The Prophetic Challenge: “Few Are Guilty, but All Are Responsible”

One of the common refrains I heard from progressive people in Pakistan and India during my month there this summer was, “We love the American people — it’s the policies of your government we don’t like.”

That sentiment is not unusual in the developing world, and such statements can reduce the tension with some Americans when people criticize U.S. policy, which is more common than ever after the illegal invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

I used to smile and nod when I heard it, but this summer I stopped agreeing.

“You shouldn’t love the American people,” I started saying. “You should hate us — we’re the enemy.”

By that I don’t mean that most Americans are trying to come up with new ways to attack people in the Global South. Instead, I want to challenge the notion that in a relatively open society such as the United States — where most people can claim extensive guarantees of freedom of expression and political association — that the problem is leaders and not ordinary citizens. Whatever the reason people in other countries repeat this statement, the stakes today are too high for those of us in the United States to accept these kinds of reassuring platitudes about hating-the-policy but loving-the-people of an imperial state. It is long past time that we the people of the United States started holding ourselves responsible for the crimes our government perpetrates around the world.

This is our prophetic challenge, in the tradition of the best of the prophets of the past, who had the courage to name the injustice in a society and demand a reckoning.

In the Christian and Jewish traditions, the Old Testament offers us many models — Amos and Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah. The prophets condemned corrupt leaders but also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice that the faith makes central to human life. In his study of The Prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 16.

In our society, crimes by leaders are far too common. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as individuals, are guilty of their crime against peace and war crimes in Iraq that have resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands, just as Bill Clinton and Al Gore before them are guilty of the crime against humanity perpetrated through an economic embargo on Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of innocents as well. These men are guilty, beyond any doubt, and they should be held accountable. But would those kinds of crimes be as frequent if the spirit of society were different? For that, we all are responsible.

In assessing that responsibility, we have to be careful about simplistic judgments, for the degree of responsibility depends on privilege and power. In my case, I’m white and male, educated, with easy access to information, working in a professional job with a comfortable income and considerable freedom. People such as me, with the greatest privilege, bear greatest responsibility. But no one escapes responsibility living in an imperial state with the barbaric record of the United States (in my lifetime, we could start with the list of unjust U.S. wars, direct and through proxies, against the people of Latin America, southern Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, resulting in millions of victims). Bush and Clinton couldn’t carry out their crimes in this relatively open and democratic society if we did not allow it.

To increase the chance that we can stop those crimes, we also have to be precise about the roadblocks that keep people from acting responsibly: A nominally democratic political system dominated by elites who serve primarily the wealthy in a predatory corporate capitalist system; which utilizes sophisticated propaganda techniques that have been effective in undermining real democracy; aided by mass-media industries dedicated to selling diversions to consumers more than to helping inform citizens in ways that encourage meaningful political action.

We must hold ourselves and each other accountable, with a realistic analysis not only of how we have ended up in this dire situation but also a reasonable assessment of how different people react to the spirit of our society.

Some in the United States celebrate this unjust system and seek to enrich themselves in it; they deserve the harshest critique and condemnation. Many others simply move with the prevailing winds, taking their place in the hierarchy without much thought and little challenge; they should be challenged to rise above their willed ignorance and passivity. Some others resist, through political organizing or in quieter ways; they should be commended, with the recognition that whatever they have done it hasn’t been enough to end the nation’s imperial crimes. And we must remember that there are people in the United States suffering under such oppressive conditions that they constitute a kind of internal Third World, targeted as much as the most vulnerable people abroad.

Of course those are crudely drawn categories that don’t capture the complexity of our lives. But we should draw them to remind ourselves: Those of us with privilege are responsible in some way. If we want to speak in a prophetic voice, as I believe we all can and should, we must start with an honest assessment of ourselves and those closest to us. For example, I consider myself part of the anti-empire/anti-war movement, and for the past decade I have spent considerable energy on those efforts. But I can see many ways in which I could have done more, and could do more today, in more effective fashion. We need not have delusions of grandeur about what we can accomplish, but we do need to avoid a self-satisfied complacency.

That kind of complacency is far too easy for those of us living in the most affluent nation in the history of the world. For those of us with privilege, political activism typically comes with very few costs. We work, and often work hard, for justice but when the day is done many of us come home to basic comforts that most people in the world can only dream of. Those comforts are made possible by the very empire we are committed to ending.

Does this seem hard to face? Does it spark a twinge of guilt in you? I hope that it does. Here we can distinguish the guilt of those committing the crimes — the formal kind of guilt of folks such as Bush and Clinton — from the way in which a vaguer sense of guilt reminds us that we may not be living up to our own principles. That kind of guilty feeling is not a bad thing, if we have not done things that are morally required. If there is a gap between our stated values and our actions — as there almost surely is for all of us, in varying ways to varying degrees — then such a feeling of guilt is an appropriate moral reaction. Guilt of that kind is healthy if we face it honestly and use it to strengthen our commitment to justice.

