Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017) has described her Anishinaabe culture as “nationhood based on a series of radiating responsibilities.”* It’s hard to imagine any Western person describing our own culture in such terms, especially today. While traditional Western society was very community-focused, to the point of an often extreme anti-individualism, and Western liberal (i.e., constitutional, rights-based) democracies have always insisted on a balance between rights and responsibilities, the past twenty years have seen a rather shocking surge in libertarian political ideologies, which insist that any suggestion that one might have responsibilities to one’s neighbour, community, or government is tyranny. Today, in our ongoing exploration of areas of common ground between traditional Indigenous and Christian worldviews, I’ll be looking at this question of responsibility, from both sets of perspectives.
Responsibility in Indigenous Perspectives
The idea of responsibility has come up repeatedly in this series already. It was mentioned, for example, as a guiding principle of the Hul’qumi’num wordview, akin to shalom: ”we have responsibilities to acknowledge and enact in every breath and step we take” (Borrows and Tully). It is at the heart of both the Bible’s active understanding of faith, as showing up in all of our relationships, and Indigenous perspectives on what it means to live a good life (e.g., “In Indigenous communities, ‘good’ comes through responsibility ‘to kin and the community” (Kidwell, Noley, and Tinker).). Responsibility also featured prominently in the post on how Indigenous peoples understand creation and humanity’s role within it, and in the idea of reciprocity that forms part of Indigenous ideas of gratitude. So the quote with which I began this post should come as no surprise: Responsibility is an important part of Indigenous cultural perspectives.
If to be alive means to be in relationship, to oneself, to one’s family, to one’s community, to the ‘community of creation,’ and to God, that means that to be alive means having responsibilities as well — in all of these domains. And, whereas Western theology has tended to look for minimal conditions and narrow boundaries of things (e.g., by looking for the minimal requirements for salvation or for its ceremonies) — in this way, it has tended to be like the lawyer who responded to the call to “love your neighbour as yourself” by asking Jesus “Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10.25-37)), Indigenous cultures tend to take a maximalist view of things, extending the network of responsibilities, or the community of concern and care, as far as possible.
A great example of this maximalism is in the common Indigenous teaching to “be a good ancestor,” which even in my limited reading I found expressed in writings from several different geographic-cultural regions and language families. Nuxalk Chief Qwatsinas (Edward Moody) expressed the idea of being a good ancestor well in remarks made before the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1999: “We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can’t speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish, and trees” (quoted in Kelly-Gangi). Being a good ancestor is also famously embodied in the Anishinaabe and Iroquois principle of “Seven Generations.” As Ojibwe knowledge-keeper Anton Treuer describes this belief:
Everything we do crosses seven generations in a line. If there is trauma, it carries forward seven generations. If there is resilience, it carries forward seven generations. We are therefore the product of traumas and resilience seven generations back. What scientists call epigenetics, we call blood memory. In the modern world, people are encouraged to think of immediate gains—often short-term economic benefits trump long-term environmental and health consequences. But in the Ojibwe cosmos, we are to think of the impact that our actions today will have seven generations in the future.
This idea has obvious consequences for decision-making, particularly around land-use and ecology. As John Borrows notes: “Seventh-generation laws limit land uses that would deny a healthy environment to our great, great, great, great great, great, great grandchildren.” It’s a teaching that might cause a community to forego larger crop yields or profits now if it means depleting the land’s vitality and gifts, because the life and experience of one’s descendants is understood to be part of one’s own sphere of responsibility.
So then, responsibility in these Indigenous perspectives is both inherent to being alive and maximalist in its scope, extending to the whole created order and into the distant future.
What, then, might our own Christian traditions have to say about this?
Responsibility in the Bible
The vision of Christianity that I’ve been promoting in this series is aligned with much of this: If we understand faith to be living up to our commitments in our relationships so as to create an environment of genuine peace, then responsibility is at the core of things. If we look just at care for the poor, for example, Randy Woodley (2012) correctly notes that:
God commands that every society have a safety net for those who ‘fall through the cracks.’ Individual care and generosity do not always take care of the poor and needy, so there must be a place for the needy built into the system that does care for them. God provides for the needy in laws concerning agricultural work, through the Sabbath and Jubilee system, and through festivals and celebrations.
Applying this same principle in all of our relationships, we have a vision of our faith like the one Lisa Sharon Harper has advocated:
This is what ‘very goodness’ looks like: … It looks like governance that honors and stewards the image of God in every corner of the earth and stewards the rest of creation with care and protection. This is God’s intent. This is what the Kingdom of God — the rule of God and governance of God — looks like. This is the very good news!
So, there is definitely a good case to be made for responsibility in general within Christianity’s own resources and stories. But, I wondered as I was preparing this whether we might also have something akin to the idea of ‘being a good ancestor’.
There is certainly a sense in the Christian Scriptures that we are responsible not only for ourselves, but for others. The first stories of sin both, in fact, involve a rejection of responsibility for the other: Adam’s denial and blaming of Eve, and Cain’s callous remark, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In the New Testament, Jesus’ warning in Matthew 18 against being a “stumbling block” to anyone, particularly children, and Paul’s advice about those ‘stronger’ in faith being careful not to scandalize the ‘weaker’ among them (Romans 14), come to mind as texts that highlight our responsibilities to others. But the closest we have to an idea like the Seventh Generation teaching is the recurring third generation teaching in the Old Testament: That one’s actions, both positive and negative, reverberate not just through one’s own life, but also through the lives of one’s “children and children’s children” (e.g., Deuteronomy 4.9, Psalm 103.17, Proverbs 13.22, and Isaiah 59.21). It’s not quite the same impact as the Seventh Generation teaching, but it nonetheless demands that we consider the consequences of our choices, beyond our immediate circumstances, on those who come after us.
This series is about listening to Indigenous cultural perspectives — the elements of what Randy Woodley calls ‘the Harmony Way’ — and looking to see if and how these elements appear within Christianity’s own stories and traditions. The point is not to change Christianity, and far less to appropriate Indigenous cultures, but to look for common ground and find ways of telling our Christian story that might promote better understanding and, eventually, reconciliation efforts. Today’s discussion has been a good example of this aim. When we think of ‘Christian values’, responsibility may not come readily to mind. And yet, by asking the question of how responsibility is expressed in our stories, we see that our tradition has quite a bit to say about it. As Christians, if we take our Scriptures seriously, we would do well to take this to heart and add this sense of responsibility into our decision-making, so that we might make decisions not looking primarily at immediate cost-benefit, but for how they impact our children and children’s children.
* Please see the Bibliography for the series for full details.