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There is an old adage which states that you do not know how big a tree is until you try and cut it down. Today, as cultural forces slowly destroy it, we are beginning to understand that the same thing can be said about personal responsibility.
Society no longer believes that people ought to bear their suffering with dignity and grace. Rather, it now believes that the problems of the individual ought to be made the problems of the community. Individual problems are no longer the consequence of individual decisions, but come as the result of race, gender, class, and so forth.
The result of this move towards collective responsibility has been the invention of victim culture. According to this culture, non-whites are the victims of racism and white privilege, women are the victims of the patriarchy, homosexuals are the victims of a heteronormative society.
The 20th century is a perfect example of what happens when responsibility is taken from the hands of the individual and placed in the hands of the mob. The twin evils of communism and Nazism – which blamed the problems of the individual on economic and racial factors, respectively – led to the deaths of tens of millions of people.
Furthermore, such ideologies led otherwise decent individuals to commit acts of unspeakable violence. Whilst observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a former SS soldier who had been one of the architects of the Holocaust, the writer, Hannah Arendt was struck by the “banality of evil” that had characterised German war atrocities. Arendt noted that the men who conspired to commit genocide were not raving lunatics foaming at the mouth, but rather dull individuals inspired to commit evil due to a sense of duty to a toxic and corrupt ideology.
The Bolsheviks taught the Russian people that their misfortune had been caused by the wealthy. And that the wealth was gained through theft and exploitation. Likewise, the Nazis convinced the German people that their problems could be blamed on the Jews. It is not difficult to see how this philosophy led, step by step, to the gulags and the concentration camps.
The same thing is happening today. The only difference is that those who play it have become more sophisticated. Today people are encouraged to identify with identity groups ranked by so-called social privilege. Then they are taught to despise those with more social privilege than them.
Under this philosophy, crime is not caused by the actions of the individual, but by social forces like poverty, racism, and upbringing. Advocates claim that women should not be forced to take responsibility for their sexual behaviour by allowing them to essentially murder their unborn children. Sexually transmitted diseases like HIV is caused by homophobia rather than immoral and socially irresponsible behaviour. And alcoholism and drug addiction are treated as a disease rather than a behaviour the addict is supposed to take responsibility for. The list is endless.
Personal responsibility helps us take control of our lives. It means that the individual can take a certain amount of control over his own life even when the obstacles he is facing seem insurmountable.
No one, least of all me, is going to argue that individuals don’t face hardships that are not their fault. What I am going to argue, however, is that other people will respect you more if you take responsibility for your problems, especially if those problems are not your fault. Charity for aids sufferers, the impoverished, or reformed criminals is all perfectly acceptable. But we only make their plight worse by taking their personal responsibility from them.
Responsibility justifies a person’s life and helps them find meaning in their suffering. Central to the Christian faith is the idea that individuals are duty bound to bear their suffering with dignity and grace and to struggle towards being a good person. To force a man to take responsibility for himself is to treat him as one of God’s creations.
You cannot be free if other people have to take responsibility for your decisions. When you take responsibility from the hands of the individual you tarnish his soul and steal his freedom.
Freedom from responsibility is slavery, not freedom. Freedom is the ability to make decisions according to the dictates of own’s own conscience and live with the consequences of that decision. Freedom means having the choice to engage in the kind immoral behaviour that leads to an unwanted pregnancy or AIDS. What it does not do is absolve you from responsibility for those actions. Slavery disguised as kindness and compassion is still slavery.
This is our weekly theological article.
If there is any philosophical or moral principle that can be credited with the prosperity of the Western capitalist societies it would have to be the Protestant work ethic. This ethic asserts that a person’s success in this life is a visible sign of their salvation in the next. As a result, the Protestant work ethic encourages hard work, self-reliance, literacy, diligence, frugality, and the reinvestment profits.
Prior to the Reformation, not much spiritual stock was placed on labour. The Roman Catholic Church placed more value on monastic prayer than on manual labour. Much would change when the German monk, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. Luther railed against the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences as a way of avoiding purgatorial punishment. Luther asserted faith over work believing that a person could be set right with God through faith alone. It was Luther’s opinion that an individual should remain in the vocation God had called them to and should work to earn an income, rather than the accumulation of wealth. This belief stood in stark contrast to the Catholic Church’s philosophy that relief from eternal torment came from Godly rewards for good works. By contrast, the second great Protestant, John Calvin (1509 – 1564), believed that faith and hard work were inextricably linked. Calvin’s theory came from his revolutionary idea of predestination, which asserted that only certain people were called into grace and salvation. It is from this that the Protestant work ethic is borne.
As a consequence, many Protestants worked hard to prove to themselves that they had been preselected for a seat in heaven. A result of this extreme predilection towards hard-work was an increase in economic prosperity.
The French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), believed that capitalism was built on a system that encouraged a strong work ethic and delayed gratification. Similarly, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920), argued in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) that America’s success boiled down to the Protestant work ethic. It was asserted as the key idea that would encourage individuals to move up the social ladder and achieve economic independence. Weber noted that Protestants – particularly Calvinists, were largely responsible for early twentieth-century business success.
The Protest work ethic is credited with the United States’ economic and political rise in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), wrote in Democracy in America (1835):
“I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shore. They will to their descendants the most appropriate habits, ideas, and mores to make a republic.”
A study in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology found that nations with a majority Protestant population enjoyed higher rates of employment. The economist, Horst Feldman, analysed data from eighty countries and found that countries with majority Protestant populations – America, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – had employment rates six-percent higher than countries where other religious beliefs were practised. (Furthermore, the female employment rate in Protestant countries is eleven-percent higher). Feldman explained how the legacy of Protestantism led to increased prosperity:
“In the early days, Protestantism promoted the virtue of hard and diligent work among its adherents, who judged one another by conformity to this standard. Originally, an intense devotion to one’s work was meant to assure oneself that one was predestined for salvation. Although the belief in predestination did not last more than a generation or two after the Reformation, the ethic of work continued.”
The Protestant work ethic is one of those Christian ideas that have helped create Western capitalist democracies in all their glory. It is yet another example of the influence that Christianity has had on the modern world.