Without any doubt we live in one of the most blame-ridden societies in the world, in all of world history. Republicans blame Democrats, and Democrats blame Republicans. Independents blame both parties, and citizens blame government. The poor blame the wealthy for being wealthy, and the well-to-do blame the unemployed for not working their way out of dire straits. Children blame their parents for their problems, and parents blame the schools for their children’s problems. The Church blames the un-churched for the ills of the community, and the un-churched blame the Church for being insensitive and unchristian. And within the Church, one sect or denomination blames the others – perhaps one in particular – for some set of problems, just like one ethnic group blames another for their unique difficulties.
Over and over again, the finger of blame is pointed in some direction or other, at someone, but never at the one doing the pointing … the one actually playing the blame game. Little children are like this, but doubtless they learned this nasty trait from adults. Confront them with something they’ve done wrong and the first word out of their mouth is, “But…!” There is always some reason, an excuse, and if the excuse doesn’t exactly work, then someone else is likely at fault for their misdeed(s). And, of course, this goes back to the very beginnings of humanity. What is it we read in the Genesis account of the Fall of Humanity? God confronts Adam with his disobedience and immediately Adam blames Eve; Eve, in her turn, blames the serpent. The serpent presumably has no one to blame – all the worse for the serpent; he loses his feet over the whole incident.
I certainly have not been innocent on this score. I’ve blamed my parents for many of my troubles, as well as my siblings and grandparents. I’ve blamed teachers and education – or, in some cases, what I’ve perceived to be a lack thereof – and I’ve pointed my finger and raised my voice against Presidents and Congress, big business and corporations, various situations and circumstances, and whatnot. In some cases, I’ve bewailed what I’ve thought of as lack of opportunity, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or not having enough money and other resources… I could go on and on, but the point is this: I am as guilty as the next man, if not more so; therefore, I am not being unjustly accusatory now. I am pointing to an illness of our collective community, our society, which we must cure if we hope to survive. And this may sound like a radical statement, but the cure involves something fundamentally necessary to the life of any people, as we shall see.
This seems, then, to be an endemic to the condition, the nature of humanity. To say, “It’s not my fault,” comes as naturally as the air we breathe. We find ourselves in some conundrum and the first thing we want to do is blame an individual, group of people, circumstances or whatever. This is precisely what the people of Judah were doing during their Babylonian Exile around the first part of the sixth century B. C. There they found themselves bereft of their country – their kingdom – captives in a foreign land. What was their response to their predicament? It was to blame: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge!” In other words, “It’s not our fault! We’re being punished for something we didn’t do! Our forefathers and foremothers sinned, but we’re the ones paying the price! They are the ones who ate the sour grapes, but those sour grapes have (unfairly) set our teeth one edge! Why?”
This was a proverbial saying that contemptuously called into question the justice of God. Think about it for a moment. Why would the children’s teeth be “set on edge” when the fathers are the ones who ate the sour grapes? This doesn’t make any sense. So the people were saying, in effect, “It doesn’t make any reasonable sense why God is punishing us for sins we’ve never committed.” But how does God respond? Well, first of all, it’s important to realize that God was punishing the whole nation for the sins of the nation; this was collective, looking at the communal as if looking at and relating to an individual. In II Kings we hear God declare, “And I will cast off the remnant of my heritage, and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become prey and spoil to all of their enemies because they have done what is evil in my sight, and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers (and mothers) came out of Egypt even to this day.”
Again, God was punishing the whole nation, from down through the generations, for the cumulative guilt of the whole nation. It’s as if their sins and wickedness built up like pressure in a volcano, and then finally exploded into fiery judgment. And this makes some sense when we bring this up to our own day and time. There are mistakes we made as a nation over two centuries ago, and we still suffer the consequences today. What mistakes, for example? Well, the travesty of not outlawing slavery when we won our independence from Great Britain. This was hypocrisy at its highest. Also, the horrendous manner in which we dealt with the Native Americans, which should rightly haunt our collective conscience to this very time. Or to bring this even more up-to-date, lack of accountability and oversight, and essentially giving free reign to corporate greed – and greed is considered one of the seven deadly sins for good reason – led to the economic crisis in which we still find ourselves.
But what else does God say? What is the real point the Lord makes during the Babylonian Captivity? It’s really rather simple: God is saying, “Yes, your forefathers and foremothers sinned. Yes, you are suffering the consequences of their evil and wickedness, but …” and this is important, “I am not punishing you for the sins of your ancestors; rather, ‘I will judge each of you for what you have done.’”
