These days one of the phrases that is popular these days is “Personal Responsibility”. Often it is used in discussions about health care. For example, this Tweet from Mike Pence:
Before summer’s out, we’ll repeal/replace Obamacare w/ system based on personal responsibility, free-market competition & state-based reform
Now I’m all for personal responsibility. It’s what I tried to teach my kids. It’s something I try to practice personally.
But I think we have been misusing the phrase “personal responsibility”, at least from a Christian point of view. Often, even usually, when we say personal responsibility we mean I am taking care of myself. I get to my job on time. I pay my bills. I take responsibility for my actions. That’s a good thing.
Where we slide into error is when we think personal responsibility has to do only with us. When personal responsibility stops with me and with my family, we have a less than Christian understanding of personal responsibility.
For Christians I am also responsible for you. And you for me. When the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”, he was asking where does my personal responsibility end?
All of scripture -Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, through the law and prophets and certainly the Gospels -the message of scripture is we are to care about and for each other. We are responsible for each other.
You, as it turns out, are my personal responsibility. As is the person across the state from me in Flint. As is the person in Mexico. As is the person in Iraq and North Korea. And like it or not, I am your responsibility. How we exercise that responsibility is both personal and structural.
I can be responsible for my children’s education. But I can’t educate every child I see. I can, along with you, make sure every child has access to a good education. I can take responsibility for my health- as much as is in my control. But I can’t treat every sick person. I can, along with you make sure everyone one has access to and can afford health care. I can feed myself and my family. But I can’t feed everyone I see. I can, along with you, make sure our food supply is safe and accessible. I can, along with you, make sure people are not hungry.
When personal responsibility stops with me, my heart, as Calvin warned, has curved in on itself. Which is, in fact,a pretty good way to notice sin. How is my heart? Is it turned inward, focused on myself? Or is it opened up, turned outward? Is my heart facing and loving the world?
Personal responsibility, I’m all for it. But for Christians that includes my neighbor, the stranger, the foreigner, and even my enemy.