Yesterday in priesthood we discussed President Monson’s October 2010 Conference address on the Three Rs of Choice. One of the three Rs is ‘Responsibility’ — which led, of course, to discussing personal responsibility. In the discussion it occurred to me that personal responsibility is very closely connected to community responsibility.
I expect someone will claim that there is no such thing as “community responsibility.” But it seems to me that this is precisely what the Church, at least, is about. We, the Church, as a group, a community, have the responsibility for helping each member achieve exaltation. I do recognize that this doesn’t relieve any individual of personal responsibility. Instead it simply increases the responsibility on each member of the community to help his neighbor.
This may also apply to other groups, such as local and national governments. Being a citizen gives us not only benefits but responsibilities for other citizens. As a community, we are responsible for our joint defense, for example, and likely also for our common welfare.
How then does individual responsibility affect community responsibility? I don’t think I have a complete answer. At least, communities have responsibilities when individual responsibility fails — when individuals aren’t responsible as they should be, then communities must step in to try to make up the difference. If an individual is irresponsible and steals, then the community must try to fix the resulting problem. If an individual fails to feed himself, then the community may need to feed him.
Many of the things we do as communities, be it as the Church, as a government, or as some other group, must be done either because individuals can’t or don’t always live up to individual responsibilities. I don’t believe any of us are innocent, not needing the help of others. We must recognize that these failures by individuals are done by everyone. No one is innocent and no one can really say that they have no need of others. Paul suggested as much in 1 Corinthians 12:21: “And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.”
None of this is anything new, of course. This is why the Church exists—to bring all unto Christ. It is also one of the reasons we need governments.
What troubles me is that our rhetoric often doesn’t recognize this, and worse, many use individual responsibility as a kind of weapon against others, as an excuse for not fulfilling community responsibilities. Somehow the fact that they have managed to be responsible in one area leads them to think that everyone should be responsible in that area. The logic they use says, “these individuals weren’t responsible, so we shouldn’t help them.”
While I hear it most often when discussing politics, this logic also arises in Church situations. For example, here in New York City (where public transportation is plentiful) when one ward tried to arrange transportation to Church for some ward members, other ward members suggested that these members should be responsible and get themselves to Church. So they should. Does that mean that the community is no longer responsible for whether or not they come to Church?
There is, of course, a balance between individual and community responsibilities. I’m not trying to suggest where the boundary is. I’m not even sure there should be a boundary between them. I am suggesting that we must not use individual responsibility as an excuse for failing to keep up our community responsibilities. Just because individuals fail to do what they were supposed to do doesn’t mean we get to wash our hands of them.