After giving a shameless plug for a magic show I will be performing, another term came to mind that set me thinking and reflecting: “blameless shrug.”
One of Bart Simpson’s catchphrases is “I didn’t do it!” It’s sometimes closely followed by, “Nobody saw me do it; you can’t prove anything.”
I think viewers find that amusing because we know he did it, yet we can empathize with him.
Nobody likes being punished, so we don’t admit it when we have done something wrong in the hope that we can get away with it and avoid the consequences.
Lawyers will sometimes advise their clients to admit nothing; it is the prosecution’s task to prove that someone is guilty. You don’t have to start by proving your innocence (at least in theory).
It’s what the Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis 3 is all about: Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent even though they were all far from blameless.
And aren’t there also times when we don’t admit things to ourselves?
We try to fool ourselves into thinking that things are not as bad as they appear, that it wasn’t our fault, that we couldn’t be blamed even though we know that we have a degree of culpability for something that has happened.
In response, we give what I would call a blameless shrug: “I didn’t do it. It’s not my fault. You can’t blame me, and it’s not my responsibility to respond to the situation.”
Perhaps you don’t identify with those things. Maybe you don’t identify with these instances of “blameless shrug” responses either:
As a planet, we are facing climate change that may change the planet irrevocably and cause flooding and droughts that will adversely affect thousands or even millions of people.
“But that is caused by global warming,” you might respond. “I didn’t do it.”
The world economic system seems to be balanced precariously on an assumption of consumption. The main consumers are the rich nations, yet the wealth does not seem to be shared equally.
“But that is global economics, I didn’t do it.”
There are more people in slavery and bonded labor in the world today than at any time in human history.
“But that is because there are evil people who exploit and oppress for their own gains. I didn’t do it.”
Millions of people are displaced across the world, living as refugees in other nations, because of conflict or oppression or desperate circumstances.
“But that is because of war and evil regimes. I didn’t do it.”
The list could go on, but we respond this way because we believe that we are entitled to our blameless shrug responses to global issues.
If we look beneath the veneer of conscientious complacency, however, we will find that we do share culpability and, therefore, should respond to address the problems we see.
Our energy consumption generates pollution, but we act as if environmental concerns are not our responsibility.
Our purchasing power and the thoughtless search for bargains affects global workers, yet we do not alter our spending habits.
We hear about human trafficking and think that it is bad, but don’t do anything else to help those who are helping.
We shake our heads at the cruelty and violence in other countries, but we say that it’s not our problem.
Should we respond with a blameless shrug?
You may well know the starfish story of a young girl who was throwing starfish back into the ocean that had washed up on the beach following an overnight storm.
Her grandfather stopped her and said, “There are too many of them for you to make any difference.”
The girl picked up another starfish and flung it back into the sea. “I made a difference to that one.”
The moral of the story is that we may not be able to change the whole world, but can’t you make a small difference to someone?
And if everyone started to do the same thing, then suddenly instead of a blameless shrug, the world gets a gracious hug.
Nick Lear is a regional minister of the Eastern Baptist Association in the United Kingdom. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Nukelear Fishing, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @NickLear.