“Blame” – Fr. Patrick Griffin continues his series “Considering Consecrated Life”
Certain stories in our Bible contain lines which seem unexpected and unusual. When I recognize one of these stories being read, I pay more attention to hear that particular line. A favorite emerged in the first reading from the Old Testament which we heard in the daily Eucharist some weeks ago—the story of the golden calf.
Moses has gone to speak with the Lord atop the mountain, and while he is gone the people become dissatisfied with his absence and leadership. They approach Aaron, Moses’ brother, and ask him to provide guidance for them. He takes their jewelry and fashions the golden calf as a representation of the Lord—an idol—and the people begin a noisy celebration. As Moses descends from the mountain, he hears the revelry and angrily approaches Aaron to know what has happened. Aaron tells him of the people’s growing dissatisfaction. He suggests that Moses was away too long, and then he says:
So I told them [the people], ‘Let anyone who has gold jewelry take it off.’
They gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and this calf came out.”
I love that line. I love its nonsensical yet perfectly reasonable character. Aaron is not going to take responsibility for the statue. He threw stuff into the fire and the calf emerged on its own! No blame falls on him (though, earlier, the story tells us that he fashioned the idol).
The sloughing off of accountability for one’s actions holds a central place in the earliest bible stories. Remember how, in the story of the “first sin,” Adam and Eve distribute the blame for their wrongdoing broadly, including the Lord God, each other, and the creation (snake) in their accusations. Neither claims personal responsibility for his/her action. Remember how Cain separates himself from the fate of his brother by first of all denying before God that he knows where he is, and then, rather pointedly, asking that most damning of questions.
Then the LORD asked Cain, Where is your brother Abel? He answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9)
We observe the way in which Cain prepares his defense for the fate of his brother. He will not accept the blame for what he has done—first of all by denying knowledge, and then by denying responsibility for his sibling’s care.
In each of these stories, we can recognize the implied surrender of one’s freedom and the consequent entrapment by circumstances. Aaron’s words to his brother begin to make more sense. In an artful way, they describe the felt powerlessness before events that sweep one along. Do you sympathize with Aaron? Must Moses take some share of the burden for the way in which things played out? Is Aaron an innocent before his people and the developments which resulted in the calf? Where does the blame lie?
Few of us are so virtuous that we do not understand and participate in the “blame game,” as it is sometimes called. When something goes wrong, we look for a way to deny or at least mitigate the blame by spreading it out. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the word “blame.” It has a negative tone and suggests a search for someone to wear the albatross.
But if we change the term, other possibilities arise. I accept responsibility for my decisions; I am accountable for my actions; I am answerable for my words. From this perspective, a certain nobility emerges from “standing up to be counted.” My dignity receives a boost by my willingness to stand behind my life and its direction. My choices reflect my freedom and my liability. Changes may be necessary, but I will take on that obligation as well.
In the Vincentian Family, our founders offer numerous examples of a desire to accept responsibilities for mistakes and their own sinfulness. Sometimes, that inclination may even seem exaggerated to us. Yet, they do not attempt to place the blame for failure or errors on the shoulders of others. They embrace the consequences of their choices. They seek solutions.
Regarding sinfulness, some of us spend more time trying to explain why something happened than we do taking hold of the occurrence, seeking forgiveness, and then proceeding to correct the fault. We do not need to “take the blame” for all the bad things that occur around us, but we do need to recognize our responsibilities and our place in the resolution. Then, as we say in the sacrament of penance, we move to a firm purpose of amendment. The real problem is not falling, but insisting that someone tripped me or searching for a banana peel, instead of getting up and beginning better. Seeking somewhere to put the blame is not a healthy exercise.
Aaron’s explanation of why things happened—throwing everything into the fire and a golden calf walking out—can seem humorous as an excuse, but we understand its intent. It can invite us to avoid blame which also avoids the lessons that our mistakes can teach.