And when the Spirit comes he will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation; sin, because they do not believe in me; righteousness, because I am going to the father and you will no longer see me; condemnation, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

John 15: 8-11

Those of us of a certain age remember well the depth of anti-semitism in our tradition, and even expressed in our liturgy.  Every Good Friday we would read from John’s passion and then, in the solemn prayers of the faithful, pray for the conversion of the faithless Jewish people who were “responsible” for the death of Jesus. Not only was this a horrible expression of a mistaken and vile xenophobia that throughout western history had the most horrific human effects, it was also an expression of a self-righteous failure to be responsible and, therefore, to atone.  It was not only a case of blaming others but a refusal to begin to repair the world in accord with the very redemptive act of Jesus by accepting our own responsibility.

Jesus tells the disciples that “the ruler of this world has been condemned.”  Yet despite that condemnation in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus, and the gift of the Spirit, the “ruler of this world” continues to hold sway in our individual hearts and our collective way of living together in the world.  How is it that the cosmic effects of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Descent of the Holy Spirit are so slow to manifest in our world?  In no small part, I suspect, it is because of our refusal to be responsible and our persistent temptation to deflect our responsibility on to others.  Jesus seemed to well understand this, which is why he told us the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30)  The master in the parable tells his servants not to pull up the weeds because in doing so they might inadvertently tear up the wheat as well.  They are to leave both to grow until the time of judgment when wheat and weeds will be separated.

It is part of the ignorance and arrogance of the human condition that we make “others” responsible for evil while we refuse responsibility for the evil in ourselves.  It was done by the powerful with Jesus; it was and is repeated by “Christians” with the Jews, Muslims, and others; and it is done on a daily basis by most of us.  And so, in the light of the Holy Spirit, we remain convicted regarding “sin and righteousness and condemnation.”  In our deflection of responsibility, we do the bidding of “the ruler of this world,” who, Jesus says, has been condemned.

Although currently outranked by China, the United States, historically speaking, has been, by far, the greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions.  Put another way, the United States bears greater responsibility than any other nation or people for the precarious state of our planet.  This is a responsibility that we, as a people, militantly refuse to acknowledge and accept.  And so, instead of leading the way to reducing emissions in a true act of repentance, we do precisely the opposite and demand our right and privilege to continue to destroy our atmosphere.  The great displacement of peoples and the surge of refugees we are now experiencing is due, in no small part, to our own actions and refusal to be responsible for the results of our choices.  

Similarly, the great migration of refugees into Europe is due, in no small part, to the colonial expansion of western European nations into the Mideast and Africa, culminating in the arbitrary and unjust invasion of Iraq by the United States.  The rise of ISIS, the wars in Iraq and Syria, the instability of the entire region is the effect of the irresponsibility of the United States.  Even the current, largely manufactured, “crisis” in Iran ultimately flows from the overthrow of its democracy in 1953 through the efforts and planning of American “intelligence” services.  

At the beginning of the first term of former President Barack Obama, he sought to acknowledge appropriately the responsibility for unjust actions of the United States on the global stage.  He was roundly criticized by his political enemies as daring “to apologize for the United States of America.”  So powerful were the latter forces of pride and patriotism, that the initial attempts at deeper structural geopolitical change proved ineffectual.  It was the judgment of the “ruler of this world” that prevailed and not the conviction that was and is the gift of the Spirit of Truth.

A similar dynamic to the geopolitical one occurs in the life of each of us.  The Spirit who remains ever active is always convicting us of our errors of judgment “in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation.”  Those errors persist, however, because it is not easy for us to accept our own responsibility in these areas.  God chooses for us human beings to be free enough to accept or refuse the gift of Truth that the Spirit is.  To blame “the Jews” for the death of Jesus is to totally miss the point of his life and of the gospel.  Jesus dies “for us all.”  Each of us is responsible for his death, as we are responsible for the state of our neighbors and the quality of the life of our world.  We spend so much time looking for the weeds outside of us that we fail recognize the weeds in ourselves, and so also fail to cultivate the wheat that we are.  

As I age, I become aware of how often my judgments are mistaken.  I, too frequently, profoundly miss the goodness in people and situations and the possibilities they offer for me and for the wider world.  In truth, my sense of value is often distorted.  I far too often value what I should be denying and deny what I should be valuing.  I do this within myself, in my immediate contact with others, and with the world at large.  In my attempts to tear out what I see as the weeds in myself, I often tear out something of my own true and unique call and mission.  In excluding from my circle those I feel are not worthy of my attention, I can lose the very relationships that can save me from myself.  In seeing my own country and culture as the “best way,” I can become violent in my attempts to ratify and support my ignorance. 

