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Guilt and Gratitude (Gil Dueck)

On the drive in to work today, the radio airwaves were abuzz with conversation about “Occupy Wall Street”—a series of demonstrations in New York City against the economic inequities created/sustained by the global financial system.  Too many resources in the hands of too few, too much greed and corruption, too much abuse of power, etc, etc.  The voices on the radio were full of passion, moral outrage, and conviction that this movement was the beginning of “something big.”

As I listened, I began to wonder why I wasn’t more outraged about the realities these people were decrying.  And then, predictably, I felt a few twinges of guilt.  Guilt that I wasn’t protesting, guilt that I was somehow complicit in “global capitalism,” guilt that I didn’t understand the issues as deeply as I ought to, guilt that I wasn’t doing more to generate theological reflection upon these issues, guilt that I was feeling guilty about something that I didn’t need to feel guilty about… Sigh.

A few years ago, Gil Dueck wrote the following piece on the role guilt can and does play in 21st century life.  I repost it here as something of a humorous diagnosis of our condition—as Westerners, consumers, global citizens, and Christians—during these uncertain times where there seems to more than enough blame and guilt to go around.  I conclude by offering a few reflections of my own.


Christianity is often criticized as a ‘guilt-based’ religion. It is argued that believing that people are all sinners in need of forgiveness is psychologically damaging and leads to unhealthy views of an angry God who is interested in little more than venting his cosmic rage at human targets who refuse to repent. The problem is guilt is not exclusively a Christian phenomenon, at least if I’m to take the pronouncements of media, activists and government seriously. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no shortage of things that I should feel guilty about as a 21st century citizen of a Western nation.

Most obviously, I am a wealthy person (a white man to boot) living in a world of staggering and depressing economic inequality and injustice. Watching or reading the news brings me almost daily reminders that the majority of the world’s population lives with far less than I do. What’s worse there are some suggestions that it is my wealth that is contributing to this injustice.

I am also a Christian and this means that I am vicariously responsible for all kinds of historical and contemporary atrocities committed in the name of Jesus. I am guilty of discrimination and hatred because I think that on some fundamental issues I’m right and other people are, to varying degrees, wrong. I know that the fact that I call myself a Christian means that I will be lumped in with those whose beliefs make me shudder and whose way of presenting them makes me cringe.

I drive a car (OK… sigh… I drive a van) and I heat my home and these are activities that contribute CO2 into an overheating atmosphere. I’d like to drive a smaller car but I have children and my government tells me that they have to be properly restrained when I take them places (read: strapped to the back of my van by something that, to most people, would seem like a strait jacket). This means that if I want to have more than two children I need to drive something that seems better suited for extended camping trips with 10 of my closest friends than the daily needs of a family of (soon to be) five.

And this is only the beginning. I sometimes eat bananas on my cereal in the morning and they are apparently not grown in Saskatchewan. This choice affects farmers in faraway places and makes it more difficult for them to earn a living wage. I also drink coffee of uncertain origin, I wear clothing made in parts of the world where labour laws are suspect, I enjoy watching some professional sports (surely one of the most horrific examples of economic insanity in human history) and I generally engage in a level of consumption that is not sustainable (though I’m really trying to cut back). All I could conceivably do to increase my level of guilt is buy a Lincoln Navigator and take up cigarette smoking.

So what to do with all this guilt? Is any of it misplaced? How do we live responsibly and hopefully in a guilt-based culture? It seems to me that one of the ‘blessings’ of the information age is that we’re all aware that we’re all guilty—not for our private moral failings but for massive problems that are global in scale and impossible to solve on our own. It’s relatively easy to work with my own private morality. It’s much more difficult when the problems are “out there” and obscured by thousands of complex interrelationships and moral question marks.


This Sunday is Thanksgiving here in the Great White North, and on one level it is easy to say that one of the ways to live responsibly and hopefully in a guilt-based culture is to practice gratitude.  But perhaps this is too easy.  To acknowledge and understand one’s position of power and privilege in the face of enormous global inequity and resolve in a cheerfully determined sort of way to be more thankful for it seems a hollow response indeed.

