Obama's Ethic of Responsibility

By Brian McLaren 12-02-2008

In a recent interview with Barbara Walters, President-elect Obama said,

... When people are pulling down hundred million dollar bonuses on Wall Street, and taking enormous risks with other people's money, that indicates a sense that you don't have any perspective on what's happening to ordinary Americans. ...
[O]ne of the things I hope my presidency helps to usher in is a return to an ethic of responsibility. That if you're placed in a position of power, then you've got responsibilities to your workers. You've got a responsibility to your community. Your share holders. That if -- there's got to be a point where you say, 'You know what, I have enough, and now I'm in this position of responsibility, let me make sure that I'm doing right by people, and, and acting in a way that is responsible.' And that's true, by the way, for members of Congress, that's true for the president, that's true for cabinet members, that's true for parents. I want all of us to start thinking a little bit more, not just about what's good for me, but let's start thinking about what's good for our children, what's good for our country. The more we do that, the better off we're going to be.

His words struck me for four reasons. First, it's clear how they resonate with Jesus' words about much being expected from those given much. (Spiderman didn't originate the idea, but he was smart enough to pick it up!) The whole Bible affirms this correlation between advantage and accountability to God for how the advantage is used: wealth or power or special talent or privilege or extraordinary success do not exempt their recipients from responsibility, but increase their responsibility.

Second, it's clear how out of sync President-elect Obama's sentiments are with the kind of "economic fundamentalism" that says, "What's mine is mine and I'm not gonna share it," and with the kind of religious fundamentalism that equates morality with sexuality. The President-elect seems to believe that there is a morality to salaries and positions and how they're used, and that morality is not only an issue for the bedroom but boardroom.

Third, I'm struck by how conservatives and progressives could come together on an issue like this, especially because the president-elect was not advocating (contrary to the fears of some) socialism, but "an ethic of responsibility." It may be that if participants in capitalism can't find a way to sustain this ethic, its fatal flaw has now been demonstrated, and its days are numbered. Might progressives and conservatives be able to join forces to promote "an ethic of responsibility?"

Finally, I was impressed by the way the president-elect was suggesting that government alone cannot solve our current crises. This ethic of responsibility and the concern it implies for the common good and not just "what's good for me" -- these habits of the heart are needed in Congress, in the White House, and in the Cabinet -- but also on Wall Street, on Main Street, and around the family dinner table.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to hear something like this from a president-elect. After all, it's common sense. But common sense seems to be less common than its name might suggest. There was a lot of talk about hope and change during the election, and these words from the president-elect gave me hope about the kind of change we really need.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is a speaker and author, most recently of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

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