In 1963, Harper and Row published the last book written by United Church of Christ theologian H. Richard Niebuhr who had died the previous year. The book was entitled The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Responsibility. In five compact essays, Niebuhr outlined his theory of Christian morality and ethics through the image of responsibility. His definition of responsibility was two-fold: 1) Human beings have to make moral choices as they respond to their environment; and 2) when we make moral choices, we are accountable to those around us such as family, friends, neighbors, congregation, enemies, and so on. In short, the moral choices we make affect others. We are responsible and accountable.
I was recently reminded of this book from another era while reading a 2014 Pew Research Center study. The study, called the American Trends Panel, asked respondents to rate values such as faith, curiosity, empathy, and creativity in determining what values and qualities were most important to teach children. Mirroring U.S. societal trends, the final ranking of values was polarized along liberal and conservative lines. Conservatives tended to favor faith; liberals favored tolerance. However, responsibility was rated as the highest value from all sides of the political spectrum and among all twelve values (55%). Hard work and good manners were also highly rated by all respondents.
What does this tell us? For one thing, if we are looking for common ground in our congregations, having a Bible Study or discussion group on responsibility might be a good place to start. Do people feel, as Niebuhr did, that morality consists in how people respond to their environments? There are excellent examples of Biblical figures who demonstrated responsibility as Niebuhr defined it. Moses responded to the call from God in Exodus 3. Esther came to power at a crisis moment “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14) and acted with great responsibility. Ask yourself and your congregation: Do liberals and conservatives define responsibility the same way? How about rich or poor? Why or why not? Additionally, in a day and age where troubles halfway around the world can instantly be reported on our smartphones, we need to ask each other: How can we respond to this? Is there some way we can respond to the refugee crisis in Europe? How might we respond to the horrible news reports of violence we hear almost daily? There are many social issues that we could examine through the lens of responsibility. And, more than that, we can come up with a plan of action to act morally and do our part, even if it is only a small bit of what God calls us to do.
Another reason to study responsibility as a value pertains to a generations-long struggle with mature Christian discipleship. Multiple sociological studies over the past 30 years have shown that American Christians are little different from their secular counterparts in at-risk or morally problematic behaviors such as substance abuse or theft. (See here and here.) As a result, many people outside the church view Christians as irresponsible in deed. Christians have a reputation, warranted or not, of saying one thing while living another. An in-depth study of responsibility as a value might help address this problem of hypocrisy. Or, even better, invite some outsiders, some Millennials, or some who have left the Christian church to come with you for a study on responsibility! Make it clear that you don’t want to convert nor cajole; the goal of such an activity would be to listen and work together on the definition of a responsible person in the year 2015.
Although H. Richard Niebuhr wrote for a much different time, his encouragement of the study of responsibility proved prophetic for the church. Morally and ethically, we’ve been placed on this earth by God, not just to survive but to respond to the grace we receive anew every morning.
Rev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.