And yet…  There are other ways to be grateful.  Other ways where gratitude is not a flippant response to the pleasures of excess, but a truly grateful response for provision and a deep understanding that true thankfulness is linked to a disciplining of desire and a determination to walk rightly under the providence of God.  One of the Lectionary readings for this week is Psalm 23—probably the most famous one in the Psalter.  There are so many good and important words for our times—or any times—in these few verses:

  • “I shall not want…”
  • “He restores my soul…”
  • “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake…”
  • “I fear no evil…”
  • “You prepare a table for me…”
  • “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me…”
  • “You are with me…”

Good words for giving thanks, and good words for thinking about guilt, hope, and responsibility.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tyler #

    Words not backed by action are rather useless. Guilt can and should be a transformative experience.

    October 4, 2011
    • In my view, these are words that require action.

      Guilt can be transformative. It can also be crippling and harmful, when not interpreted and acted upon appropriately and within proper frameworks.

      I think your critique can be flipped around: actions not backed by the right kinds of words/ideas/justifications are rather useless. One commentator today referred to the thousands of people who seem to be there for no other reason than that they want something to be angry about. This strikes me as useless at best.

      October 4, 2011
      • Tyler #

        Ok, yes you can flip it around by the words posted in the blog are useless if not acted upon. Tell me how they help anything? I don’t see it other than providing some sort of self assurance. Guilt is only felt when you feel you have done wrong and not lived up to an ethic.

        I think that commentator is flat out wrong. People ARE angry not just wanting to be angry but the enemy is so evasive and abstract that finding direction is complicated. In my opinion protest isn’t enough, only large scale over haul is. My fear is they will compromise and disperse. Capitalism, simply, must come to an end. Anything else is failure.

        October 4, 2011
      • As I said, I think the words require action. And I think these words can and do speak into our current context. “I shall not want”—this seems like a good antidote to the general acquisitiveness and greed of consumer culture… “He leads me in right paths”—right living, virtue, responsibility to the common good, etc… “I fear no evil”—the evils of corruption, abuse of power, greed, exploitation, etc… Not saying that the psalmist was thinking about all of these things when he wrote the Psalm, but I also think that Scripture can and does speak into any context.

        Re: guilt, unfortunately, guilt is not only felt when you have not lived up to an ethic. All kinds of people feel guilt for things they don’t need to feel guilty about. Some, on the other hand, don’t feel guilty enough…

        Re: the Occupy Wall Street protests, the commentator didn’t say that everyone there was just looking for something to be angry about. Just that some were. This is probably the case in any large-scale demonstration. There are also undoubtedly many well-informed, committed protestors as well.

        I don’t think these protests will be a failure if capitalism isn’t overhauled. That’s an impossible barometer. That’s why I think the frequent comparisons to the Arab Spring aren’t helpful—it’s one thing to overthrow this or that dictator in a specific country. It’s quite another to protest a global economic reality.

        October 4, 2011
  2. Make them change or be ourselves. The challenge for Christians is to start living….well … as Christians. Let us live work, play and be as we are called. Let us look to create alternative communities within culture, that exemplify a life in Christ. For those seeking a different economic order, gather with like minded people and start living it out. Who knows we might even be neighbors. 🙂 Acts of the Apostles and the economic order it establishes sounds like something that would be attractive to many of the Wall Street protest groups. Then again real economic equity between people requires a commitment to an ethic that isn’t widely pervasive within western culture.

    Is there room in democracy for people to meet the general demands of the state while still being able to live out a different ethic from the majority. Let’s put that supposition to the test rather than look to impose a radical solution on an unwilling culture. In the end it is that simple for me, I can look to impose a politic or take personal responsibility for living a Christian life with integrity.

    As for guilt I reject the disparaging reference to an angry God and a disordered people. Rather I would say I am imbued with a spirit that reminds me to remain steadfastly humble, examine conscience, confess error, seek forgiveness and amend my ways.

    The errant description of guilt in this post, is not of God. It is rather the final accute stage of self idolatry and pride that recognizes the utter falseness of it’s claims and rather than seeking forgiveness through apology succumbs to bitter self loathing.

    October 5, 2011
    • Gil #

      Interesting that in a comment where you refer to the need to remain “steadfastly humble,” you make the accusation that the guilt that I describe is an acute form of self-idolatry. This is a very strong claim, one that I emphatically reject, and one that shows how badly you have misunderstood what I have written. Perhaps this is one of those many times when online forms of communication fail to properly convey tone and intent. Still, I believe that accusations of idolatry should be made with great care and hesitation (and perhaps with a willingness to ask questions about motive and engage in conversation before lobbing them at fellow Christians).

