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Guilt, Responsibility, and Western Prosperity

Posted on December 5, 2015

by Charles Dykes

One of the great differences between paganism and early Christianity was in their varying concepts of responsibility. Responsibility has generally been defined as “the human sense of answerableness for all acts of thought and conduct.” The pagan however, located responsibility primarily in his environment (e.g., fate, the stars, the gods, and the like), whereas Christian faith insisted on individual moral responsibility. Orthodox Christianity was not then nor is it now “concerned with the pointless questions about heredity, environment, the stars, or any other like search for a cause.” Rather the Christians perceived that “the pagan search for causes is a denial of the person and also of responsibility.”

Ours is a time when the pagan and Christian concepts of responsibility are often curiously mixed in the same minds, resulting in a strange new doctrine wherein some men are considered to be the helpless victims of environmental determinism, while others are declared to have a free will, albeit an evil one.

In his analysis of egalitarianism, P. T. Bauer provides an example of this kind of thinking: “The poor are often envisaged as a distinct class at the mercy of the environment, with no will of their own, while at the same time they are denied the primary human characteristic of responsibility. The rich are regarded as having a will of their own, but as being villainous. Poverty is seen as a condition caused by external forces, while prosperity, is viewed as the result of conduct, although reprehensible conduct. The poor are considered passive but virtuous, the rich as active but wicked.”

Thus in contemporary egalitarian demonology, the “rich” and their machinations have become the “stars,” “fate,” or other “causes” which afflict the “poor.”

Search for Scapegoats

This abiding human passion to transfer responsibility for one’s own sin and failure to someone or something else can be illustrated by innumerable examples. Some years ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote of his encounter with anti-Christian books in days prior to his conversion. He noted that Christianity “was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons . . .” He continues, “I was much moved by the eloquent attack on Christianity as a thing of inhuman gloom . . . They did prove to me in Chapter I, (to my complete satisfaction) that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II, they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic.”

He was impressed by the argument that Christianity was weak, timid, and cowardly with regard to fighting, then turned the page and “found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars” and “had deluged the world with blood . . . The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes.”

A few years later Ludwig von Mises was moved to say that “Nothing is more unpopular today than the free market economy, i.e., capitalism. Everything that is considered unsatisfactory in present day conditions is charged to capitalism. The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion and the sins of our contemporaries, and the Protestant churches and sects are no less vigorous in their indictment of capitalist greed. Friends of peace consider our wars as an offshoot of capitalist imperialism. But the adamant nationalist warmongers of Germany and Italy indicted capitalism for its ‘bourgeois’ pacifism . . . Sermonizers accuse capitalism of disrupting the family and fostering licentiousness. But the ‘progressives’ blame capitalism for the preservation of allegedly outdated rules of sexual restraint.”

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