The End of Blame (by Brittian Bullock)
Language has inherit limitations. And any one of us could probably make a list of examples from our own experience about the flaws of every day words. Besides these rather obvious down falls there is also another sense in which language actually effects us–in which we are shaped by language. Blame–and assigning it– is One of the ways this is true.
The English language is structured very aggressively. It’s officially a S-V-O type. Which means that full and proper sentences contain a subject, a verb, and an object (and in that order). Many systems of linguistics do the same as English, though there are some (such as Hebrew and Japanese) Which don’t.
In SVO language there is always three things present. First there is definitely an action–something’s happening. Second there is a clear object or person it is happening to. And thirdly there is absolutely a subject inacting what’s happening. There is always a victim. There is always someone to blame. “Johnny kicked the dog.” is an example of this. The poor dog is being victimized and little Johnny is at fault. This linguistic reasoning is so present in our culture, so worked into the recesses of our thinking that it patterns how we approach daily life. We not only Create language but are created by it. Hence our brain is constantly throwing around systems of blame.
But what if there was an additional sentence I tagged on to the beginning of the earlier phrase about Johnny and his dog? “the dog bit Johnny. Johnny kicked the dog.” well it changes things doesn’t it? Suddenly Johnny doesn’t look so bad. Turns out our assumption was wrong. The dogs to blame. Well wait a minute. Let’s add just a little more color here. “the man beats the dog. The dog bit Johnny. Johnny kicked the dog.” now who’s at fault? Johnny? The dog? No! It appears that the man is in the wrong. He conditioned the dog. Made him mean. Etc.
On and on this cycle can go. Where does it stop? It really doesn’t. We can work our way all the way back–to Adam (or whomever).
In fact the Garden/Fall narrative in genesis holds similarities. When the forbidden fruit is eaten, when the catalytic cause is initiated, God asks why this happened. Of course this is very different than asking who’s to blame. But, Whatever Gods motive the result is clear. Everyone points the finger at everyone else. And none of them are wrong! They’re all accurate. Because blame is systemic. When you’re in the blame-game everyone is at fault–and no one is.
There’s another Biblical moment that comes to mind, Jesus and the blind man. It’s memorable. Jesus spits in the dirt and rubs the mud into the man’s eyes. But the way the miracle goes down is less interesting to me than the accompanying conversation. The disciples start musing about what caused the blindness. This seems strange at first but the ancient world had a far more holistic outlook than the modern one. They believed that everything effected everything. Nothing was unrelated. For a person to have a physical malady was for a person to be spiritually infirm also. Today this kind of thinking is similarly held by many therapists also. One counselor I heard expressed it this way “the accident on broadway street clogs main street. Even though the two aren’t actually the same street.”. Everything affects everything else. Our internal make up may have categories but isn’t near as compartmental as we’d like. Distinct but not separate.
All of this aside the disciples were caught up in this kind of thinking. “who exactly is to blame?” or as they say it “who sinned? Him or his parents. They wanted to know who to assign the guilt to. Where does the buck stop. Linguistically, as we talked about above, they needed to find their subject and object. Who was the victim and who was the victimizer? Who will fit into our categories? Who can we side with?
These are natural questions. Clearly, because we still have them. It’s hard to encounter life and not ask them. Going back to our little language example, why is the poor dog lying on it’s side breathing heavy? Who in the world could hurt that beautiful creature?
From one angle there’s never a sufficient answer. There’s just compounding reasons, all the way up. But from another vantage we can make meaning out of events. This is what Jesus does when his disciples are throwing around Eden-like blame. He says “it’s not him or his parents–” and then he side steps the whole issue of cause and effect by saying –”it is for the glory of God…”
This gets used in the sovereignty circles quite a bit. But maybe there’s another way of understanding this passage which renders God as more than just a deity who strikes people blind so he can heal them at a later date. It has to do with that word “glory”
Glory literally means fullness or wholeness. It’s the idea of a thing being most fully itself or most complete. For instance the glory of a rose is when it’s in bloom. Or the glory of a racing horse might be as a 3 year old in full stride. It’s when something is most whole. In this case Jesus is suggesting that wholeness or fullness of transformation is how this tragedy can be seen.
Every event can be seen in one of two ways. In the old subject/object way with enough blame to go around or the way Jesus seemed to think. It’s a way that spells the end of judgment or cause and affect. It’s a way that moves beyond cycles of victim and victimizer. This Way is radically responsible. It suggests that there is no longer blamed or blameless. There is merely the ability to be transformed into something more fully itself, more whole–for the best and highest to be brought out.
Can you imagine the number of gossip circles that would be silenced or counseling sessions cut short if when the “who” or “why” question came out someone answered with assured simplicity, “God–the highest good–is at work here, so that we could experience transformation into fullness…”
It might be a different world. We would certainly have to figure out a new way to communicate–the old ways just wouldn’t make much sense. Truth be told, they don’t really as it is.
Brittian Bullock is an author, speaker/storyteller, and artist who lives in the Portland, OR area with his two sons Ransom and Judah. He has spent the last decade founding, consulting, or living within multiple intentional communities. He writes for various publications, and has penned two books (and counting) exploring urban mysticism–a fancy way of talking about the intersections of faith and culture. Follow him on Twitter or his blog.