I had a conversation with some friends recently about the idea of personal responsibility and how that might apply depending on your circumstances, particularly if you happen to be poor. There’s no doubt that poverty limits your choices in life – most of us can’t imagine what it would be like to live, as so many do, on less than $2.50 a day. There are many things that can be said to be getting better in the world, but still – over three billion people live on less than $2.50 a day. And at least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.
Hard to imagine getting by on that, isn’t it? Your options for food, shelter, clothing, healthcare – the basics – never mind things most of us take for granted, like leisure, career, travel, entertainment – become pretty limited. Not only that but the lives of the poor become very precarious, because of the environment in which they live (subject to problems associated with climate change or subject to violence, for example) and the ruthlessness at times of those who are more powerful and wealthy.
I reflected on the issue of personal responsibility a while ago in a post about Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine. What I didn’t consider in that post was a very important point made by Rishawn Biddle in an article provocatively entitled Beyond the Personal Responsibility Myth. Knowledge, he says, is power, but also “the most-crucial tool for acquiring the financial and social resources needed to emerge and stay out of poverty.” Unfortunately, says Biddle, many people in poverty do not have the education and hence knowledge required to make good decisions or to make the best of good decisions made, and become trapped by their own situation and bad decisions. He concludes, “ thinking that bad choices alone explain poverty is as wrongly simpleminded as believing that impoverished people are too tied down by structural inequities to emerge from their conditions.” It’s not a straightforward issue.
However we think personal responsibility fits into the picture, those of us who are better off can’t let ourselves off the hook. More than ever before, our lives are interconnected, the world is getting smaller, we have responsibility one for the other, and each of us can make a difference. I was reminded in thinking about all this of Eric Bibb’s song Connected. The song isn’t about rich and poor, but it’s a powerful reminder that we are all part of each other, we are all connected. Someone famously asked a long time ago, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” A while later, but still a couple of thousand years ago, the answer came: “If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person?”