merciful to the undeserving (for we too are undeserving of the mercy that God has for us) and be just in our dealings with others to the utmost of our modest abilities to be just and fair given our own biases.
For causes are never as simple as they may appear. We want to blame the way that people behave on their poverty or their family background and deny their free will. And the truth is that the wicked and absurd things that happen to us during our lives do influences us. Our family background, our culture, our religious beliefs all influences us. Our friends and family and situation in life certainly all influence us. But they do not determine us. We remain free and responsible. Sometimes we may not have very many options, and must choose the least bad of a pretty horrific set of alternatives. Sometimes we may not see all of the alternatives we have for reasons of our own mental blinders and human fallibility. No matter. We remain responsible for our own actions, and everyone else remains responsible for their own share of the blame. There’s more than enough blame to go around, that is for sure.