A Flaw in Personal Responsibility

Personal responsibility is a strongly held value in our society, and for the most part I agree with it. A person can never rise above his or her circumstances without taking personal responsibility for his or her choices and actions.

However, there is at least one flaw in the personal responsiblity argument, and that flaw is the role that socialization plays in the life of an individual. Not everyone has the same choices and not everyone reaps the same consequences for their actions. This is why social justice is so important.

Here is what I mean:

I was taught “right from wrong” at a very early age, and while I do believe in universal truth, I also understand that mu my understanding of “right and wrong” was culturally based. I was also brought up in church. My dad was an evangelist and so I but I have been to church more than 95% of everyone else in my demographic. Further more, I was taught…

  • two wrongs don’t make a right.
  • a half truth is a whole lie.
  • an honest days work for an honest days wage.
  • treat others the way you want to be treated.
  • cheaters never win and winners never cheat.
  • if you work hard and do what is right, things will work out for you.
  • you get out of life what you put into it.

I am extremely grateful for my upbringing and the values I was taught. So for me, taking personal responsibility means something. I am a produce of my environment.

Now, compare my socialization with the story of¬†a friend of mine who has spent more than half of his life behind bars. (Let’s call my friend Charlie.)

Charlie’s dad was a pimp.

As a young boy, Charlie spent many nights in a hotel room with his dad in a part of town known for prostitution. He has vivid memories of being in the hotel room and ever few hours another lady would come into the room and hand his dad stacks of money. For Charlie, this was normal.

One day Charlie asked his dad what the ladies did to get the money and why they gave the money to him. His dad said he would explain everything in time and for Charlie to take notes. Like any “good” father, Charlie’s dad was teaching him the family business so one day he could take over.

Personal responsibilty for Charlie meant something entirely different.

Charlie lived that life for a while, as well as the gang life and drugs and alcohol. In prison, he gave his life to Christ.

I asked Charlie if a chaplain or someone in prison told him about Jesus.

He said no. He said he was suicidal, and in his deep depression God spoke to him and told him his options were either death or Jesus. He recongized the only Person who could rescue him was Jesus, and so He prayed.

God is doing a great work in Charlie’s life.

The next time you are tempted to judge someone because of the choices they have made, remember Charlie’s story. There is a good chance you would have made the same choices if you grew up in their same environment.

About Pastor Kevin

I am a husband, father, pastor, teacher, scuba diver, reader, bike rider, author...in that order.
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2 Responses to A Flaw in Personal Responsibility

  1. The fact that there are still kids like Charlie points to the fact that as Christians we have the responsibility to make Christ and the abundant life that he offers known. I think one problem we have as Christians is that we live by all those lessons you mentioned learning growing up and we think that we are fine. We curse the darkness and those trapped in it because we think “they should know better,” but we don’t do anything other than saying “see how we we live, you should live that way also,” instead of saying “you need to know about someone who can make the way I live make a lot more sense than it does to you right now.:

  2. Steven Earp says:

    Your article is truthful even though presented in it’s exclusively anecdotal form.

    The connection between the truths presented in your article and the concept of “personal responsibility” I think isn’t as plain.

    Yes, Christians should avoid judgment. Yes, we should consider someone’s background and walk in their shoes. Yes, we should have compassion on others.

    All of these things, however, don’t relieve Charlie of even one iota of personal responsibility for his actions. Romans 1:18-32 and most of Romans 2 are very clear about a singular concept…that man is completely without excuse when standing before a righteous God. In fact, even if Charlie were born to head hunters in the deep dark jungles of Africa and never exposed to the fullness of the Gospel as we understand it, he would still be held personally responsible for the way he responded to the light seen in creation and in his own conscience.

    The concept of personal responsibility stems from this type of teaching and cannot be removed because of cultural preferences.

    It’s quite human to wish away personal responsibility based on the pathological stories of the marginalized.

    When all of my circumstances, justifications and excuses are stripped away, I’ll be (and so will the Charlies of the world) standing naked before a Holy God and no excuses will be heard.

    For this reason, as a believer, I should struggle to “right” the “wrongs” in our society and make sure the gospel is presented to Charlie, not because he isn’t personally responsible…but because he IS held personally responsible.

    As a believer, knowing the truth, I should be compelled to get involved and make a difference for him because he is responsible, not because he’s exempt from responsibility.

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