In a dramatic moment in Arthur Miller’s story, Incident at Vichy, a Jewish psychiatrist named Dr. LeDuc confronts the Austrian Prince von Berg. LeDuc, the Jew, forces the Prince to recognize that, though he claims to deplore Nazism, he goes along with it.
There, in the French police station with Jews who are about to be deported to death camps …recognition dawns on the Prince, and he sees the result of his apathy, of his just “going along.” The Prince is overwhelmed by guilt … but LeDuc, the Jew, turns on him fiercely saying, “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility.”
Guilt is essentially self-centered. It’s all about us, and how we feel about what we have done.“I can’t believe I am such a horrible person!”Responsibility is about the other person: how we can work to improve their lot.
“It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility.” The last day of Jesus’ life, Pontius Pilate speaks with Jesus, and finds no fault in him. Jesus is innocent of the charges brought up against Him. Three times Pilate calls out to the crowd, seeking their permission to release Jesus until, regretfully, Pilate allows the crowd to prevail. Pilate goes along to get along.
He is the Roman governor; he can release Jesus any time he wants to. But he doesn’t want a fuss, so- regretfully- he washes his hands of Jesus, and sends Him to His death. And we recall those words “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility.”
One of the criminals hanging there with Jesus expresses regret for what he has done. And we recall those words “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility.”
Peter follows the soldiers to the courtyard of the high priest. As the soldiers gather around a barrel fire, Peter approaches to warm himself. Three times he is recognized as a disciple of Jesus. Three times, like Pilate, Peter betrays Jesus: You’re one of them… I am not! You are… I am not! You are … NO I AM NOT!
Three times he denies it … and the cock crows and he the stark reality hits him. And guilt overwhelms him-guilt for his cowardice, for losing his nerve, for his failure to stand up for Jesus. And the text says, “he went out and wept bitterly.” And scripture tells us that his guilt haunted him through Jesus’ crucifixion, and even through His resurrection. He went back to his nets- guilty and shamed. And Jesus came to Peter and basically said,
“It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility.” Feed My lambs, Tend My Sheep. Feed My Sheep. Three times for each time Peter was beating himself up for denying Jesus.
Then there is Jesus on the Cross … and he breathes his last. A Roman soldier exclaims that surely this man was innocent, and a moment of recognition runs through the whole crowd. And the text reads: “And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.” “Beating their breasts” for leaving the political decision to Herod and Pilate and the High Priest. “Beating their breasts” for relying on the Scribes, the lawyers, to see that justice is done. “Beating their breasts” for allowing the military to carry out the death sentence.
And we recall those words, “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility.”
Statesmanship is too important to be left to the politicians. Justice is too important to be left to the lawyers. Death is too important to be left to the police and the military.
Too late the crowd realizes that they have let the most important issue of the day be decided for them, on their behalf, in their name … and they go home “beating their breasts,” demonstrating once again how much easier it is to feel guilty than to be responsible.
But feeling guilty has nothing to do with courage, or integrity, or the Kingdom of God. Because feeling guilty is all about us– how we feel, how bad we are. Feeling guilty is completely self-centered, and never changes anything.
But taking responsibility for our actions and for the world around us- that’s where the rubber hits the road. Without that, evil can run with a free hand. The Eighteenth century philosopher, Edmund Burke, observed: “All it takes for evil to flourish is for a few good people to do nothing.”
The last words written by a Polish deportee in a concentration camp were: “Don’t be afraid of your enemies: the most they can do is kill you. Don’t be afraid of your friends: the most they can do is betray you. Those you should be afraid of are the indifferent. They are neither friends nor foes, they neither kill nor betray, but because of their indifference there are so many killings and betrayals.”
The truth is that those who would ride roughshod over others need us to be apathetic. And if we feel guilty while we’re apathetic- so much the better, because it cripples us even more.
Witness the multitude gathered round the Cross that Friday afternoon. Feeling guilty… but it’s so much easier to beat our breasts than stick out our necks, make waves, resist the crowd So much easier to feel guilty than to take responsibility.
But when all we do is beat our breasts, who we are moral, good human beings… is diminished. We become less than what God intends for us to be when we tolerate the intolerable. Our spirits shrivel when we fail to take a stand.
It is not that we’re bad or evil. On the contrary, we all are just regular people. More than a hundred years ago, Soren Kierkegaard describes a man who is just a regular person: “He is a university man, husband and father, An uncommonly competent civil functionary even, a reputable father, very gentle to his wife, and carefulness itself with respect to his children. And a Christian? Well, yes, he is that too after a sort; However, he preferably avoids talking on the (uncomfortable) subject …” Sickness Unto Death
But when we don’t raise uncomfortable subjects- subjects of justice, of race, or violence, or shootings, or even just perceived unkindnesses; if all we do is talk to those who agree with us and will not call us to account for our beliefs, our spirits weaken.
Remember Jesus admonition to the daughters of Jerusalem who were wailing and beating their breasts? He told them not to weep for Him, but weep for themselves. For if they cannot stand up to the evil done to one person, how will they endure when evil infects the whole community? “If they will do this when the wood is green,” Jesus says, “what will happen when the wood is dry?”
When the prophet Jeremiah was bitterly “beating his breast” over Israel’s shortcomings, the Lord told him: “If you race with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you do in the jungle of the Jordan?” When we will not take a for the small things, which require very little of us- our discomfort, perhaps- how will be able to take a stand when something greater is actually required of us? Will we be like Peter crying out, “I never knew Jesus! I never knew the man!”?
Friends, we who would call ourselves Christian need to understand: It takes moxie to be a Christian. It takes courage, and the willingness to stand up for what is just and true.
We can start small. I am so proud of Adam Langreder. Adam is 13; it’s an age where peer pressure is intense. On March 14, he and one other student were the only students at Kettle Moraine Middle School to walk out of class to protest the deaths of the 17 students in Florida. It took courage to walk around the school with his poster calling for common sense gun reform, when everyone else was inside the building not wanting to get involved.
I am so proud of him- growing his spirit, so that he can grow into a man of even greater strength and integrity.
And what Adam did- we are called to do: to reflect on what God would say, and then to act on it in a way that makes a difference. Not just a way that is comfortable- but a way that makes a difference.
Because God doesn’t want our guilt; God wants our responsibility.”
And on this day 1,985 years ago, Jesus entered into Jerusalem while the crowds around him waves palms and shouted, “Save us, Son of David!” And the Roman legions stood on the parapet above the city, watching while He took His stand- making His way publicly through the streets, throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple, teaching publicly in the square. There was no hiding behind vague words, no ducking inside a doorway so as not to be seen. He stood up for what He believed God was calling for. He stood up in His integrity, come what may.
“All it takes for evil to flourish is for a few good people to do nothing.” But when a few good people stand up to be counted, evil has a much harder time. Because what God doesn’t need is our guilt; what God needs is our responsibility.
- And when we fail, as most assuredly we will sometimes, God is there to pick us up.
- And when we deny Him, as Peter most assuredly did, God is there to say, “Do you love me? Then care for My sheep.”
- And when, at our end, we have gone beyond our comfort zones to do what God would have us do, then God will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in little; I will put you over much. Enter into the joy of My Kingdom.”
- And when we hear those words, we will know that we did good, and we became what God intended us to be all along. Disciples of Jesus who live by His strength, His integrity, and His faithfulness.
In the name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resource: Arthur Miller, Incident At Vichy; Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death