Many people appear to believe that the Bible and Jesus teach “personal responsibility.” By personal responsibility they mean that each individual should be personally responsible for themselves and their families. This means making wise and prudent decisions in their own best interests, not depending or relying upon assistance from anyone else. It means working hard to get ahead and taking reasonable risks investing their assets. It means keeping the commandments by not stealing, killing, or lying in their personal relationships. It means not disrespecting their parents. It means accepting the consequences of their own actions, not cheating, complaining, or blaming others for their situation. It means keeping one’s word.
All these virtues are interpreted very individualistically. They concern what you as an individual do in your own life. And this understanding of personal responsibility is based on another convenient assumption, that everyone has an equal shot in life. There is an “even playing field” and everyone has to abide by the same rules. Your life is purely what you personally make of it. The feeling is that if everyone showed personal responsibility in this way, society would be much better off.
And it probably would. But this is not what the Bible or Jesus teach. They don’t teach this view of personal responsibility because some of the premises are very wrong. Scripture understands that, left to their own devices, human beings do not adopt the same rules for everyone. Neither is there in reality anything like an even playing field. Every person does not come into the world with the same abilities, opportunities, or prospects. Indeed, the Bible understands that even adopting “the same rules” for everyone on paper or in theory isn’t even possible. The very same rules may happen to favor some and jeopardize others, based on their different circumstances. Thus the enactment of a philosophy of personal responsibility means that the privileged consolidate their power at everyone else’s expense. That is why it is invariably the privileged who are most likely self-righteously to prate about personal responsibility. Exercising personal responsibility results in a society in which the power of the wealthy, strong, healthy, well-born, intelligent, and good-looking ever increases, and that of everyone else declines. The negative example of this was always Egypt. Egypt stands as a continual warning of how bad a society can get – slavery – and the consequences – ecological disaster.
The Bible remembers with some bitterness that a male child born a Hebrew slave in Pharaoh’s Egypt does not have anything like the same chances in life as a male child raised in Pharaoh’s royal household… and it gives us Moses as an example of both. Slaves have no personal responsibility because responsibility for them has been forcefully usurped by stronger powers, exercising their own personal responsibility. The same goes for people born poor, sick, aliens, outcast, excluded, or otherwise deemed by the personally responsible to be deficient.
Therefore, God gives the new nation of escaped slaves a new way of living. Since the free exercise of individual, personal responsibility leads inexorably to the tyranny of the strong over the weak, as in Egypt, God institutes a alternative, contrary way of communal and mutually shared responsibility for each other. God gives the people a law which is intended to make them into an anti-Egypt where everyone is equal under God.
This law is, of course, summed up in the Ten Commandments. Briefly, the Commandments instruct us in mutual, shared responsibility by first asserting the primacy of God over all. The has the effect of leveling society, mitigating against the idea that some (the personally responsible who get ahead because of their privilege) are better than others. God says no to this and to the religious expression of this philosophy, idolatry: making something or someone who isn’t God into God. God institutes the Sabbath to ensure that the demands of economic production, that place where the personally responsible most effectively wield their power, do not consume 100% of a person’s life. God would have the people remember others, beginning with their own parents, representing former generations, traditions, and the Earth. Then the four main tools by which the personally responsible enforce their privilege – murder, adultery, theft, and lying – are prohibited. Finally, the people are enjoined from envying or coveting what belongs to others. This works both ways: the personally responsible often envy the wealth generated by others’ work, and therefore connive to acquire it, and people are not to desire for themselves the fruits of being privileged over others.
If anything, Jesus is even more severe. When a poor or sick person comes or is brought to him, Jesus does not give them a sermon about how they need to be more personally responsible. He acts immediately to alleviate the suffering. His advice to rich people who ask for it is basically, “Go and sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor; then come and follow me.” In other words, “exercise your personal responsibility by doing the thing you consider most irresponsible.”
For the Bible, then, we are only personally responsible for each other. When inequalities emerge, we are responsible to ensure that those who have more contribute to those who have less. The most important personal responsibilities we have are for other persons. When we are living for others is when we are being most personally responsible, as far as Scripture is concerned. However, if you are using your personal responsibility as a pretext for criticism of the underprivileged, as if they got that way because of their own lack of personal responsibility, well, neither Jesus nor the Bible has much patience with this self-righteous, hateful view.