Friday, September 6, 2013

Blame and Restitution

The Rim Fire near Yosemite is the now closing in on a quarter-million acres burned, making it something like the third largest recorded in California. Thousands of firefighters are still working on controlling the blaze; the cost of firefighting operations to date exceeds $80 million.

And now this: "The U.S.Forest Service has determined that the blaze was started by an illegal campfire set by a hunter... Investigators would not say whether the hunter had turned himself in.  When the investigation is complete, the U.S. Department of Justice would decide whether to seek restitution."

Restitution! According to the dictionary, that is "restoration to the former or original state or position". What "restitution" could an individual hunter make for the incineration of 385 square miles of forest and 111 buildings?  But there is something in us which finds it deeply comforting to have an individual to blame, someone upon whom to unload our demands, however unfulfillable, for the "restoration of the original state".

Our moral vocabulary is adapted to univalent causes with definite effects.  That's one reason for the excessive weight that's attached to connecting climate change to individual natural events (like Hurricane Sandy).  If we can definitely "blame" the inundation of lower Manhattan on climate change, the thinking goes, then it's an enemy worth taking seriously; but if such definite blame can't be attributed, then the "science is uncertain" and we can retreat to business as usual.

The world of climate change, however, is a world where causation is polyvalent, effects are statistical, and restitution may well be impossible.  This is not a world where looking for someone, or something, to blame is likely to be a helpful strategy.

But that makes it a world rather like that of the New Testament.

As the New Testament writers reflect on the death of Jesus, they see in it the end of the system of blame and retribution: "what the Law was powerless to do, because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering" (Romans 8:2,3).  The system of blame - the Law - is a dead end, says Paul; but beyond the dead end is a new work of God.

Can the Church receive, and live out, a manner of life "in the Spirit" beyond the dead end of contemporary climate-change blameshifting?

Image from the Fresno Bee,

1 comment:

Russ deForest said...

Your post suggests a variation on the notion that "there is no limit to what might be accomplished if it doesn't matter who gets the credit"

Significant progress in addressing global challenges requires a willingness to forego assigning blame.