People have been saying a lot about accountability. My years of church work and community involvement have taught me something important. For most people, accountability is just another word for punishment. It is unpopular to say this. But it is true nevertheless. Why do we get angry if someone is held accountable but not accountable enough? That last word is the point.
Take a look at this popular meme on social media.
I grew up and began my ministry in the Churches of Christ. “We don’t excommunicate,” we would say, “we withdraw fellowship.” There are a couple of Biblical citations to justify the practice. “If another member of the church sins against you, go point out that fault when the two of you are alone.” (Matthew 18:15a NRSV) Jesus then says the person should be confronted with two or three others. If that does not bring reconciliation, then the whole congregation should be informed and “let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17b) Here we have it straight from the Savior’s mouth. The person is to be ostracized according to the One who was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners.
Does that make any sense? No. It does not. It’s because the whole text is inverted. I can give another example.
My seminary advisor recommended I seriously consider an advanced degree in Pastoral Counseling. I decided that was not a good idea. Why? Because I would be involved in family counseling. By then, I had witnessed enough families with toxic parents or siblings that are never held accountable. I have a strong sense of justice that needs to be tempered. Counseling as a profession was not for me.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 are not a prescription to punish. They are a prescription for self-preservation. We often talk about certain people as being toxic or poisonous. They may be family or friends or co-workers. Jesus teaches that such people should be avoided. That’s all it means.
Accountability means removing yourself from the toxicity. But what if that is not enough?
The meme given above is funny. Imagine being told, “If you are not going to come to church, then we are going to bar you from church activities.” I asked if that was not a call for communal accountability. The quality of the fellowship being offered is the real problem.
People as a group would be astonished to hear their company is not wanted. We can see this happening individually all of the time. We may individually self-examine after a rejection. But we almost never look at ourselves as a collection of people. Groups do not self-examine very often. It is more satisfying to listen to the claim the group is fine when an individual is cut off from it. Peace within the group is preserved in this way.
Actual self-examination within the body (church, club, or city) interrupts that peace and destroys cohesion. Communal accountability is less important than individual accountability to the group. Political parties, like religious bodies, work this way. The Democrats know this is why Republicans refuse to punish the former President. It is individual fear. It is also the need to hold together against opposition. I wonder what would be said if one Democratic leader were to say, “We would do the same thing?”
Groups often think they are greater than they are. They tend to inflate their own importance. “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:49-50 emphasis added) John goes on to say this was an unwitting prophecy. But the statement of the High Priest illustrates the universal concept of scapegoating.
The group is not accountable, according to scapegoating, the person is. And this is the danger of “accountability.” It is not only selective in it’s application. When the group punishes, it is merciless. Because it is supposedly done for good of everyone. These times are when we commit the greatest evils. Shirley Jackson makes this point clear in her story The Lottery.
Mature individuals will hold themselves accountable. That should not need saying. Immature individuals will demand accountability from others and always justify themselves. Beyond the self, accountability is a myth. To hold someone else accountable is merely a desire to punish that person. Is it healthy for the community to punish? Perhaps. But it is more healthy for the community to practice mercy and forgiveness.
America punishes too often and shows mercy too little. The church in America does this too. The myth is that we should punish for peace. It is a false belief. Group cohesion is not peace. Social peace is ultimately based on compassion which is the ability to self-examine oneself and apply mercy to other people. Justice is then based in mercy.
I sound crazy. I know that. We can all imagine scenarios where something bad could come from this practice. The question to ask is this. Can we legitimately claim the way we do things now is working?