Not Written In The Stars

One of the most common, if lamentable, tendencies of humanity is to seek to avoid taking responsibility for our choices and our behavior. This frequently presents us with a dilemma, in that we seek to defend our own agency and our own freedom but do not always appreciate the implications of that freedom and that agency. This problems comes up over and over again. Yesterday, for example, one of the local elders in our congregation gave a split sermon on our congregation’s webcast on the blame game, one of my favorite games [1], at least as an observer, and what he said absolutely rings true. As human beings we like to blame others for our misfortune. This shows up in our cliches, in our personal and collective diplomatic efforts, and in a great many of the political and identity problems we face as a culture and as a race as a whole. For example, when we say that success has a hundred fathers but failure is an orphan, we are saying that everyone wants to claim some credit for what is successful but no one is willing to accept blame or responsibility for things that go wrong if they can shove it off to someone else. Yet responsibility is itself neutral between credit and blame. If we can justly claim some credit for something that goes well, we also are in the place to accept some blame where things go wrong. And if we were less asymmetrical when it came to matters of credit and blame, the issue of blame and personal responsibility would be less troublesome because the blame would be more widespread and therefore less terrifying to anyone party.

Let us examine one example of this. Recently, I have gotten to read a great deal of books that discuss the question of the history of slavery in the United States and its legacy written by artists whose worldview is quite different than my own. These people, though they do not realize it, are setting a bit of a trap for themselves when it comes to the issue of personal responsibility as the consequence of agency. The historian Ira Berlin, for example, has made a career writing about the tangled relationship among free and enslaved blacks in American history as well as the tangled relationship between blacks and whites about slavery and other forms of subordination, looking at history in a history of stages, as well as different levels, while paying attention to different regional histories as well. Such histories are by definition somewhat complicated, but one thing that rings true in all over her writings is a strong insistence that even enslaved blacks possessed agency, and that this agency allowed them at least some room to negotiate the terms of their service with even the most powerful slaveowner. As far as it goes, I agree with her that blacks had agency as slaves, and that workers possess agency now, regardless of what societal systems and regimes are in place. As human beings, the fact that we have a mind that belongs to ourselves and have the freedom to choose what we will do with our own bodies and our own time, even if there is consequence for these choices, gives us room to maneuver against anyone who claims themselves to be in authority over us.

This sense of agency, when it is recognized, is powerful. Berlin, as might be expected, makes a lot of out of it when she talks about how it is that free and enslaved blacks in the time of the Civil War continually pushed the issue of unequal pay as well as the fate of slavery into the attention of people who would have preferred not to pay attention to it, but when forced to pay attention to it, acted in ways that ended up bolstering the status of blacks within the United States, even if unwillingly. Yet Berlin, and many others, tend to see this unwillingness only from the point of view of one side. If it is quite true that a great many whites have been unwilling to see blacks as equally human being and in possession of equal rights and a valid perspective that must be taken seriously even where it is not agreed with, it is equally true that a great many blacks and other self-appointed victims of history have refused to accept the implications of their agency as human beings, because accepting agency by definition means accepting personal responsibility for how one deals with the opportunities one has been given.

The consequence of demanding agency is accepting responsibility, and similarly the consequence of demanding responsibility is accepting agency. As human beings we are not always aware of the consequences and repercussions of what we do and what we claim. And it may very well be that in the left-wing demand to accept the agency of peoples who have felt themselves to be the losers of American history and in the demand of the right-wing for people to accept responsibility for their lives, no matter how little that life has matched one’s hopes and dreams, there is common ground in the fact that as human beings we all, no matter how oppressed, have some agency in how we live our lives and in how we react to our circumstances and seek to manipulate them as much as possible in our own favor to the best of our knowledge and ability. Such universal, or nearly so, behavior could unite us, but all too often it divides us because we use such things against others while refusing to recognize it in ourselves. And so long as double standards and hypocrisy are at the core of our self-identity and our judgments of others, it will be impossible for u to be at peace with either God, or others, or even ourselves. And so peace will likely continue to be elusive.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Not Written In The Stars

  1. Dan Lynch says:

    You are spot on with this one! As much as I try to be as honest as I can with people, and that is most of the time, there are times when I do bite my tongue so as not to come across as being soft. If that makes sense.

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