The words of Jesus today about the Spirit’s convicting the world have always been difficult ones for me to comprehend.  Perhaps it is because I thought that to be convicted was to be reformed.  But perhaps the conviction that comes with the Spirit of Truth is an ongoing judgment.  It is against this judgment that we are to measure our responsibility.  A former member of our community told me that one of his confreres used to say to him, “You’re wrong.  But it’s okay to be wrong.”  At the risk of oversimplifying, perhaps we could say that receiving the transformation the Spirit brings requires of us to take on an attitude that is at once simple but difficult.  it is to realize that “It is okay to be wrong.”  If we can remain open to how we have been wrong and so be responsible for how we have failed, the Spirit can lead us in the direction of Truth.  

Writing at the time of the United States’ war in Vietnam and following the massacre of men, women and children at My Lai, Abraham Joshua Heschel said: 

We stand in the crossroads of our history.  The atrocities we have committed are part of our record, of our consciousness.  Either we accept and vindicate it and establish techniques of atrocities as a legitimate mode of national policy or repent earnestly, confessing our sins, making amends, and adopting measures that would prevent similar crimes from happening in the future.

As is sadly evident in the 5 decades since Heschel spoke, we have failed to “repent earnestly, confessing our sins, making amends, and adopting measures that would prevent similar crimes from happening in the future.”  As I write our Administration is preparing to pardon wholesale several military personnel charged with war crimes.  The principle is clear:  “There is no greater responsibility to humanity, and to God, than the promotion of national hubris at any cost to others.”  This is narcissism on a national scale.  For we are individually prone to the same kind of judgments: “My only responsibility is to my own advantage and self-promotion, as I see them.”  

We avoid responsibility in its truer sense, that is responsibility to the world and to God, because to be so responsible, at least at times, feels hopeless.  Heschel says that before we can pray for God’s forgiveness we must “pass through a theology of hopelessness.”  This is an aspect of what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night.”  it is very dark at first when we realize and acknowledge that we have failed our own call.  To recognize our failure to be responsible for the life we have been given is to feel as if all is hopeless, as if we are incapable of who we are called to be.  It is from this place that we can call on the “Higher Power.”  The judgment of God’s Spirit is very different from our own.  When we dare to feel hopeless out of our own capacities, we are then available to a potency that is of a very different order.  

We refuse responsibility, ironically enough, because we fear dependence.  These two dispositions feel like contraries to us.  Yet, they are actually complementary.  This is the insight which St. Paul experiences:  “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12: 9)  The coming of the Spirit has convicted us, because, of course, we are of the world.  It is precisely at the moment when we have the courage to be honest with ourselves and others about our hopelessness that God’s power is made perfect in us.  It is okay to be wrong because this is how the truth comes to light and to life in our world.  When we take responsibility for the harm we have done, then something new can begin to be born.  Until then, we spend our lives inflicting on the world the violence and harm from our own arrogance and pride.

To proceed on the principle that “Calley is all of us; he is every single citizen in our graceless land” (Dean Francis B. Sayre) is to slash any understanding of what crime means and to tear out the heart of human dignity.  For the heart of human dignity is, I repeat, the ability to be responsible.

At this hour a major lesson implied in the teaching of the ancient prophets of Israel assumes renewed validity:  “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

. . . Responsibility is the capability of being called upon to answer, or to make amends, to someone for something, without necessarily being directly connected with or involved in a criminal act.  

The war in Indochina was and continues to be a heinous affair.  But in addition to my sense of outrage at what we have done, I am haunted by a nightmare of what its aftereffects may be:  the war in Indochina as the great example of how wars should be waged, Captain Calley a national hero or a revered martyr.

We stand in the crossroads of our history.  The atrocities we have committed are part of our record, of our consciousness.  Either we accept and vindicate it and establish techniques of atrocities as a legitimate mode of national policy or repent earnestly, confessing our sins, making amends, and adopting measures that would prevent similar crimes from happening in the future.  

Repentance can come about only in a state of utter hopelessness.  For how dare we hope for God’s forgiveness?  Confronted with the results of our crimes—multitudes of people killed, crippled, demoralized, orphaned, widowed—can we expect the God of justice to forgive us?

We must first pass through a theology of hopelessness before we can dare to pray for pardon!

Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Required: A Moral Ombudsman,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, pp. 220-221

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