At first light I shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee. A saucepan sat on the stove. So, while reaching for the old-school Melitta pour-over carafe, I jerked the saucepan off the unlit burner. Cold water splashed onto my face and drenched the front of my t-shirt.
“Who put water in this pan!”
The words burst from my mouth in an unintelligible jumble. My wife Joy rushed into the kitchen expecting a third-degree burn or a kitchen fire. Instead, she found me standing in a shallow puddle holding a coffee pot in one hand and a saucepan in the other. Water dripped steadily from my beard to the linoleum at my feet.
She managed to stifle a laugh. For a microsecond.
I would like to say that Joy’s laughter showed me what a “Modern Family” episode this was. But the truth is less flattering. I grew indignant.
Somebody had to be at fault for how ridiculous I looked and felt. That’s right, I’m a blamer. Or, more accurately, I’m a recovering blamer.
To take a page from Brene Brown’s script, blame is a strategy for offloading our pain or shock or frustration. That is not to say that it’s an especially effective strategy. Blame may temporarily divert our attention from our predicament, but it does nothing to improve it. Moreover, it short circuits empathy. When we blame other people, we put a distance between them and us.
The story I shared about myself and the stories that Brene uses to illustrate her point revolve around embarrassing or shame-inducing events that happen to us personally. I’ve noticed that people use blame in another way as well.
Many of us blame other people for their own cruel, trying, or heartbreaking circumstances. The poor are lazy. Addicts are weak. Lung cancer sufferers smoked for years. Diabetics who have lost their sight or their limbs lack dietary self-control.
Under the guise of holding people accountable for their own actions, we turn to fault-finding. Blaming others for their own misery mutes empathy. And so, we fail to recognize the suffering of others as a holy call to compassionate action.
After all, it’s their own fault. Right?
Jesus teaches us that blamers are blinded by asking the wrong question. Blamers want to know, well, who is to blame. Find the one at fault and the case is closed. You’re off the hook. By contrast, following Jesus involves asking something like this: What role can we play in making this shattered situation whole?
Take for instance the episode in John’s Gospel about a man born blind. (John 9:1-41) The disciples ask: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
In other words, who gets the blame for this?
Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.”
Some readers jump to the mistaken conclusion that God made the man congenitally blind so that Jesus could pull off a spiffy miracle. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The disciples have asked the wrong question about the man’s sightlessness. Jesus teaches them to approach the heartaches and injustices and calamities of the world by asking: What will God do about this… through us.
Millions of people are sick and hungry, homeless and lonely. Families struggle to nurture and educate handicapped children and to care for elderly parents in declining health. Addiction rates are climbing, and there is a depressing increase in the number of deaths by drug overdose. These very human needs are our call to action.
This is by no means to say that we are to play the part of saviors to helpless victims. On the contrary, Jesus teaches his followers to respect the freedom, dignity, and ability of every human being.
Older models for responding to human need emphasized giving handouts to the “less fortunate.” A benefactor condescends to a recipient. This approach promotes dependent behaviors that perpetuate an underclass and hints at a moral gap between the privileged and those in need.
By contrast, Jesus reaches out to an equal. Consider how he heals the blind man. Jesus spits on the ground and makes a mud paste to apply to the man’s eyes. Jesus literally and figuratively gets his hands dirty with another person’s life. He touches a stranger that many—not just the disciples—assume to be at fault for his own handicap.
Crucially, Jesus invites the man to cooperate in his own healing. He tells the man, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” At no point does Jesus treat the man as a problem to be fixed or an object to be manipulated. Instead, he befriends a stranger and they work together to bring sight to his eyes.
As it turns out, Jesus is far less interested in how we got to where we are than in where we can go from here. When Jesus meets the leprous and the hungry, the lame and the deranged, the hemorrhaging and even the dead, he heals. He loves too urgently to waste time on assigning blame. And he urges us to love with the same urgency.