bruce_woodFor the last few weeks, a harsh light has been shone on the “toxic rhetoric” of the Right, the Left, and every person in the middle and the fringes of political and social thought. This country of ours has always prided itself on the passion of its ideas, the passion of its proponents and the equal passion of detractors who shout at the top of their lungs for anyone who will listen. This is a long and proud tradition of our people that we must never take for granted and we must never seek to abridge.

What we must seek, however, is a change from the needless “finger-pointing” in the case of every action taken by a person in our great country that comes from a place of desperation or mental illness. When the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed it was blamed on right-wing extremists and their ideology of hate toward the Federal Government. When the Branch Dividian compound in Waco, Texas was stormed into and burned down it was the actions of a liberal administration who had no knowledge of real law-enforcement measures. And when a gunman shot and killed six people and injured many others at a grocery store in Tuscon, AZ, again the pendulum of public blame shifted back to people who espouse a, “right-wing anti-government” ideology.

When will we learn that we can no longer sustain a society of “blame throwers”? Jared Lee Loughner was a disturbed man who felt his only recourse in life was to take up a deadly weapon and use it on innocent men, women and children for aims I am sure that we may never know the full extent of. But what we do know, and what we cannot for a minute do is shift the blame for his actions away from him and place them on other people. Our society, our very culture, cannot survive if the people who commit heinous actions are not solely called to account for the actions that they take.

Personal Responsibility. My wife often laughs (sarcastically) when I utter those words because she knows as well as I do that the very uttering of the words leads most folks to shut their ears. Personal responsibility is something that has become laughable in our nation. We have adopted an attitude that whatever an individual does is the responsibility of people beyond the actor. I did not see the, “overbearing government” man put a bomb in Timothy McVeigh’s hand. I did not see former President William Jefferson Clinton with a torch at Waco. I did not see a right wing talk show host pull the trigger in Tuscon. What I saw (and I have been alive for each of these events) was individuals doing horrible actions and causing horrible pain. Individuals. Not masses of people. One man. One bomb. One gun. One bad police call. Nothing more. Nothing less. Personal responsibility.

But it would also make more sense to bring this back to the teachings of Jesus as well. In the Gospel of Matthew it says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ (an Aramaic term of contempt) is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (5:21-22). Jesus does call us all to a higher standard of personal responsibility in his words. He calls us to understand that what is in each of our hearts is important and that we ourselves are the only ones who will be called to account for what we do or say.

We would do well to remember this idea when we ourselves get angry, when we open our mouths we often show our hearts. But only we will be held responsible at the end of the day for our own words and how they have harmed others. By that I do not mean if our words, “cause” someone to commit harm to others, because in the end what people do with what we say becomes their responsibility. But we should always be mindful that we should always speak to build bridges, to heal hurts and to reconcile people to one another. We must always speak, “truth to power” (it is the great heritage of the Reformation) but we should also be careful to take to heart the non-violent approach to speech and justice employed by Martin Luther King, Jr. – a man whom this country took a moment to recognize recently.

In the end, this is the most important thing to remember: we must stop pointing fingers at each other, demonizing each other, and saying that our opponents’ arguments are the reason that people commit actions of violence and hate. We must stop hating each other as people because our arguments and philosophies and ideologies differ. We must stop blaming each other for another’s actions and start building a culture that holds each man, woman, and child responsible for their own actions and not shift blame from culprits of violence to serve our own needs, wills or agendas. In doing this, we become guilty of the violent thoughts against our brothers and sisters in this world that Jesus spoke against, and will be judged at the end of the day accordingly.

It’s time to turn our hearts – towards more responsibility!

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