One of the most important lessons I learned during my journey into religion is the wisdom of taking responsibility—and not just for my own decisions, but on a larger scale.
I’m thinking of teachings in Buddhism that would have us consider the consequences of our actions, how what we think and do affects the world around us, often referred to as “karma.” I feel inclined to also insert ideas from Judaism, how it encourages each of us to lay claim to a much broader identity, to see ourselves as the continuation of previous generations, just as future generations will be an extension of us. But I can’t stop there. I want to add a dash of Islam, specifically the notion that we all belong to a single society despite distinctions of race or gender or class or age. Islam would have us put our differences aside and be beholden to one another.
All of this leads me to stretch my concept of karma, to apply it to generations other than my own, to regions other than where I am, to people who are not me. The actions for which I am accountable transcend time and place. I encountered hints of this more far-reaching karma during my explorations of Buddhism. I heard mention of “personal karma” and “collective karma,” though how the latter played out was vague.
I understand it now as motivation to examine consequences extending well beyond those that result from my own actions. In a sense, this is an even greater challenge than considering personal karma because it means taking responsibility for anything that has created negative outcomes. It doesn’t matter if the actions were not my own; I am not exempt from sharing the blame.
It’s hard enough for most people to take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions, and almost unthinkable to ask anyone to be accountable for anything they didn’t do personally.
We are inclined to skirt responsibility. Maybe it occurred before we were born, like American slavery. Yet, the results from that horrible history continue to ripple out: anger at the injustices of the past and the current inequalities they have bred. If I am to truly take to heart the teachings from religion, I will do more than acknowledge the pain. I will collapse time to feel being both the slave and the slave master. I will experience the suffering of being dehumanized as well as try to understand the entitlement that allows a person to rob others of basic human rights. I will recognize how, in my current incarnation, I receive privileges left over from the favoritism woven into the fabric of this country. I also have to remain willing to recognize modern-day acts of racism, even if it’s my own subliminal thinking that I must pull to the fore and examine. If I go through life blind to these realities, I perpetuate inequality.
Okay, maybe that’s an easy one. As a white person living in the U.S., of course I should acknowledge the awful crimes of slavery and racism. Maybe it’s even a no-brainer that I would claim responsibility.
I want to take this exercise in accountability even further. How about his: I am not exempt from perpetrating sexism. Even as a woman who considers herself a feminist (Women Studies minor in college) I am not free from gender bias. I may be on the receiving end of it, but in small ways that I might not recognize immediately, it can influence my thinking. If I don’t own this, I can’t stay vigilant of the times this backwards ideology creeps in, which leaves me in the awkward position of firm entrenchment in a way of thinking I find loathsome.
So often, the examples we see in the media are of high profile people ducking responsibility for anything and everything, which is why, when someone in the public arena demonstrates accountability, my heart swells with gratitude.
One example is President Obama’s recent trip to Japan, specifically to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. As the first American president to visit there since we dropped nuclear bombs on cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (killing well over 100,000 civilians), Obama was criticized by many who believed his presence there would be seen as an apology. As a result, Obama never uttered the word “sorry” but I agree to an extent: his visit was a public demonstration of accountability for military tactics so extreme that they seem to me to have risen to crimes against humanity. When I saw the video footage of Obama embracing a weeping old man who had survived his city’s obliteration as a young boy, I couldn’t help but cry.
Many people viewed Obama’s actions as exhibiting weakness—but I saw them as a sign of strength. When you own the wrongs and biases, you are no longer powerless. You are part of the solution.