On Responsibility to Others

This post continues a series of reflections that I began here.

A couple of posts ago I described a couple “living in sin,” and raised this question: what is my responsibility to this couple vis à vis the foundational sin in their lives?

That’s an extremely complex question, and one that I do not expect to answer in any detail here. I rather expect that if I go back to one of the old manuals of moral theology—which, mind you, I have never read (yes, I’m making this up as I go along)—I’ll find a whole passel of material on it. These are just some thoughts that have occurred to me.

First, it seems to me that the fact that this is a couple “living in sin” is to some extent irrelevant. We are all, in some measure or other, “living in sin”. So the more general question is, what is my responsibility to the people of this world vis à vis the sin in their life?

And that clearly depends on the relationship I have with them. I have the responsibility to guide and guard my underage children, and to help form their consciences. Marriage is about holiness, as I’ve said, so I have a responsibility to Jane, as she does to me, to work in that direction. Sometimes that will involve speaking about sin in our lives.

With people farther away than that, it gets difficult. What we’re doing if we speak to someone about sin we see in his life, as Leah noted in her post, is a kind of intervention, even it’s a mild and small one. If I have no relationship with the individual, rooted in love, such an intervention is likely to be unwelcome. (Aren’t all interventions unwelcome? It’s only the evident love and concern of those performing one—and the impossibility of escaping from them—that make it effective.)

And this is what we should expect. Jesus was clear: how dare I try to remove the mote from your eye when I’ve still got a log in mine?

So let’s go back to that couple, “living in sin.” Let’s say that I’m acquainted with them tangentially—I see them at work, or in some other social context. What is my responsibility to them, to point out the error of their ways?

In terms of a proactive responsibility, given that I am neither pastor nor parent nor in any other position of moral authority over them, I’m not at all sure I have one. It is not my role to go up to them, uninvited, and tell them that they are screwing up. They certainly already know that some people frown on what they are doing; all I’ll do by speaking to them about it is to make them add me to that category with a little “busy-body” flag attached. And anyway, St. Paul is clear that we aren’t to be busy-bodies.

So have I no responsibility to them at all? I think I do, but it’s a more a responsibility to people in general than to that particular couple. In fact, I think I have two responsibilities.

First, I must pray for them. Not necessarily about their sin, because, frankly, at the kind of distance I’m talking about the precise nature of their sin is going to be obscure to me (and for this, may we all be grateful). But I should pray for anyone the Lord brings to my attention, that he would bless them and make straight their paths to him. The process of making straight those paths will probably frustrate a lot of things in a sinner’s life that shouldn’t be there, but that’s between God and the sinner and not my concern. (Unless I’m the sinner.)

Second, I must not lie to them. This has two parts. First, if a fellow asks me, straight out, what I think, I need to tell him. I don’t mean giving him both barrels and knocking him flat on his can. I mean speaking the truth in love, calmly and peacefully.

“Do you think what we’re doing is wrong?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do, since you ask.”

The conversation could go any number of ways from there. If he wants to talk about it, we can talk about it. If not, not. And as always, listening is more important than speaking.*

That’s private speech. There’s also public speech, like this blog post. And here, too, if I should speak about matters of the day—as I am—I have a responsibility not to lie, not to mislead, not to lull people into a false sense of security. More on that later.

* Would that I were better at listening than I am.

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