When righteous people turn from their righteous behavior and start doing sinful things, they will die for it. Yes, they will die because of their sinful deeds. And if wicked people turn from wickedness, obey the law, and do what is right, they will save their lives. They will live because they thought it over and decided to turn from their sins. Such people will not die.
What was God trying to teach the people? Very plainly, the Lord was teaching them personal accountability and responsibility. He was saying, in effect, “No, you may not be completely responsible for the mess you’re in, but you are responsible for yourself, the decisions you’ve made, and how you’ve chosen to live out your life. And what I have said and promised, so I say and promise again…”
Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right … such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.”
So it is for us as well: We find ourselves in very unpleasant circumstances as a nation, but the Almighty and Everlasting One has given us the very same opportunity with the same promises God has always given his people. We cannot say that the Lord is unfair, not really; that the divine governance of the world is unjust. No. God speaks to us today and says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone … Turn, then, and live… Turn away from your sins! Turn away from all of the evil things you have done, then sin will not bring you down. Get rid of all of the evil things you have done. Let me give you a new heart and a new spirit, then you will be faithful to me. Why should you die, people of Israel…” people of America? “When anyone dies, it does not give me any joy … so turn away from your sins, then you will live.”
Their parents – their forefathers, foremothers, their ancestors – had sinned and to an extent the people of Judah were suffering the consequences, but God was focusing them on the own lives in the present time, asking, “What about now? How are you living your lives now? Stop playing the blame game! You have your life in the here and now, so what choices are you making? How have you decided to live out the life I’ve given you … yes, exactly where you find yourselves now?” American writer, critic and naturalist, Joseph Wood Krutch, rightly said, “To be individually righteous is the first of all duties, come what may to one’s self, to one’s country, to society, and to civilization itself.” Whatever may be the cost, whatever the consequences, each and every person must make a choice and then forge a life of upstanding character and integrity, or sink further and further down into the quagmire of self-serving, self-destructive hedonism.
Maybe you are poor, and maybe that really is because you have been tragically exploited. Maybe you are suffering because of the unmitigated greed of others – few in number and extraordinarily elitist, to be sure – but what are you yourself going to do with your life despite your circumstances? What are you doing with what you have been given? How have you chosen to respond to the circumstances in which you find yourself? Yes, of course there is a place, fundamentally important, for public speech and action to change the whole of society for the good, the truly good; however, at the heart of any and all public goodness is, as it must be, the good hearts and lives of so many individuals– that is, you and me. We cannot have an authentically good society in which the overwhelming majority of individuals are wicked. This stands to reason.
So, too, maybe the current economic crisis in which we find ourselves – still, year after year – is largely, if not exclusively, due to grasping, self-serving corporate executives and laissez-faire politicians. What about you and me personally, though? Are we self-serving, or God and others-serving? Are we avaricious? Are we accountable to anyone? Do you and I take personal responsibility for our actions? And perhaps just as importantly, do we each realize that what we do and how we choose to live our lives has at least some small part in what our community – local and national alike – will be and do in the world? Someone once said, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible” for the avalanche. Do we not see this kind of mentality in our nation’s capital right now, as we have elected officials pointing fingers and literally screaming at each other?
Who caused the economic avalanche? There is plenty of blame to go round, but we can be certain that no matter what Congress decides, and no matter who is President, and no matter which party ends up in control of the Senate and House of Representatives, ultimately the problems we face as a nation will not be solved until all of us as members of this society learn and practice personal accountability and live lives of character and integrity before almighty God our Lord. No form of government, no economic or legal system, and no degree of law enforcement will avail to save any kingdom, country or nation unless both those who govern and those who are governed are honest, productive and responsible men and women of honor, veracity and decency. This is the lesson we must all learn, or re-learn, as the case may be … fundamentally necessary.
Yes, we may very well suffer to a great extent for the sins of others – the sins of those who have gone before, as well as the sins of some of our contemporaries – but God says, “I will judge you, O house” of America, “everyone one of you according to his or her ways… Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin … for I have no pleasure in the death of anyone … so turn and live.” No more time for blame. “Live not as if there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours… Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin … so turn and live.”
 Ezekiel 18. 2a RSV
 II Kings 21. 14-15 RSV (Note: Minimally Altered for Reading)
 Ezekiel 18. 30a CEV (Emphasis Mine)
 Ezekiel 18. 26-28 NLT
 Ezekiel 18. 4-5, 9b NRSV
 Ezekiel 18. 32 NRSV
 Ezekiel 18. 30b-32 NIrV
 As cited by M. Scott Peck in Abounding Grace: An Anthology of Wisdom, 244
 Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, as cited in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotes, 726.16
 Marcus Aurelius, as quoted by Peck in Abounding Grace, 259
 So the RSV