      This post is essentially a reflection of what it means to live in a world where we are acutely aware of how deeply conflicted we are. It’s a lament over our collective and irreversible “loss of innocence.” We live in a world where our every decision can be second-guessed because the consequences of those decisions are rendered so ruthlessly transparent. It’s also a kind of question regarding how to get beyond the paralysis and despair that these realizations can produce. For me these are very live questions and I continue to ask them. But I don’t think that the fact that I ask them makes me an idolater.

      October 5, 2011
  3. Sorry Gil, my response was not intended to insult you. i wasn’t talking about you at all.

    I reject the definition of Christian guilt. You left the statement unchallenged. Rather you seem to be arguing that the secular world foists it’s guilts also. Though you at least gave your description of secular guilt nuance and several contexts that, on the surface, made it seem more reasonable than that of your Christian description.

    I see secular/western guilt based culture as idolitrous as it assumes human ingenuity apart from seeking the Word of God can deduce what is right, can deduce what is wrong and remedy the situation through a political expression or control. The political right are mostly material fascists. Power and wealth are the idols here. The political left, (the group I assumed you were mostly describing) apart from Christ, are ideological fascists. They’ll take the power and the money of course but it is themselves and their ideological constructs that they dig the most.

    Hope that helps.

    October 5, 2011
    • Gil #

      Thanks for your apology.

      October 6, 2011
  4. jschmidty #

    Indeed, what a challenge to live in such a world. A friend of mine often laments at how Mennonites are especially good at heaping guilt and the vast needs of the world upon each one of us – and conversely how the joy of the spirit can be lost among this atmosphere. I’ve had my own personal dilemmas in everyday life (as Gil mentions) – such as whether to heap the guilt of driving a car versus riding my bike to get our groceries on my already burdened and hard working wife. She’d prefer I return quickly from the store so that i can help with the many household tasks of two young children. I’d prefer to ride my bike, take the extra 20 minutes, and ease some of my guilt in the process. Since internal affairs such as a marriage outweigh external affairs, such as wider ethics, I drive the car, return quickly and help out around the house. A debate about the ethics of driving our sub-compact car to the grocery store wouldn’t have been a good choice. This scenario is played out everyday in people’s lives with the same result. It’s a difficult struggle for change.

    October 6, 2011
    • A good snapshot of what Gil is talking about in the post….

      We Mennonites have often not done so well with things like this, have we? It seems we gravitate much more easily to things like guilt and duty as opposed to the joy of the spirit.

      October 7, 2011
  5. That’s it! The joy of the Spirit, …”Consequently you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Jesus Christ…For sin is not to have any power over you, since you are not under the law but under grace.” Rm 6:11+14

    This is the Christian frame of mind, our spiritual predisposition, from which we respond to the particulars of our individual and collective lives together.” We have been ransomed”. And in Christ,” we are called to be “perfect as Our Father is perfect”. We can and are called to be guilt free and blameless.To me the expression, “we are all guilty for massive problems on a global scale”, is not from God, particularly in the context it is presented. The discernments that would lead to this conclusion are not of the faithful but in many cases formed by those whose praxis and dogma is diametricly opposed to the will and the word of God.

    Christ died to free us from the burdons of guilt, shame, chronic remorse and feelings of inadequacy. It is Satan who would choose us to think we can diagnose the ills of creation, apart from faith in Christ. It is Satan who whispers ‘it is all so wrong and you are to blame”. I reject him, I reject his claim. It is for me to love God with my whole heart and mind and my neighbor as myself. To develope and grow in a lifestyle that transforms such rhetoric into reality. It is not for me to carry the weight of the world. This is God’s responsibility. All that is happening on a global scale will be redeemed as he sees fit. His glory will prevail.
    “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.” Job 42:2

    When we sin be honest, humble, contrite and repent. As Tyler said in the first response, guilt (to the extent it is good and holy), must be transformative. Once this is done you must forgive others, you must forgive yourself. God forgives. He died for the priviledge. You are not to torture yourselves or others with pervasive feelings of indescriminate guilt. It is unholy.

    () Parenthatical inclusion mine, not Tyler’s

    October 7, 2011

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