Who To Blame


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

August 26, 2018

Jeremiah 8:4-13; Psalm 44

       Well, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The headline this week read “Undocumented immigrant arrested in murder.” And, to be sure, the right wing is out there blaming immigration laws for Mollie Tibbett’s murder. There is no question that the murder of this young woman by Rivera is a truly evil act, but to blame “immigration laws,” whatever that may mean, is, to say the least, putting the so-called blame in the wrong place.

        When Chris Watts was arrested for his wife’s murder,

he admitted it but then blamed her for the deaths of the children, saying that she had strangled them when he told her he wanted to separate, but considering that he strangled her, his story has the stench of a dead skunk on the roadway.

        When U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter was indicted on 47 counts of using campaign funds to pay for his personal lifestyle, including vacation and skiing trips, the purchase of various items, and other sundries, he blamed campaign fin-ance laws for his problems, saying they were “silly.”  

        And the blamer-in-chief now blames the news media for its reporting of his illicit encounters with women, his lawyers for paying them off for silence, not to mention environmental regulations for job losses in dying industries.

        Whether it’s “the dog ate my homework,” victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, or even issues of national import, there’s always someone else to blame. Victim blaming has been around since the dawn of life. Such behavior is even seen in other primate species. Evidently chimps and gorillas point to others when confronted for non-social behavior, like stealing food.

        The first story we have on blaming others in our tradi-tion can be found in Genesis, when confronted with having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam points to Eve: she gave it to me, and Eve turns around and at least admits that she was tricked by the serpent. Since then, women have been blamed with everything wrong including being a temptation to men. How can we forget Tertullian’s comment that women are the gateway to hell?

          Psychologists have a term for this behavior. It’s called psychological projection. It describes how our human egos protect ourselves against unconscious impulses or qualities, both positive and negative, by denying their existence in themselves and attributing it to others.

           When a situation becomes too much to handle we humans usually respond in at least one of the following ways. We can deny it is even happening. We can repress the exper-ience deep within us. We can rationalize what has occurred; we’re really good at this. Or, we can take out our frustrations, fears, and impulses on others; we’re really good at this as well.

         The Psalmist in this morning’s reading doesn’t mince words. Addressing God, the Psalmist says: “Because of you we are being killed all day long.” Noting that in the past the Lord led their ancestors to victory, the Psalmist praises God for God’s care in the past, but then cries out: “Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies . . .  You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them. . . . ” And the list goes on and on.

        What’s interesting about this Psalm is that the Lord is blamed even though, as the Psalmist says, “we have not forgotten you or been false to your covenant.” The passage from Jeremiah stands in stark contrast for the prophet blames the faithlessness of the people as the cause of God’s anger resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem. In other words, the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves.

         What’s also interesting about this Psalm, as well as many others of despair and distress, is that there is no evil creature, such as a Satan that takes the blame for our own neglect or evil. Satan does not appear until the book of Job, where he tempts the Lord to destroy Job’s faithfulness. In Zechariah, Judah stands on trial for its sins and Satan is the prosecutor. Both books date from the sixth century.

        The creation of Satan as the personification and cause of evil is a topic for another day, but it is clear there is no such cause for the Lord’s turning away from Judah and the events to which this Psalm refers. Scholars consider this Psalm to have been written during the time of the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians.

         This Psalm is certainly a far cry from the bumper sticker theology of “God is good all the time,” for the Psalmist here is not only plaintiff; he is angry as well. “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake!” Although in our twenty-first century world, we may not use the same language as the Psalmist, there are certainly times in our lives when we feel utterly abandoned by God no matter how hard we have tried to live a good life.

         Unlike some previous Psalms, this is not an individual lament, but one of the people, the nation. This Psalm speaks for the people, using words like “we” and “our.” The Psalmist is puzzled: “In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Yet you have rejected us....” Why is this happening, the Psalmist wants to know as his plea calls on the Lord not to forget the covenant he – and here the Lord is clearly male – with his people. Putting not his trust in the bow, that is, in arms, the Psalmist reminds God that the people continue to put their trust in the Lord in spite of God’s willful abandonment.

        We find ourselves bargaining with God when we find ourselves in situations where often we see no way out. There are very few of us who can accept life’s vicissitudes with equanimity. Most of us go not gently into the night but rage against the dying of the light, whether it is ourselves or others. I have to tell you about one exception, however. Some of you remember Alice Rounds, who when taken off the Hospice list, with a twinkle in her eye, said, “I flunked Hospice.”

         Most of us respond to adversity and setbacks much like the Psalmist. Angry that God has somehow forgotten or abandoned us, we take to all kinds of rants. For some the rants descend into using drugs or alcohol but for others they transform into blaming others for changes in society. People displaced from their traditional occupations due to technology or the phasing out of their industries are examples of this.

       Unable to understand the rapid changes around them, they turn to hate-filled rhetoric and blaming others. It really doesn’t matter who or what is the focus of the blame, whether immigrants or the educated elite or environmental regulations. There’s plenty of blame to go around and plenty of demagogues to take advantage of the fear resulting from a rapidly changing society.

         It’s really hard to blame ourselves for our inability to change, to adjust our lives to the new world we now have. It’s also hard to look deep within ourselves when relationships go wrong. Not to prejudge a criminal case, but consider the case of the Colorado man who admitted to his wife’s murder. He claims that he was the one who wanted the divorce and she strangled the children. Really now. So why didn’t he call the police?  

        We find this approach even in our popular music. The old song “You made Me Love You” is a case in point. It focuses on the idea that we cannot resist certain tempta-tions, such as loving someone who creates sadness in us.

Blaming others removes us from the requirement that we are responsible for our own actions. The old phrase “the devil made me do it” removes responsibility from us as well as from God. It becomes a convenient excuse for our own inability to refrain from what we know is not good.

        Cassius, in encouraging Brutus to join the noble Romans who clearly saw that Caesar was out to create a dictatorship, says: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” There is more than one way to look at this statement, just as there is more than one way to look at this Psalm.

         The Psalmist does not just plead with God to rouse up but demands that God do so for the sake of God’s “steadfast love.” Just as Brutus realized that his loyalty had to be to the republic and thus he needed to take responsibility and join Cassius and the others to eliminate the threat, we need to take responsibility for our bad decisions and their conse-quences, clearly not easy.

         I know that as the manager of an organization, I have made some decisions that have adversely affected us, and quite frankly it is difficult to admit to them. I also know that as a pastor, there have been times that I have failed others as well as God, and although it is really difficult to do so, I do try to take responsibility for that as well.

          It really is easy to blame others, to even blame God, or at least wonder where God is when needed in our lives. Recognizing that sometimes God seems to have abandoned us is difficult, to be sure, but in times like those, calling out as did the Psalmist: “Rise up, and come tour help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” is an honest response to our plight. The question remains what we do after we call out.

        Let us come to God in prayer: You, O God, are our rock and salvation. We plead, as did the Psalmist millennia ago, “Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.” In the name of him who was the image of your love, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.