Few are guilty but all are responsible.
-- Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets
We don’t choose how, when or where we come into the world. We don’t choose our social locations, they’re not our fault. Heidegger said we are geworfen (thrown) here; and wherever we stop rolling, there we are. Whichever of our faces first sees light, that’s how people first will take us; and we’re reacting before we’ve fully entered the scene.
It’s not that our course is predicted, but that the range of chance is specific to our point of insertion in the world. It’s as if we fall like raindrops on one side or other of a continental divide, and the courses of the other watershed are not ours. But there seem to be many divides, many compartments and containers of our long fall to the sea.
In any case, I’m not to blame for my social location. Nor are you. I am responsible for how I comport myself in my course; but I am not guilty of deciding to be what I am. Just look at me: signally white and male, blond and blue-eyed, genteelly poor, educated beyond utility, mentally precocious, emotionally withdrawn and physically awkward. These are characteristics of the location in which I first appeared, a combination of my genes and my upbringing, too late to be undone now. I can revolt, but the plot of my revolt is chosen, its scenario written. I can improve myself by filling in my deficiencies, but my leading attributes continue to lead.
A friend said, “My presence precedes me.” Wherever she goes, she steps into assumptions. Her part in the scene is already written and other actors are in motion before she gets both feet on stage. She is younger than I and female and black. I wear authority casually, but she wears it deliberately. Our styles matter not: our particular music has been heard before our words and deeds. There will be some who like my music, and some will like hers. But in either case some will not like it. We are both in trouble before we begin.
I once lived in a house that had settled for two hundred years, and all its floors sloped toward the central chimney. You couldn’t put a marble down anywhere -- it would roll down the incline. The world is like that, not fallen as the ancients said but warped by history. There are no level floors. There’s no neutrality; you have to hold the marble in place, or else it rolls. And that’s why justice is so difficult. The goddess is supposed to be blind-folded, but in what world could that work? she must see how the floors are warped before she can make fair decisions.
Abstract equality alone could not liberate my brothers and sisters of African descent. The floors were too warped in favor of people who look like me, who had inheritances and educational credentials and family histories and cultural capital. To keep all the marbles from rolling into their accustomed places, we undertook compensatory practices that go under the name of Affirmative Action. Some of our black neighbors say that these actions did a lot of good; but others are uneasy about mandates that isolate them as particularly helpless Americans. It’s awkward. Nothing we can actually do is exactly right. There’s no progress for oppressed people without special efforts -- Smith’s “invisible hand” doesn’t serve this purpose.
Nothing we can actually do is exactly right. My country is now making choices about intervention in a so-called country called Libya, a scene of murder and violence. None of the options were very good. All were potentially disastrous, politically and morally. Niebuhr would remind us that doing nothing is no escape from unpleasant choices. Doing nothing is just another of the nasty options for which we will face judgment.
And this is what the theologians have so badly botched by naming it original sin -- this feeling that no matter what we do, it’s not exactly right, and could be horribly wrong. Though all of us are commanded to be just, none of us is worthy to represent justice. But we are not guilty of our imperfection. The wrongness of the world is not in us but in its sculpting by what has always already transpired. Our teeth are on edge because of the sour grapes our parents bit into. And they in turn may have done the best they could in a world already set on bias. So on and so forth.
I did not enslave anybody, nor did I lynch anyone, nor ever set out to deny others their rights. I am not one of Heschel’s few who are guilty. But I am responsible. And what is this responsibility? To love kindness, do justice and walk humbly.
If I am to walk humbly, I cannot expect that I will rid the world of injustice. I might help to dismantle a particular racist system, for instance; but I cannot end racism any more than I can end greed or power-lust. The possibility of sin in a slanted world will never disappear; and our souls are in greatest peril when we think we can end sin.