The prophetic challenge: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible”
By Robert Jensen
Published in ZNet · August, 2008
[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.]
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.
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.” 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.
 Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 16.
 Ibid., p. xiii.