Most people take it for granted that each of us is free to choose in life. But some philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, claim that most people do not really want to be free. Choices have real consequences, and freedom brings with it responsibility. People do not want to be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. What if I make the wrong decision? What if the consequences are bad? I don’t want to be held to blame! I don’t want to feel guilty. And so people seek ways to shift the responsibility on to someone or something else, whether they know they are doing this or not.
One famous way of doing this is “the devil made me do it”. But a more subtle way of shifting responsibility is to lay it upon God, or upon His representatives on earth. Sartre points out that when a person adopts a faith, they surrender some of their freedom. They surrender the freedom to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, for by subscribing to their faith’s moral code, that decision is taken out of their hands. Of course, each person is still free to choose whether to obey their faith’s moral code or not – they are still quite free and quite responsible in that sense, but they are no longer responsible for the content of the moral code itself.
Now I do not see this as a bad thing in itself. We humans are, after all, quite fallible, and we have a disturbing tendency to try to cheat to make life comfortable for ourselves. If there is a genuinely objective right and wrong in the world (as most people would agree there is), then we are much more likely to find it when God tells us what it is than when are left to work it out for ourselves. We are just far too prone to seeing things in ways that are convenient to us instead of seeing them as they really are.
But there is an variation on this that can be quite harmful and do a lot of damage. That is when we confuse the Truth of God for the teachings of men. All men are fallible, whoever they are. Jesus Himself criticised the scribes and Pharisees for teaching the precepts of men as if they were the commandments of God. Perhaps this too is a responsibility that each of us has, to do our best to distinguish between those moral laws that are of human origin and those that are divine. As a priest, it is incumbent upon me also to specify clearly to people when I am “quoting God” and when I am speaking off my own bat. There is a big difference between my encouraging someone to forgive someone who has hurt them and my encouraging someone to make a particular career choice I think suits them.
It is a sin to surrender your freedom to another human being. Just as we cannot say, “the devil made me do it”, neither will the excuse, “but I was just following orders” carry any weight. Few people today would excuse the foot soldiers responsible for carrying out the atrocities of Nazi Germany or Bosnia because they were “just following orders”. And yet, we humans appear to have a disturbing need to obey even the worst of orders. The famous experiments of Stanley Milgram last century are testimony to that horrible reality about us.
Yet this disturbing tendency seems to crop up in all aspects of life. For example, many employees are daily tested as to whether they will follow orders and do things they know or at least suspect deep down to be immoral. Students in a school playground are daily tested as to whether they will just follow the crowd or the popular kids instead of standing up for what they know to be right.
And it happens in Churches too. How many people in the Catholic Church were aware or at least strongly suspicious of the terrible child abuse that is only now being gradually uncovered? Why did so many otherwise decent, compassionate and honest people remain silent about it? Quite simply, because they were told to, whether overtly or implicitly, by the hierarchy of the Church. And they surrendered their responsibility to these leaders. As a result of this silence, the abuse continued for far longer and spread far further than it should have.
There are practical reasons for accepting responsibility. Protestant Pastor Martin Niemoller was imprisoned for taking personal responsibility for speaking out against the Hitler regime. His chilling words illustrate one of these reasons:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
As Christians, we cannot live alone. We do not have the luxury of saying, ‘it’s fine, so long as I am alright’. As the Desert Father said, ‘our life and death is with our brothers’. Anything that hurts another human being hurts me, for we all share the same image of God. As Christians, we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. This is what divine love means. This is the love modelled by Jesus ‘who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross’ (Philippians 2:6-8).
Whether we like it or not, we are free. It was God who created us free. Free to help or ignore others in need. Free to stand silently by while atrocities and injustices are perpetrated, or to speak against them, whatever the cost. And yes, we can try to surrender this freedom to make life a little less scary for ourselves, but the price for such a surrender is high, O so high! It is nothing less than our very humanity itself.