Jacques Ellul once said, “In a society like ours, it is almost impossible for a person to be held responsible for anything. For each person carries out an individual task disconnected from the whole.” He then illustrated his point by example of a bursting dam.
The dam breaks. A village is washed away. There is incalculable human loss. Who is responsible? No, not “who should be scapegoated?” Just simple responsibility: Whose action or inaction, neglect or incompetence, led to this disaster? In most cases, per Ellul, there is no easy answer to the question.
The engineer for the project says, “I only made calculations based on geology.” The contractor says, “I just followed the blueprints.” The workers say, “We simply poured the concrete.” The mayor of the village says, “I trusted the hundred-year flood plan.” On and on it goes, and the truth is, it’s likely that no single individual is responsible. Everyone involved is: Because that’s how communities work.
Who is responsible for the unjustified death of an unarmed black man or child by police (It makes no difference when I write this; there is a perpetual, weekly example)? The officer involved? Yes. But what about the department that trained him or her? The internal culture that tolerates “bad apples” and bad actors? What about all of us – as a society – who permit this to continue?
When an old man has to choose between buying his insulin or paying his rent, that’s more than the responsibility of Big Pharma. When we hold thousands of separated children at our borders, that’s much more than some ethereal policy drawn up in Washington. When students and teachers are afraid to go to school for fear of being shot, that’s not only on any would-be shooter – it’s on all of us – to stop the unceasing massacres.
When half a million families have to file bankruptcy each year because of medical bills, it’s not just the responsibility of insurance companies, hospitals, and politicians: It’s an indictment against our entire community. When we, yes we, spend more on weapons of war than we do on education, veterans, science, poverty, agriculture, and housing – combined – we can’t lay this burden at the feet of some “bloodthirsty” defense contractor. Our own feet are dirty, and our hands are bloody: Because that’s how communities work.
Knowing this, the worst crime one can commit is to do nothing. To turn our heads away, to lament, “That’s just how it is,” or “There’s nothing we can do,” is to be worse than a defeatist. It is to be complicit in the crime. It is to shirk one’s individual responsibility to the whole.
What is the solution? Start by doing the right thing, right where you are, right now. Give a good damn about where you live and how you live. Take responsibility, teach responsibility, and throw yourself into the work of fostering what Dr. King and the Quakers before him called, a “beloved”society. Because that’s how communities work.