Accepting Responsibility or Wriggling Out of It?

Following the defeat of his attempt to secure the House of Commons’ agreement to his Brexit deal, Mr Johnson sent three letters to the European Union: an unsigned photocopy of the request for a delay as outlined by the Benn Act; an explanatory note from the U.K.s ambassador to the E.U.; and a personal, signed, letter saying why he does not want a delay. Whatever one thinks of Brexit, the failure to sign the first letter struck me as childish — a moment of shame for all of us in the U.K. as the Prime Minister made it plain that he refused to accept responsibility for what he was obliged by law to do. There have been many similar instances during the past few years of prominent people — not just politicians — wriggling out of responsibility. At one level, their actions can be dismissed as mere posturing. At another, I think they suggest something much more troubling: unwillingness to accept that there are limits on our personal freedom by virtue of the obligations we have assumed. ‘Falling on one’s sword’ may sound a quaint idea to some, but behind it lies a long tradition of accepting responsibility, of being someone on whom others can rely — and that is the crux. Shrugging off responsibility makes one unreliable.

How often do we hear people caught up in the scandals of the moment declare they they have done nothing wrong? They cling to their positions even after it has become clear that they have failed to act when they should or have been complicit in dubious transactions. One aspect of the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that has rocked the trust of many has been the failure of some bishops to accept responsibility for what has happened in their dioceses. But, lest we think this shrugging off of responsibility is something that affects others not us, let’s pause a moment and examine our own conscience. When did we last drive too fast, putting others at risk, and justified ourselves to ourselves with the thought that nothing untoward was likely to happen; when did we turn away when someone needed our help because we were busy and preoccupied with our own needs or wishes; when did we ignore the beggar in the street on the grounds that she was a drug-abuser and any money we gave would have been used to feed a destructive addiction; when did we make a promise we didn’t keep or fulfilled only minimally and legalistically? In other words, just how reliable are we? Always, or only when it suits us? It is no accident that St Benedict describes the watchful brother who is conscious of his duty to God and others as a utilis frater, a reliable brother, one on whom we — and He — can depend. (cf RB 7.18). Something for us all to ponder, I would suggest.

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What Price Unity and Justice?

The first day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is hardly a trending topic on Twitter right now. There is much more interest in Brexit, the contents of that mysterious letter from North Korea and the Duke of Edinburgh’s car accident. Yet the theme chosen for this year’s reflections, ‘Justice, justice only shall you follow,’ (from Deuteronomy 16. 20), is certainly worth thinking about in a wider context.

For the Church, justice is a matter of right order* —the obedience of faith— and can never be an optional extra, something to which we pay lip-service but blithely ignore in practice. It is willed by God, and the full force of Christ’s prayer for unity must be felt by each and every one of us before it can take effect in our lives. As Christians we must pray and work for unity, which can only be achieved if we are prepared to let go of every personal and institutional obstacle we have put in its way. As I have argued elsewhere, that does not mean ‘lowest common denominator’ unity. Justice, right order, both require the foundation of truth and love, and we do not build well if we try to minimise these. At the same time, we must recognize that we put up barriers only grace can topple.

So, how do Brexit, Kim Yong-chol and the Duke of Edinburgh fit in? Let’s take Brexit first. If the British media are to be believed, our politicians suspect their E.U. counterparts of harbouring all kinds of wicked designs and knavish tricks intended to make life tough for the U.K. The possibility of exiting the E.U. without a deal (significantly, no one wants to call it an agreement) must be maintained, say some, as a bargaining counter. Do we really think the other members of the E.U. are, essentially, duplicitous? If so, on what grounds? Is it just to impute ultimate bad faith to another, because that is surely what one is doing if one does not accept that all parties are trying to attain what is best for everyone.

In the same way, diplomatic manoeuvres have to be viewed with caution, especially when one considers the history between the U.S.A. and North Korea, but speculation about what is intended can sometimes mislead. Justice requires a degree of open-mindedness that can be difficult to maintain. No doubt there will be much reading between the lines and calculation of risk and advantage, but it is in the world’s interest to give peace a chance, surely? And as for the Duke of Edinburgh, it seems everyone has rushed to conclude that he was at fault and should now hang up his car keys, along with every elderly driver in Britain today. Doesn’t justice demand that we wait to hear the police verdict on responsibility? One can’t deny that age does have a bearing on road accidents, but is it only the elderly who are at fault? Don’t the statistics suggest that the young are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents?

