From The Vicarage . .
THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT
Some years ago, a friend of mine was convicted of speeding. He caused a smile on the magistrates' bench, when he pleaded, "It wasn't my fault your worships, it was the system that made me do it". Of course, he had said it rather tongue in cheek. But it does raise the question of how far we are responsible for your own moral actions. I remember once seeing someone who was wearing a t-shirt with the caption "The devil made me do it" You can't blame the system or the devil, if you are caught speeding in a built up area. Yet human beings have always been ready to blame external forces for their own moral failures. Some of the guards in the concentration camps blamed "the system" for their part in the genocide and torture of innocent people.
Of course, external forces DO have a profound influence on our moral behaviour and the choices we make. Those brought up in a loving and stable home, where there are shared values, and opportunities for a good education and reasonable prosperity, will enjoy advantages over those brought up in homes where there is poor parenting or poverty.
The current debate about Shamima Begum, the "Isis Bride" raises the question of moral responsibility. An article in the Guardian suggested she is a victim. Lynne Wallis writes of the way in which cults, like Isis, target young people. This has clearly been happening under our noses in the United Kingdom. Isis, like other cults, indoctrinates and de-sensitises people. Wallis writes, "It is a process, not a life style choice" So she questions whether a teenager living in an extremist culture, is equipped to make the right moral choices.
A similar debate is taking place about knife crime in our society. One MP has described it as "a disease". More than 40 people in the UK have been fatally stabbed since the beginning of the year. Many more have been seriously injured. Whose fault is it? The police? The Home Secretary? The schools? The social services? Austerity? We will all have our own theories, probably influenced by the newspapers we choose to read. Of course the reasons for knife crime are many and complex, but behind the debate is that same question: where does moral responsibility lie?
I have no answers. But it does seem to me that as a society, for whatever reasons, many people have lost the ability to take responsibility for their own moral choices. Anyone working in schools will tell you that some parents they deal with, are themselves damaged by the experiences of their own childhood. This means they lack the emotional and moral equipment to give their own children the guidance and stability they need. Such parents find it difficult to accept some responsibility for the bad behaviour of their children. The blame is shifted to the school or some external body.
Crime and violence are not new in society. What has perhaps changed is that we have lost the moral cohesion that once held us together. With our Judeo-Christian values, based around the 10 commandments, there was a common shared framework. People had the freedom to reject it, as many did. But there was an underlying recognition of basic standards of behaviour.
Perhaps the Bible can help us here. Whether you see the devil as personal or an impersonal force, the Bible takes seriously the power of evil to lead human beings astray. The evil one may tempt us, put us to the test, or even enslave us. But nowhere in the Bible, as far as I can see, does the devil force us to do evil against our will. The Bible does not relieve us of the responsibility for our own actions. Part of being human, means that the final moral choice lies with me.
There is always the temptation to simplify complex issues when we discuss the problems of society. But as the debate continues, perhaps there are insights that we can contribute, as Christians, from the wisdom and insights of our own religious tradition.