This is our fate living in the empire. We must hold ourselves and each other accountable, while knowing that the powerful systems in place are not going to change overnight simply because we have good arguments and are well-intentioned. We must ask ourselves why we don’t do more, while recognizing that none of us can ever do enough. We must be harsh on ourselves and each other, while retaining a loving connection to self and others, for without that love there is no hope.

People often say this kind of individual and collective self-assessment is too hard, too depressing. Perhaps, but it is the path we must walk if we wish to hold onto our humanity. As Heschel put it, “the prophets endure and can only be ignored at the risk of our own despair.”Ibid., p. xiii. To contemplate these harsh realities is not to give in to despair, but to make it possible to resist.

If we wish to find our prophetic voice, we must have the courage to speak about the crimes of our leaders and also look at ourselves honestly in the mirror. That requires not just courage but humility. It is in that balance of a righteous anger and rigorous self-reflection that we find not just the strength to go on fighting but also the reason to go on living.

  • A version of this essay was delivered as a sermon to the Henry David Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Bend County, Texas, August 3, 2008.
  • Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

    11 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. bozhidar balkas said on August 7th, 2008 at 10:43am #

      i agree. there are hardly any innocent people anywhere. we have rape, wife beating,robberies, murders, class differences (masters class and serf class), anger, meaness, rudeness, envy, hatred, greed, religious misteachings, miseducation. warfare, wmd, etc.
      most of us ignore all of these issues; we are not working on any of these ills that befell us.
      there are degrees of gulit. among the guiltiest are miseducators of all kinds. clergy, politicians, master class is broadly more responsible than the untermnschen. thank u

    2. Arch Stanton said on August 7th, 2008 at 11:22am #

      “Blind men and women have been the motor of modern history and the source of endless misery and destruction. Aspiring leaders of great powers can neither understand nor admit the fact that their strategies are extremely dangerous because statecraft by its very nature always calculates the ability of a nation’s military and economic resources to overcome whatever challenges it confronts. To reject such traditional reasoning, and to question the value of conventional wisdom and react to international crises realistically on the basis of past failures would make them unsuited to command. The result is that politicians succeed in terms of their personal careers, states make monumental errors, and people suffer. The great nations of Europe and Japan put such illusions into practice repeatedly before 1945.”

      From The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World by Gabriel Kolko

    3. Steve said on August 7th, 2008 at 11:52am #

      Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said . . . Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
      Actually, in this country, whether at home, work, ball games, church, etc., most comments I hear from Americans are they are supporting the troops, praying for them and victory, and were 100% behind our president when he sent them over to Iraq or Afganistan. They parrot the same lies that Bush and Cheney repeat daily on the news. I’d have to say anyone who voted to put these guys in power is guilty. Even those who voted for the other guy are just as guilty, since they buy into the system which is throughly corrupt. The crimes being committed have the blessing of the people so they can continue to remain in their state of complete denial.

    4. sk said on August 7th, 2008 at 3:03pm #

      George Orwell made a similar point in an essay on the Nobel-winning author and poet who coined the phrase White Man’s Burden:

      All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.

    5. Brian Koontz said on August 7th, 2008 at 11:37pm #

      It’s false that the privileged people in imperial societies bear more responsibility – with privilege comes the need to protect those privileges.

      It’s the “poor” people of the United States who have the most in common with the non-American victims of the American state. It’s the unemployed and the minimum wagers who are in the best position to share solidarity. But when a minimum-wager in America earns in an hour what 2 billion global workers earn in a week, there’s not a whole lot in common. American minimum wagers eat meat – those global workers eat mud cakes and rice. Americans, top to bottom, are the enemy for most of the world.

      No amount of willpower or good intentions can overcome the material reality that the privileged class in America will always protect their status. Their excuses are endless, “feeding my family” being the most common. University professors are victims – victims of their own affluence. They will never serve the interests of the poor as they simply do not share those interests.

      Harry Callahan said it succinctly: “A man’s got to know his limitations”.

      American progressives are great at dreaming and terrible at reality.

      More than 40 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his greatest speech, at Riverside Church in New York City. This was the speech that heralded his approach toward global socialism, which threatened American hegemony and led quickly to his murder. Here’s a highlight from that speech:

      “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
      A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be consantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. it comes to see that an edifice which produces begars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

      Fair enough – if we were approaching spiritual death more than 40 years ago, what is the current status of Americans?

