Blame and Responsibility

Who is to blame? That is one of those universal questions. We tend to believe that if we figure out who to blame for a problem or mistake that will make things better. Who is to blame for how my life, our lives, the world, and fill in the blank are not as the should be? Whose fault is it? Because, if I could just find out who it was that didn’t put a new garbage bag in the garbage can, or who hacked into that gas pipeline and made filling up the gas tank so expensive, or who voted for this or that person who does something I don’t like, or what company is really responsible for ruining the environment, then I could blame them. I, perhaps I could say we, could blame whoever did these and countless other things every day for every problem in the world. And that would make us all feel better. And if we are really lucky, we can yell at them on social media. That will fix things for sure! Of course, it doesn’t get a new garbage bag put in the garbage can does it? And that is really what will make things better.

We human beings are very good at blaming someone or something else for things that go wrong. This isn’t about thinking through a problem looking for the truth or taking ownership of our own little corner of the world, it is finding a quick source to dump responsibility upon so we can have an outlet for our frustration and anger. We seem to believe that knowing who to blame is, in itself, a solution.

In our text for this morning from the book of Genesis, (Genesis 3:8-15) we hear a familiar tale from the primordial days of humanity about sin. This story is about, as it is sometimes called, original sin, or as it is said a little better, the origins of sin. Even the title we give this story “Original Sin” seems to imply that’s where the blame lies. This way of labeling this part of Adam and Eve’s story is a pretty modern idea and it is unlikely that even Rabbis of Jesus day would have taught this as the single source of sin. Original Sin implies there is one source, one person worthy of our scorn for such a thing as this that has caused us truly immeasurable pain and suffering throughout time.

Look! There she is! It’s Eve! The greatest scapegoat of human history! It’s her fault! She disobeyed God! She had some sort of relationship with the evil serpent and now she can tempt men to sin! She is weak and evil! Beware of her and all of her daughters for they are all manner of darkness and her sin and will contaminate everything!

All of the crimes committed against women simply because they are women, which are Legion, are not the fault of this story, but that view of this story has surely permitted centuries of believing women are weaker, dangerous, and somehow more connected to Satan than men. This interpretation, so skewed and distorted, also makes it possible for us to turn away from or be silent in the face of injustice towards women and many others throughout history because if are the bringers of Original Sin, they probably get what they deserve.

I wish that I could tell you that I’ve only read that argument in musty old books written by men who were shaped by the historic setting in which they lived. I wish I could say that I’ve never personally heard anyone make that argument overtly, out loud, to me. I wish that I could say that when I’ve heard that belief spoken it was only by people who did not know better or that it was only spoken by men. But I cannot say any of those things.

This story is about the origins of sin. It is not about the one single, individual person to whom we may point and say is to blame. It really isn’t about a singular act either. It is about the origins, roots, underlying brokenness, the basic building blocks of sin which, unlike salvation, does not have a person as its cornerstone but a tangled mess of a broken world.

There have been countless theological pages written about the scene immediately prior to our text for today; Eve’s conversation with the serpent and her taking the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and giving it to Adam. The act of disobedience itself is found in a single verse. She took, ate, gave to him who was right there beside her the whole time, and he ate. The story does not stop there. We often stop there because we like the illusion that problems are simple. But the story does not stop there because that set of actions alone might be what we’ve always isolated as The Original Sin, but it is not the origins of sin. That is more complex.

God comes to the garden in the cool of the evening. What a beautiful image that is. Whether we ask for it or not, in the midst of our troubles and confusions and mistakes, in the midst of beauty and comfort, God comes. Bidden or not, God is present. And God comes for relationship with us. That’s what God is there for in this scene, to see and be with the children of God.

But the children of God hide in the trees and do not come to walk with God in the cool of the evening. Where are you, God asks, as a parent might ask a hiding child. The confession comes. I hid because I was afraid and I was naked. I hid from you, O God, because I was scared and I was vulnerable.

When I was a very little girl, I remember hiding from my mother in the kitchen pantry. I’d been in there eating peanut butter from the jar with my fingers. I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that. But I heard her in the hallway, so I shut the door. “Hmmm, I wonder where Rosemary is,” she said as she opened the pantry door. I think I said something about not eating any peanut butter before she even asked me a thing. Not only did I still have the open jar in my hands, but she leaned in and said, “I can smell peanut butter on your breath.”

