THE BLAME GAME
The man said, "the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree. and I ate...The woman said, "The serpent tricked me and I ate."
"But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"
Ever since I was a boy I have lived with the story of how my ancestor, Field Marshall Emmanuel Grouchy was blamed for losing the Battle of Waterloo which, incidentally, occurred two-hundred years ago, on Sunday 18th June 1815. According to the story, Grouchy was having strawberries for breakfast -- an admirable pastime you will agree -- in a village near the town of Wavre, when he and his staff heard the guns beginning their opening barrage at Waterloo. Grouchy had been ordered by Napoleon to pursue the Prussian army which was in retreat, back towards Germany, and he was determined to obey his orders. But the wily old Prussian General Blucher divided his army into two sections, one of which hurried to Waterloo while Grouchy chased the other. So Grouchy failed to arrive at Waterloo in time to give Napoleon the support he needed at the crucial moment. Instead, the Prussians arrived and turned the tide in favour of Wellington and his allies. So Grouchy got all the blame even though there were several other reasons why Napoleon lost the battle. So who really was to blame? There were several culprits, including Napoleon himself and undoubtedly Grouchy, but no one was prepared to accept responsibility.
Whoever first told the primordial story of Adam and Eve knew a thing or two about the blame game. Man blames woman, woman blames snake, and snake gets its revenge -- it's a recurring theme in the story of human relationships. To complete the cycle, Cain kills his brother Abel, but refuses to accept responsibility. "Am I my brother's keeper!" I refuse to be held accountable for my actions. I am not only not sorry for what I have done, I have no intention of acknowledging that I might have done something wrong.
The blame game is daily played out across the world, in every institution and every home. Who was to blame for apartheid? Who is to blame for the economic crisis in Greece? Who is to blame for the Marikana Massacre? Who is to blame for our power outages? Or, for leaving the lights on in these days of soaring electricity costs? Definitely not Grouchy! So it must be Mrs Grouchy who is at fault, or an unknown third force. No one, it seems, is willing to accept accountability and say sorry. In fact, we continually try to justify our actions or lack of them.
Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan begins by telling us that a lawyer asked Jesus to tell him who his neighbour was -- a perfectly reasonable question. But then we are told that his motivation for asking Jesus was that he wanted to justify himself. In other words, to prove that he was blameless. He always obeyed the law of Moses. Oh, yes, retorts Jesus, you are not as blameless as you think you are! Are you really the neighbour to despised Samaritans? No one is blameless because we all fail to love those in need as we should. In any case, to love someone to prove a point or to justify oneself, is to misunderstand what love is all about.
We cannot be held responsible for everything that goes wrong, and there is no need to, but we all find it difficult to admit our mistakes and accept blame when we are responsible. Instead, we indulge in self-justification or blame others. It seems as if we are programmed to deny culpability. "Am I my brother's keeper?" "Who is my neighbour?" Even when we know that we have done wrong, we look for scapegoats for what has gone wrong, or excuses for our actions that shift the blame: it's in my genes, it's because of my parents, my spouse, my colleagues, the coach, the abbot, the weather, God, the devil, a talking snake, or the "screw-up fairy" who regularly visits my workshop! Yes, everything and everyone else is to blame for my mistakes, except me! We are all experts at playing the blame game and justifying ourselves.
I have not read the Marikana Commission Report, but I am willing to wager that the word "sorry" does not appear; and I am equally sure that there is a great deal of self-justification embedded in the text. Politicians are past masters at denying they did any wrong, as are many CEO's, bankers, and heads of parastatals. It seems as if this is part of their training Rule number one: "never say sorry, I made a mistake." Point fingers at others, never at yourself. If politicians accept blame, it is so rare that it makes headlines. Saying sorry it seems is a sign of weakness.
One reason why we cannot take blame or say we are sorry is because we fear the consequences of doing so. For politicians to admit mistakes means that they will not only lose face but also lose their seats and their salaries. And, of course, lawyers are waiting to pounce on anyone who admits that it was his or her fault for crashing into someone else's car. Admit you are wrong and your day in court will be over even before you hear the judge pronounces the verdict. But even when our misdemeanours are minor we don't like owning up. "Yes, but," is my usual response to Isobel when she points out some failure on my part. "Yes, but!" Followed by, "and don't think you are blameless, you do the same thing!" To say, as some do, that love means you never have to say sorry is not true. To say sorry is part and parcel of being in love.
Every day chapel or week by week in church we confess our sins as individuals and as part of the human race. This is an acknowledgment of culpability. It is not that we are each guilt for every sin in the book, but we are all implicated in one way of another through our actions or lack of them. The prayer of confession is not some kind of morbid guilt trip, or a liturgical formality -- it is a necessary reminder that we are not blameless, it is a regular reminder of the need for us to accept responsibility for our actions and, if necessary, to change direction and move on. We are breaking the cycle of self-justification and the compulsive need to play the blame game. Jesus does not condemn us because of our faults, failures and sins; he has come to redeem us and therefore to set us free from them in order to live life fully. But he knows that the way to such freedom is not the path of self-justification, but grace and forgiveness. So to be sorry for our mistakes is not a sign of weakness, it is the necessary and often courageous first step towards reconciliation and healing.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 9th July 2015