    6. john andrews said on August 8th, 2008 at 12:57am #

      I disagree with the view that ordinary people are responsible for the actions of their leaders – this accepts the notion that ordinary people have some sort of control or influence over their decision makers and we all know that simply isn’t true. Our so-called ‘democracies’ allow us to change the front men who appear to be making the decisions, but not the real decision makers.

      The people as a group cannot be blamed for this – they mostly just want to live and let live and are mostly too worn down just trying to survive and provide better for their children. Of course they are deliberately maintained in this condition – but they cannot be blamed for that.

      Neither can they be expected to rebel unless a better life can really be delivered. Most revolutions have used the people to overthrow their tyrants simply to see the old tyrants replaced with a new batch.

      A solution is Free Democracy – a system where the people, properly informed, may directly make the decisions of their government without relying on ‘leaders’ to do so. Until such a government is created, giving the people real power for the first time in history, the people should not be blamed for the actions of those the system prevents them from controlling.

    7. Brian Koontz said on August 8th, 2008 at 5:18am #

      “I disagree with the view that ordinary people are responsible for the actions of their leaders – this accepts the notion that ordinary people have some sort of control or influence over their decision makers and we all know that simply isn’t true. Our so-called ‘democracies’ allow us to change the front men who appear to be making the decisions, but not the real decision makers.”

      Ordinary people have to seize power. That’s what democracy is – it’s “one human, one unit of power”. Ordinary people need to create that political reality, and not stop until it’s accomplished, and afterwards sustain it. If instead the people believe…

      “The people as a group cannot be blamed for this – they mostly just want to live and let live and are mostly too worn down just trying to survive and provide better for their children. Of course they are deliberately maintained in this condition – but they cannot be blamed for that.”

      Are their descendants going to forgive them for being “too beaten down to create a better world”? Is that the kind of thing that should be on someone’s tombstone? I would have trouble leaving any flowers upon my ancestors’ graves if that inscription was etched.

      Struggle is the only path in life – struggle is perpetual until victory is achieved. Capitalists understand this and live just that reality yet the supposed “social justice movement” makes up excuses like “Oh, no, it’s just too difficult to fight!”

      The reason we are nearing a world of capitalist totalitarian control is because for the most part capitalists have defeated socialists. The only way to correct that is for socialists to defeat capitalists. The only way to produce that victory is to fight and destroy capitalism. “We’re too beaten down to fight” is not a path to victory.

      “Most revolutions have used the people to overthrow their tyrants simply to see the old tyrants replaced with a new batch.”

      In a democratic revolution, the revolution IS the people. There is no such thing as a democratic revolution that involves a “vanguard”.

    8. bozhidar balkas said on August 8th, 2008 at 5:48am #

      millennia ago, a hunter may have said to his clan of , let’s say, 100 people, I’ve seen deer by our pond. let’s go and slay one!
      sure enough there were deer by their pond. one was killed and all ate.
      the tribe trusted the hunter. the trusting being our greatest wealth and security.
      even today most people most of the time love to trust their hunter. but now the hunter is no longer the hunter but the great hunter.
      the words of the ancient hunters had full symbolic value. words such as We’ll all eat! One for all, all for one! ok, we have just two little girls which we need to procreate and remain as clan. watch them!
      but then come along mad priests; spreading dissent/fear; collaborating with one or two equally mad people.
      subjugation began.
      ooh,how good IS trust/hope/wish everything go well.
      but for those mad people………
      thank u

    9. birgit said on August 8th, 2008 at 9:55am #

      Let go of the false left right paradigm.
      The 2 alleged political parties are nothing but two turds that came out of the same place
      There is no difference.We are being shown a circus, the real criminals are out of sight, behind the curtain.Bushcheney inc are just puppets on a string…why can’t we grasp that?
      It has been us against the elite for millenias.We are kept at each others throats artificially, and intentionally to keep our focus off the ones that are really doing a number on us. Wake sheeples, once and for all wake up!

    10. bozhidar balkas said on August 8th, 2008 at 2:02pm #

      you are right. ruling class in US will never tolerate two, or three party system.
      it likes one policy for controling domestic people and one policy controling foregn pop.
      doemstics are controled by lies, etc. foreign pops are controled by bombs/missiles, etc.
      it’s control that matters. it is obtained by whatever means necessary.
      if the means become less fruitful, they can be changed. as long as they are very fruitful, amers will enjoy some freedoms.

    11. john andrews said on August 9th, 2008 at 1:26am #

      The idea of the people being the revolution is sort of right. BUT. The people still need some sort of common direction, some common belief behind which they can unite. What is that direction, that belief? The idea that some great leader will emerge to lead us out of the wilderness is now too discredited for anyone to seriously trust – that’s the trick that all revolutions use, and always result only in replacing one set of tyrants with another leaving the people just as downtrodden as they were before.

      Free Democracy is an answer. It has no leaders, just an administration that the people directly control.