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Accountability: the missing link | Jeff Nowers | July 5, 2020

How hard is it to do the right thing? There’s a lot of ancient wisdom to suggest that it’s actually very difficult. It’s hard to do what’s right. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus spoke about the wide and easy road that leads to destruction, and many are on it. But the narrow and hard road, Jesus said, leads to life, “and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13). The point is that it’s easier to live selfishly than selflessly. It’s a challenge to resist the status quo, to love our each and every neighbor as ourselves, to stand unequivocally on the side of justice and truth.

But if you’re anything like St. Paul—and I can relate to him—our everyday living is marked by cognitive dissonance. For many of us, we want to do what’s right. Isn’t that our earnest desire? But often we end up doing exactly what we don’t want to do. That was certainly Paul’s experience, and he describes it very candidly in today’s reading from Romans 7:15-25. For Paul, there was a psychological war within himself. “I do not do the good I want,” he writes, “but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Paul doesn’t get specific about the actions he has in mind. But if you can identify with what he’s saying, then you can probably think of some examples in our present moment. For instance, many people have every intent of getting active and in shape, losing a few pounds, but then spend more time sitting around watching Netflix or just hanging out on the patio drinking wine. Some of us would like to keep in closer contact with friends to show them we care, but then we get distracted with other things. I’m frequently reminding myself that I need to put on a face mask whenever I go into a store, and I’m ashamed by the number of times I’ve forgotten to bring a mask with me. I want to do the right thing in this pandemic, but out of habit I often don’t. Here’s another example: consider the great cultural reckoning we’re witnessing right now about the legacy of racism. I’d like to believe that many of us want to be anti-racist, but does the shape of our lives reflect that? Are we willing to do the hard work of self-examination, to own our complicity in racist structures and to go through a lifetime of transformation?

There are reasons why this dissonance affects us all. Sometimes, despite our good intentions, certain forces weigh us down and make it hard to do the right thing. Perhaps what we desire to do requires a financial demand that we can’t meet. Perhaps doing the right thing puts us in a socially vulnerable position. Fear of ostracism and rejection takes over. Maybe doing the right thing is too great a personal sacrifice. Sometimes our indifference makes us culpable; other times we’re victims of forces we can’t control.

What we need is freedom—freedom from the forces that weigh us down, and freedom to act upon our basic desire to do what is right. “Who will rescue me?” asks Paul. His answer is Jesus Christ, whose resurrection assures us all that we will ultimately be delivered out of our mortal state so that our desires and our actions are always congruent. But can that freedom and deliverance happen now, in this life?

I think it can, but only insofar as we recognize that freedom is a communal reality. Freedom is not the property of individuals; it is shared. I’ve been helped in my understanding of this by a little book titled The Three Dimensions of Freedom, authored by the British folk-punk musician and writer Billy Bragg. The first dimension of freedom, according to Bragg, is liberty—basic human agency and the capacity to act. But that agency must be shared equally, so that no one’s agency is shortchanged or undermined. This is why Bragg argues that equality must be the second dimension of freedom. How is this brought about? Through accountability, the third dimension. Accountability is perhaps the most most important dimension of freedom. “Liberty gives freedom its focus, equality its scope,” writes Bragg, “but accountability gives freedom its teeth.”

I think this applies to the psychological war that Paul describes, which afflicts so many of us. The way to freedom from the contradictions of what we desire to do and what we actually do is rooted in accountability. Have we surrounded ourselves with people who will hold us accountable for not doing the right thing? Accountability at its best is reciprocal; we offer those a labor of love by holding them to account just as they hold us to account. But more significantly, accountability extends to the powers and forces that weigh us down and constrain our capacity to do what is right. These powers and forces must be held to account, which can happen only when we come together and resolve collectively to stand against injustice.

It is hard to do the right thing. But accountability can bring our desires and actions into lockstep. A St. Aidan’s parishioner recently commented, “accountability is the spice of life.” There’s truth to that. If we’re committed to accountability, Paul’s psychological war need not paralyze us. We can live as transformed people. And the world will be better because of it.


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