You may think I have strayed too far from the theme of Christian unity, but the point is that Christian unity does not exist in a vacuum, anymore than justice does. Both have to be lived; both have practical effects on and in society; and both exact a price. One of the questions we each need to ask ourselves this morning is, what price are we prepared to pay for a just society and for the unity of the Church. The inequalities we encounter every day in a world where some enjoy abundance while others starve cannot be brushed under some mental carpet, nor can the attitudes we adopt be allowed to run on unexamined. We are responsible beings. As we pray for unity and justice, let us remember that. We are responsible beings.

  • see Gregory VII on the meaning of iustitia, passim.
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How to Be a Good Leader

We usually think about SS Maurus and Placid in terms of discipleship and obedience. In previous years I have commented on the way in which they are presented as near- perfect and the problem that poses for those of us who are imperfect (see here and here). But we live in a world where being a disciple, a follower, isn’t much favoured. We all want to be leaders now. Even applications to join the monastery often read like a pitch to become CEO of a major corporation! I think it is time, therefore, to take the story of Maurus and Placid as told in book II of Gregory’s Dialogues and see what it tells us about leadership rather than discipleship.

Gregory tells us Placid went to fetch water from the lake. Placid fell in but Benedict, being made aware of the situation by God’s grace, sent Maurus to rescue the youngster. Maurus, having received the abbot’s blessing, walked upon the water and rescued Placid. Later, St Benedict attributed the miracle to Maurus’ obedience; Maurus attributed it to St Benedict. It was Placid who settled the matter: ‘When you pulled me out of the water,’ he said,’ I saw over my head Father Abbot’s hood, and I saw that it was he who pulled me from the water.’

The first thing to note is that this is hagiography, not history. It expresses a spiritual truth: the value of obedience in conforming us to Christ. But there is an interesting dynamic at work. Both Maurus and Placid were unhesitatingly obedient to their abbot. Were they simpletons, doing what they were told because they hadn’t the brains or individuality to think for themselves? Was Benedict an overbearing taskmaster whom they feared to disobey, or a charismatic looney of the kind we see in some cults, demanding that his followers do silly or dangerous things? I think the answer is neither. Both Maurus and Placid obeyed Benedict because they trusted him.

Trust tends to get a bad press these days. How many people feel they can trust anyone? Distrust has become our default position. It affects family life; business life; Church life. Leaders may be ‘thrusting’ ‘dynamic’ and all the other buzz words we find bandied around, but are they trustworthy?

The quality which set Benedict apart as a leader was precisely that: trustworthiness. As presented by Gregory in the Dialogues, and even more as we see him in his Rule, Benedict comes across as a true man of God, one who ‘lived as he wrote’; who prayed, worked, served and did not shirk responsibility. He was painfully aware that one day he would have to answer to God for the souls of all those committed to his care, including, in some measure, those who had gone astray. That sense of responsibility affected every decision concerning those over whom he had any authority. It made people trust him, knowing they could rely on him. That is, or should be, true of every religious leader today. I would suggest it should also be true, mutatis mutandis, of every good leader, whatever their sphere.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Saying Sorry to the Community

Saying sorry isn’t something that comes easily to most of us. True, there is the automatic English response to bumping against another person, or even an object, and apologizing; and the equally automatic response to someone brushing against us and our apologizing to them. There is also the standard official apology, when someone is found out after perhaps half a lifetime of deceit and apologizes ‘for any offence I may have given’. The image of extracting teeth comes to mind. No, I mean the kind of apology which doesn’t try to excuse or apportion blame to others but simply and humbly acknowledges that wrong has been done and takes responsibility for it. Benedict knows that even in a monastery that can be difficult. One might say that in a monastery it can be especially difficult because there we are, living in community, with companions we would never have chosen for ourselves, with different backgrounds and ways of behaving, and inevitably someone or other going through a period of profound testing we know little or nothing about.

Benedict was realistic about the difficulties of communal living. In RB 44, which we read today, he deals with a fairly extreme situation: someone who has committed a serious fault and thereby put himself outside the community (the meaning of excommunication in this context) and his reintegration into the community. Clearly, the chapter does not apply to the lay situation in any literal sense, but it is worth thinking about how we welcome back into society people who have offended against it. Benedict is not concerned with punishment but with putting right something that has gone wrong. Isn’t that what our apology is meant to do, but so often fails to achieve?

Lent is a time when we tend to think about how we have fallen short of everything we ought or seek to be. It is a time for making amends, both to God and other people. Saying sorry isn’t easy, but sometimes it can set us free as well as the one we have offended, for there is nothing more constricting than the burden of unforgiveness — on both sides. Is there someone you need to say sorry to today?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail