The Sacrament of Personal Responsibility by Ed Burns

Late one summer evening 45 years ago in Queens, New York, a young woman by the name of Kitty Genovese was walking home to her apartment when she was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant. Without warning, the victim was knocked to the sidewalk and stabbed repeatedly. She cried out for help to the apartments above where her neighbors were just settling in for the evening. Since it was summertime, many windows were open and the residents could hear the screams of the victim. Some of them actually witnessed the attack as it was occurring. At one point, the assailant walked away from the victim, leaving her lying in a doorway. But, for whatever reason, he then returned and continued his vicious assault. The screams of the victim became weaker and weaker until she finally succumbed to the trauma of her wounds and she died.

Later, a police investigation ensued, and many of the residents in the adjacent apartments were questioned about the matter in an effort to determine if anyone could identify the assailant. The police determined that as many as 38 people had heard or even seen the victim being attacked. But not a single one of them did what was the most simple and obvious thing to do, without in any way placing themselves in danger: namely, pick up the telephone and call the police.

This disturbing incident raised, and still raises many questions. Why this kind of apathy on the part of the witnesses? Why this indifference to the fate of one’s own neighbor? Why this fear of getting involved? Why this refusal to act in a simple manner that could have saved someone’s life? Commenting on this incident in his book Images of Hope, the Jesuit William F. Lynch speculated in the following manner:

The apathy, the sense of futility that we have been discussing, is among the major forms of illness invading human society. [It] is a form of hopelessness . . . marked by negativity, nonwishing; noninvolvement . . . absence of feeling, absence of concern. There is a good deal of this among the well. People do not want to be bothered by reality . . . by the public order . . . by the common good, by government. . . . One gets the impression that behind these situations of non-action there is some growing contamination of wishing and hoping and acting. . . . The area of futility tends to extend itself because a distinction has not been made between what can be done and what cannot be done. . . . I have voted for twenty years and did it do any good? So what is the use of picking up the telephone to prevent a murder? The hopelessness closes in on the little things—where even a child could see the hope.           

It is all too easy for us to fall victim to the conviction that our individual choices do not matter very much in the “big picture.” But this is wrong, erroneous—I would even say it is a demonic myth that demeans the dignity and the importance and the value of each individual life, each individual person, and each individual decision that we make. We must be very careful not to fall into the destructive belief that what we do or do not do does not really matter that much. The fact is that what I do or do not do as an individual person counts for everything, before our God, and for the sake of our collective lives and communities. Whether we like the idea or not, we are stuck with the great gifts of personal responsibility and accountability. The individual choices we make affect things, people, events, and the future, for better or for worse. We are called upon to be a Christian people and to live according to the Gospel’s values no matter what system we may be living in or under.

In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me . . . when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul realized that he derived his strength and effectiveness for his mission from a source that transcended all systems, whether they be political, social, or ecclesiastical. Paul is saying that institutional reforms and institutional power will not save us. What will save us is a way of life lived out before our God and in the company of our fellow men and women. Recall that the original name for the early Christian community was simply the Way.

We are on our own when it comes to exercising our sacred gift of personal responsibility. No one, nor any institution, can do this for us. This idea goes against the force of our contemporary cultural and political climate. Our modern prescriptions for building safe and secure lives seem to imply that society, and not persons, should be changed, or rather that people will change if social structures are changed. The New Testament, on the other hand, seems to assume just the opposite: namely, that those who hear the Word will do it, without waiting for social pressure or social reinforcement. Some 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau asked a simple but challenging, difficult, and important question. “Why should anyone wait to do what is right until everybody does it?”

In his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul expresses feelings of weakness and powerlessness. Each one of us will experience similar feelings at some time or other over the course of our lives. We all have encountered what are sometimes called “limit situations”; that is, situations that confront us with our vulnerabilities, our dependencies, our mortality—situations, in other words, that are beyond our control and require help outside of ourselves.

Maybe the issue of living out our Christian lives is not the matter of having power and control over the events of our lives and our institutions. Maybe the issue is rather the matter of having fidelity to our convictions, and a willingness to assume personal responsibility for living out these convictions. If we do this, we can be sure that there will be occasions when we feel like we are in a futile struggle to “fight City Hall,” to overcome the obtuseness, or indifference, or apathy, or hostility that we run into along the way. We should not be surprised or shocked or scandalized if and when such obstacles occur. In fact, we should expect to find ourselves feeling weak and powerless in our efforts to live lives of integrity and fidelity to the values of the Gospel.

This has been the experience of just about every holy man or woman we may have ever read or heard about, or possibly even met. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise to us if and when we should experience something of the same. The way of Jesus relies on an individual’s personal decision and willingness to embrace a life of care and concern and connection with those whom Jesus calls my “neighbor.” It is a simple as that, and as difficult as that, because, as we know, other people can often be exasperating.

And yet the paradox is that the exercise of personal responsibility is the most effective and powerful influence of which a man or woman is capable. Throughout history, people who do not hide behind the protection of political, ecclesiastical, or social institutions have been among the most influential human beings and have sometimes succeeded in changing the very course of history. We call these people witnesses or martyrs. Sometimes we call them prophets or saints, and sometimes we call them members of our own families, or we count them among our friends or acquaintances. Whatever we may call them, we know that the influence of their lives is very powerful.

There is a wonderful line in the book of Ezekiel that I believe could be applied to any one of us who sets our mind, heart, and will to living a life of integrity, a life of assuming personal responsibility for our beliefs and our behavior. Ezekiel hears the Lord saying to him, “Stand up on your feet, and I will speak to you.” So Ezekiel stands on his feet, and Yahweh strengthens him with his spirit. Then he sends him to a nation of rebels with this assurance: “Whether they hear, or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”

Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.   


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