Thursday, May 21, 2009

A New Era of Responsibility?

A Call to Responsibility

Responsibility is one of the words of the day, in large part, thanks to President Barack Obama. He offered a compelling statement of responsibility in his January inaugural: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

“This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

“This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

His call to responsibility was not a one time event, but a recurring theme. While campaigning for the Democratic nomination in June, 2008 at a Chicago Black church, he admonished young black men that “responsibility does not end at conception.” And when, earlier this year his administration issued its national budget, it was titled “A New Era of Responsibility,” setting a standard for economic recovery.

Responsibility is a theme dear to our liberal religious way, long yoked to our Unitarian organizing principle of freedom—freedom of belief and conscience. We have long suffered under an outside judgment that freedom is a license for licentiousness. So, in response, we have argued that freedom and responsibility are, in essence, a dialectic. Each presumes the other. Freedom and responsibility are pavers on the pat of our liberal religious journey.

This morning I will reflect on responsibility and challenge you to do so, too..

The Responsibility Covenant

I begin by looking at one of the founding documents of Western Civilization and the Jewish-Christian tradition, the first book of the Bible and the Old Testament, Genesis. I’ll read its first two chapters through the lens of responsibility.

First, toward the end of the seven days of Creation , God creates the first man, Adam. God then creates woman from Adam’s rib. (An older account later in this book says that man and woman were co-created at the same moment.) Whatever account you follow, the result is the same. God establishes a covenant with Adam and Eve. A covenant is an honored contract that establishes right relationships between the parties. God blesses the first couple with an existence in Paradise, with only one restriction or responsibility: not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A serpent beguiles Eve and Eve beguiles Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. When they do, they gain moral knowledge. The signature of that knowledge is their startling awareness of nakedness, which they cover with leaves. This gives them away to God, who first holds the serpent responsible and metes out consequences. It shall crawl on its belly and be despised by humankind henceforth. Adam and Eve are held responsible, too. They are expelled from Eden. As a consequence the man will have to labor by the sweat of his brow for sustenance. As a consequence the woman will experience great pain in childbirth, yet still desire her husband.

The story jumps forward in time to the first siblings, Cain and Abel. Cain is a farmer. Abel is a shepherd. Abel’s burnt flesh offerings prove more savory to God. Cain is jealous and kills his brother. God questions Cain regarding his brother’s whereabouts. Cain responds with one of the most haunting responses that echo down the corridor of human history: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

God’s response is an indictment of Cain’s question, implying that yes, he is his brother’s keeper. In consequence, Cain is expelled to a land East of Eden and he (and his progeny) shall ever be wanderers, all to Cain’s supreme distress.

These seminal stories lead us to the double meaning of the notion of responsibility: 1) There’s responsibility in response to right relationships in the nature of things. Adam and Eve are responsible to God’s will through a covenant. And it is also true that God is responsible to them. Cain, despite his question, is in fact responsible for his brother Abel. 2) There’s responsibility as being accountable for one’s acts, usually expressed as punishment for irresponsibility, such as eating the forbidden fruit or harming one’s kindred.

So, think of responsibility in those two dimensions: 1) the moral obligation inherent in right relationships and 2) moral culpability or accountability for one’s actions.

In the swirl of the continuing economic crisis, a deep recession or possible depression. these two dimensions of responsibility loom large.

Culpability and the Economic Crisis

Regarding moral culpability for the mess that engulfs us all. There’s plenty of blame to go around: Hold responsible the imprudent seekers of the so-called sub-prime mortgages who ordinarily wouldn’t have qualified by virtue of down payment or income—the mostly underclass who were so easily duped. Hold responsible the lenders who sought out the imprudent, under-qualified. Hold responsible the bundlers who gathered together such mortgages and sold them to larger institutions, who in turn bundled more mortgages together and passed them on in ever larger circles throughout the economic marketplace. Hold responsible the large financial institutions, the banks, brokerage houses, and insurance companies who traded in such shaky packages. Hold responsible the supposed government regulators who should have been keeping tabs on this financial house of cards that imperiled so many financial institutions. Hold responsible the politicians who cozied up with titans of the marketplace, sometimes for their political/financial gain. Hold responsible the greed of Wall Street, where officers and upper management profited from obscene bonuses for their actions later proven derelict. Hold responsible the greed of Main Street in a era of easy money, when soaring housing values were turned into lines of credit and spent to afford what has been called “affluenza.” Blame a glut of credit cards that also fueled a consumer shopping spree, while paying interest rates that were once considered to be nothing but usury. Blame the auto-companies, two of the Big Three at least, for failing to divine a future of tight credit, more fuel-efficient and alternative fuel using automobiles, and labor contracts hobbling their future. Blame unions, too, for demanding benefits and wages that cause the cost of cars to soar in the face of international competition. Blame George W. Bush and blame Bill Clinton whose respective policies, Republican and Democrat, turned aside from tough and prudent choices

Taking an Old Testament point of view and invoking the universal moral principle of fairness, should those who caused the crisis be punished, if not in fact, at least in rhetoric?

For example, who’s responsible for and what are the consequences for allowing billions of dollars of Recovery Money to be used for huge bonuses for executives at AIG. And is it fair to retroactively declare that they must either return the bonuses contracted for months ago, or be taxed on them at an unheard of rate of 90%?

The fairness concept in the midst of this financial meltdown/crisis is perplexing. On one side is a large percentage of Americans. Those who did not take out subprime loans, who did not spend the equity of their property beyond a shrinking market value, who budgeted within their means. On the other side are the imprudent home owners and the financial institutions that exploited them. It’s not that we suffer in their wake of irresponsibility.

We are told that it is important for the sake of our national and even the international community that we incur a staggering debt of trillions of dollars, a debt that will likely burden future generations. The money borrowed and distributed in the financial marketplace, it is argued, will prevent genuine catastrophe. But, is it fair for the prudent folk of Main Street, to bear the burden? Much has been said of populist anger, of the prudent, carrying figurative pitchforks and torches, because of the unfairness and for a desire to punish the culpable?.

Dimensions of Responsibility

So. in this parsing of the moral notion of responsibility, we recognize that responsibility has several dimensions. 1) There is self-responsibility implying both prudence and bearing of consequences for bad choices. (This moral notion of self-responsibility is one a keystone of our UU way.) 2) There is the responsibility that we have beyond our self, family, and chosen communities to our society. This includes the obligations of citizenship to our nation—staying informed, voting, advocacy—and the obligations of being a citizen of the world. 3) There is responsibility to future generations, our progeny, that they be born into a world not burdened by our generation’s irresponsibilities. President called this responsibility to future generations “our most enduring responsibility.” He went on to say, “We have to change this country for them… We have to leave them a planet that’s cleaner, a nations that’s safe, a world that’s more equal and more just.” These are attributes that he cites in the ongoing task of creating a more perfect union.

I want you to reflect on responsibility and to share your thought as we reason together in a talk back session. Keep in mind our religious and ethical perspectives. What does it mean, the call of our President to “A New Era of Responsibility.”

April 19, 2009

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