God asks two questions. Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat the fruit? Actually in the Hebrew it says: Did you, from the tree I told you not to eat from, eat from it? I do think my mother must have taken lessons from this. Did you, when I told you not to eat peanut butter with your hands and not to eat it before dinner, eat peanut butter?

Who told you that you were naked and therefore vulnerable to being hurt or that you should be ashamed? This almost seems like an unimportant question and, in many ways, the answer is self-evident: no one told them. How much harm have we done in this world because of fear and feelings of shame? These are the origins of much of the hurt we do to others: our own feelings of fear and shame.

The second question is the one that really needs answering. Did you eat the fruit? This, too, is probably as self-evident as peanut butter breath. Despite this being a yes or no question, the response is quite elaborate. The woman you gave me, well, she gave me the fruit and I ate it. Yes, there are two places for blame besides me. It was really your fault because you gave me this woman, but it was also her fault because she made me.

Oh really, God seems to say.

Well, it was the serpent that tricked me, says the woman. The devil made me do it. To be clear, there is no solid reason to believe that this serpent is intended to be the devil. Yet both of the children of God are eager to say the devil made me do it. In other words, the other one is to blame; the animal, the person, or even God is to blame, not me. It’s their fault; it’s your fault, God, not mine.

A friend of mine used to always tell her adopted children that they were responsible for their own actions. These children had experienced many things that children should never endure, and she had a great deal of compassion for the suffering they had experienced. But she also understood that blame was not the same thing as responsibility. It was not their fault that bad things had happened in their lives and had happened to them, but how they chose to behave, the help they chose to seek out, and the way the responded when they made mistakes of their own was their responsibility.

The origins of sin lie here in this whole story. Fear, shame, blame, and the desire to be like God, as though we were not already bearers of the very image of the divine. The consequences of these things are what God lists at the end of this story, a portion of which we heard today. This is not a description of how God is punishing, or what mean and cruel things God is doing. It is definitely not a description of how human relationships are supposed to be, with one dominating the other, one accusing and demonizing the other, or how people are to relate to the natural world, as though we are enemies, as though nature itself were an evil thing to be conquered. Rather it is a description of the ways in which the world and we are broken.

It is also a description of the things Jesus has come to heal and the things we are called to move away from as followers of Jesus. We are called to move away from fear towards love and compassion, from blame and scapegoating of others to repentance and to taking responsibility for ourselves, our actions, and for the world. We are called to love one another, to look around and see sisters and brothers, and to treat them as beloved family, to care deeply for the suffering and sick and help them.

Who is to blame for Original Sin? This is never a question that God asks in this story. It is never really the most important question anyway. Finding the blame for Original Sin when blame itself is part of the whole origin of sin in the first place is a hopeless circle that never gets around to healing the problems, which is really what this is all about. Who is to blame and who is responsible are not the same thing. Blame is irrevocable, unchangeable, and permanent. It is gives scapegoats but not solutions. Remember earlier when I said that seeing this Original Sin story as a way to find someone to blame for all the problems of the world has, at least in part, impacted the way that the church has viewed women over the centuries? That’s just one example of the ways blame gets us off the track into easy and comfortable answers that do not lead to actual solutions. However, responsibility gives us the power to change. Responsibility gives us God’s grace to receive forgiveness and try again.

If we must have an answer to that perpetual question of who is to blame, perhaps we could say we are all to blame at some point in our lives and be done with that question altogether. Then move on to far more important questions that are related to responsibility. That IS something God is very interested in. So interested in fact that it is a key part of what Jesus’ purpose actually is.

Who is taking responsibility for this mess of sin we have gotten ourselves into? That would be Jesus. And Jesus calls us family, calls us brothers and sisters. Jesus is calling us to also be responsible as he works through us in healing the world. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be actively responsible for untangling the sin in the world, to turn around from the ways in which we are fearful, ashamed and shaming, blaming and trying to be God instead of being a part of God’s work in the world, and receive the gift of responsibility to practice love and compassion, courage and humility.

So, when social media and the news, even the anger of others, encourages us to look for someone or some group to blame, we have a choice as to how we will respond. When we have done something to harm another person, when we, in our humanity, have made mistakes, will we be like Adam and Eve our ‘first parents’, and respond out of fear and shame, and find someone or something else to blame? Or will we instead do as our brother Jesus does, will we take responsibility?

Note: the Gospel lesson for this Sunday (June 6, 2021) was Mark 3:20-35 which depicts the story of Jesus calling all those who do the work of God his brothers and sisters and mother.

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