The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 4--"Make Yourself Responsible for All Men's Sins"

In retrospect, I was primed to go Full Girardian long before I actually encountered Girard's work.  Back during my time with the Dominicans, I read the book that I believe is the greatest novel ever written--The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoevsky.  Dostoevsky is one of the handful of authors (alongside Shakespeare, Cervantes, Proust, and Steindahl) that Girard used as the basis for developing his initial theories on memetic desire, back when it was basically a literary construct.  Loving Dostoevsky put me halfway home to appreciating Girard.

Reading Dostoevsky is always, for me, an interesting experience--it's not enjoyable in the normal sense (though, it's not un-enjoyable, either) so much as it is revealing.  The sense I get when reading Dostoevsky is that he is telling you the truth about the way things are, even when you can't exactly isolate the precise content of the truth he is communicating.  The first time I read the novel, my basic reaction was "I know this novel is amazing, even though I don't feel like I understand even a fraction of the things he is trying to say."  Re-readings bring out new elements, but there is always the sense that there is more depth there, waiting to be discovered.

One of the more challenging sections of The Brothers Karamazov comes in Book 6, Chapter 3--the lengthy oration of the Elder Zosima prior to his death.  Elder Zosima functions as the fulcrum for the entire novel, because Zosima is the one who guides the protagonist, Alyosha Karamazov, in coming to understand the fundamental problem of being human, embodied in his own profoundly dysfunctional family.  Zosima is thus a kind of direct author mouthpiece, giving us the message Dostoevsky is trying to convey.  But the message is not the easiest to understand.  In particular, consider probably the most famous part of this speech:

And let not the sin of men confound you in your doings.  Fear not that it will wear away your work and hinder its being accomplished.  Do not say, "Sin is mighty, wickedness is mighty, evil environment is mighty, and we are lonely and helpful, and evil environment is wearing us away and hindering our good work from being done."  Fly from that dejection, children!  There is only one means of salvation, then take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men's sins, that is the truth, you know, friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for all men, you will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and all things.  But throwing your own indolence and impotence on to others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God.

When people quote this passage, they generally quote only the underlined portion.  Taken in isolation from the rest of passage, this is a deeply problematic idea, a recipe for endless neurosis.  It plays directly into the claim that Christianity is concerned with imposing an impossible burden of guilt and shame upon believers, bringing them low and breaking them down.  "Is it not enough to make me feel bad for what I have done, now I have to feel bad about what other people have done, too?"  It feeds into the narrative, taken up by Nietzsche and others, that Christianity is nothing but a toxic exercise in masochism.

But that's not what Dostoevsky is getting at, I think.

His point is not that one should feel bad about things either we or other people have done, but we should understand that all of us are, at the end of the day, exactly the same.  Because we are all exactly the same, there is no real distinction between the things I do and the things other people do.  In fact, it is in the very act of making distinctions between my sins and those of others that we run into trouble.

Through a Girardian lens, all human sin (or wickedness, if you want to avoid religiously-flavored terminology) boils down to two elements--we are violent, and then we lie (to everyone, but especially to ourselves) about our violence.  We find people to cast and exclude, either through direct violence or through the attenuated violence of social structures, and then we come up with all manner of stories to justify and explain why the folks who are on the receiving end of our violence really deserve it.

The most provocative element of Girard's thesis is that you can never trust any of these stories.  The reason given for why this or that person got the axe is never the real reason, but always a post hoc justification for an act of social violence.  But. here's the catch--that doesn't mean that the person who got the axe didn't do the thing that he or she is accused of doing.  In fact, usually, he or she did.  If you are looking for a reason to justify an act of exclusion against a particular person, you can almost always find one, so it is usually trivially easy to pick some excuse that actually has some substance behind it.  That's the really perverse element of the scapegoating process--on a surface level, the accusation is almost always true, while on a deeper level it is never true and always arbitrary.

Elder Zosima gives us a very common narrative, especially among people who think themselves to be "good."  "I want to do all sorts of good things, and I would, if it weren't for all of these terrible people that surround me doing bad stuff."  It is the set-up for self-justification, because it sets up a clear Them who are bad, which can then be contrasted (explicitly or implicitly) with Me who is good.  The category of the "good" people and the category of "bad" people exist in a symbiotic relationship, each requiring the other for their own existence.  The more we feed one side of the equation, the more the other grows--the more we focus on the badness of those around us, the more our own exaggerated self-righteousness is inflated; the more we feel ourselves to be justified, the more we need to emphasize the bad Other as a counter-example.

What Elder Zosima is calling for here is for us to reverse the flow of this feedback loop.  The more we free ourselves of the notion that we are the good people, the less willing we will be to castigate the outsider and the scapegoat.  That is what I think it means to "make yourself responsible for all men's sins"--it is a refusal to play the game of setting ourselves up as the good person over and against some group of the wicked.  It's not masochism for the sake of masochism, or even worse masochism for the sake of taking a victimary position as a way to get a leg-up on others or take the moral high ground, but a path to freedom from the need to exploit others for the sake of maintaining our sense of self-worth.  If I am no longer concerned about being good, I am not longer forced to punish others for being "bad" in order to feed my ego and maintain my self-esteem.

If I have found freedom from this feedback loop, if I have made myself responsible for all men's sins, where does that leave me?  It leaves me in the place of someone who has already been forgiven for all of those sins.  That's why Alison's notion of forgiveness is an essential piece of this story.  If we hold on to the transactional payment model of forgiveness, we will naturally fear taking on a debt burden that we can never pay.  But, because it is not about "paying back" all of those sins in a transactional way, we have no reason to be afraid of taking this on.  We are responsible for everything and forgiven for everything.  That's the Good News.    


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