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Feb 23 2015

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On who is to blame and what is to be done.

What does a three-thousand-year-old murder have to do with a 20th-century revolution? What does a queen of ancient Israel have to do with Stalinism, slavery, or internment camps? The interplay of two eternal questions humanity has asked, nurtured, abused, distorted, ignored, and bounced off each other since the dawn of its consciousness: When something goes terribly, shamefully wrong, who is to blame, and what is to be done? I’ll add one more question to this: Do we have to let it go so terribly wrong?

In the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 21), King Ahab wants to add a piece of land to his holdings to use as a vegetable garden, for it is close and convenient, but it is owned by a man named Naboth. Ahab makes Naboth an offer of money or, if he wishes, another vineyard, an even better one, but Naboth refuses: this land is his family inheritance, his home. He is not interested in moving. In a lawful world, this would be the end of the discussion, but here enter Jezebel, the legendarily evil queen of Israel and Ahab’s wife. She decides to eliminate the obstacle and directs local authorities to organize Naboth’s murder. It’s not very hard: the authorities put up two local “scoundrels” (the Bible’s term not mine) to testify falsely that they had heard Naboth blaspheme against God and the king. Jezebel counts on the fact that the punishment for blasphemy is stoning, and this is exactly what happens: a stunned and innocent Naboth, whose real crime is owning something the king wants, is taken out of town and stoned to death by the whole fervent community. Now his property is up for grabs, and of course Ahab can have it.

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No doubt a crime has been committed. Question one: Who is to blame?

The Bible, via prophetic word, seems to concentrate entirely on Ahab and Jezebel. In fact, those two throughout their featured presence are as accursed as they come, and, as the story is told, I don’t disagree. Jezebel is truly guilty—she is, after all, the mastermind and organizer of the whole thing. Ahab doesn’t know what’s happening until it happens; he is mostly guilty of being a rag under his wife’s feet, which, by the way, is a discernible pattern throughout his life. Of course, he too is guilty: he knows his wife and should have suspected she meant to do something harmful to Naboth, but he chooses not to think of it or not to stop it, and, once Naboth is dead, Ahab does not restore the man’s good name.

I am not absolving Ahab. I am more concerned with the Bible’s (and our) lack of conversation about the other actors in the story. What about the others who are to blame? What about the “scoundrels” who are so obviously disreputable that everybody is aware of it—so much so that the local government knows to go to them and simply tells them to accuse an innocent man of a capital crime? The prophets who rail against the murderous royal couple completely ignore the perjurious witnesses. God will deal with them? Perhaps.

What about the authorities who conspire with the queen to have a man murdered by tricking their own people into committing the murder? The Bible is silent on their behalf.

And what about everybody else? The town? What about the rest of us? We know from the customs of that culture and from Naboth’s own assertion (that the land is his inheritance) that these people have lived side by side with Naboth’s family for generations. They’ve known him since he was born. They are his neighbors, his friends. One day they hear from two notorious scumbags some random and bizarre accusation of blasphemy, and next thing we know, they’ve got stones in their hands. What kind of hellish horror happened that day in Jezreel?

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Who Is to Blame? and What Is to Be Done? are two pieces of mid-nineteenth-century Russian literature that became iconic in the Soviet culture. The former was written by Alexander Herzen in 1845 and presents, through a convoluted love triangle, a depressing picture of the life and social institutions of the small bourgeoisie. The latter was smuggled out of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, where its author, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, was imprisoned at the time, in the 1860s. The novel speaks of people who devote their lives to working and loving in communes and trying to bring about a better future for the Russian society.

It is a long-standing sad joke in Russia that we ask the former question always before the latter. First we place blame and only then look for solutions. At times, we get so involved in the former that we never get to the latter. And it’s not just a Russian problem. I’m thinking, it’s pretty universally human.

You come down to the kitchen in the morning and see, once again, that the thing you’ve told your family time and time again to do right is done wrong – of course. What’s the first sentence that flies off your tongue?

“Who left the cheese unwrapped on the counter again?!”

Naboth 4It’s natural, I think, to want to place blame, because we want solutions, but solutions start with the source of the problem, and the source of the problem is the answer to the question: “Who is to blame?” And why. You can wrap the cheese and put it back in the fridge, but if you don’t find out who leaves it out overnight, it’s just going to happen again. If those who are to blame for dry cheese, or the economic collapse—or mass murder—don’t feel the shadow of consequences of their actions following behind them, it’s just going to happen again. So we look to place blame. It’s just that…sometimes—in the worst of times—it’s not that easy. When finding the source of the problem is most imperative, that’s when it can be impossible.

Think back to the story of Naboth. It is not a story of a simple murder over property, by an evil queen. It’s about something else, something more. Some deep, heart-wrenching rot, a catastrophe of morality so overwhelming that the first question we want to ask after things go horribly wrong—who is to blame?—loses its meaning. Because everyone’s to blame: the masterminds who gave the orders, the cronies who followed them, the opportunists who lied, the fools who believed them, the cowards and the indifferent who stood by. No one is innocent. Only the dead are the victims. And no one is left to do the judging.

We know these dark times, many cultures do. Russia knows it. Europe knows. China knows. America has its own versions. Disasters of human sin in a society from which no one emerges blameless, and placing blame is arbitrary and impossible and pointless, but without it we feel we have no closure, and so we keep trying.

It’s a tricky balancing act, these two questions. Digging for blame when no more use can be gotten from it can become an obsession in itself. Like picking a sore, never letting it heal, you can scratch it to the bone, and it’ll become an infected, gangrenous wound. It can kill you. The problem with placing blame is that we can do it only after something’s gone terribly wrong. It’s damage control. It’s only useful if it has hope of preventing another catastrophe and so it is subsumed by the larger, more important question: At some point, we must look forward and ask, “Now that we’re here, what is to be done?”

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