Not Guilty

Imagine for a minute that you are the new chief executive officer of a large corporation. You call in your chief financial officer to give you an overview of the company finances, so you can determine what course to take. The CFO comes in with her charts and graphs and explains in great detail the assets of the company as well as the current liabilities and debt. You listen intently, and when she is finished you thank her for her thorough work. Then you tell her not to bring you information on the company’s liabilities and debts in the future, because while you intend to take full advantage of the assets of the corporation, you are not responsible for the debts that were incurred by your predecessor.

That would be ridiculous. I doubt I could find a single person who would say this is a sound concept, not to mention the fact that it is illegal under U.S. corporate law.

Further, no one I tell this story to would blame the CEO for the corporate debt. This issue is not about blame; it is about responsibility. The new CEO must accept the liabilities along with the assets. You can’t use the assets without taking responsibility for how those assets were generated, including liabilities, debt, and sometimes even associated penalties if the assets were obtained illegally or unethically.

Everyone with me so far? Anyone want to vote to let the CEO use the assets and ignore the liabilities? I didn’t think so….

Now, imagine you live in the United States and you are educated, affluent (this applies to all of you), and for a minute, let’s assume you are white and male. You are enjoying the assets of a cultural system that afforded you different opportunities than it afforded others (for instance, people of color, people who are female, people who have physical or mental differences.) If this is you, is it not reasonable that you would accept responsibility for the means by which these “assets of privilege” became yours?

Remember, you are not necessarily guilty of anything just because you are the new CEO. You committed no crime (that I am aware of) to get into this position, and you are not to blame for other’s actions, although the assets you now enjoy might be subject to penalties if they were ill-gotten. However, you are responsible for making good on the corporate debt.

This musing is the result of something someone said to me a week ago. The subject of race and equity in our society came up in conversation when I suggested that maybe we should accept responsibility for how the social advantages we currently enjoy were previously obtained. The response I got about people who were disadvantaged was, “I never owned a slave, and none of those people were ever slaves.” As if this statement absolved him of any responsibility.

It might have absolved him of guilt, but he cannot shirk from the responsibility any more than the new CEO can ignore the standing debts of his company. Sometimes I feel like a “broken record” (we really mean a “broken record player”) because I keep coming back to the same thing.

If we loved the people around us—not because they earned it, but because they are intrinsically valuable and worthy of our love and respect—this would not be a problem. We need to stop blaming and start helping. We don’t have to be guilty to be compassionate. We don’t have to be the perpetrator to provide restoration. We are all responsible for the community around us. This is a privilege, not a criminal sentence.

Jesus told a story about a man who was travelling and was jumped by bad men, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Several people walked by this man and did nothing to help as he lay bleeding on the road. They were people who lived near him and were very much like him. Each in their own way justified that they were not to blame for this man’s plight and therefore were not responsible to help him.

Then a man came along who was not from the same town. In fact, he was from another culture, one that the beaten man’s community had shunned and abused. Yet he stopped, tended to the man’s wounds, carried him to shelter and aid, and even paid for the man’s care and housing during his recuperation.

Let’s be clear. The man who helped was not guilty. He did not beat or rob the traveler. The reason he exercised compassion was not because of guilt, it was because he understood his responsibility. Jesus told this story in response to someone asking him who his neighbor was. In other words, who do I have to love? Who am I responsible for? Jesus said everyone.

We do a great job taking care of our Kimray family. We can always improve, but I am very proud of how we care for one another. However, we need to accept responsibility for the assets we enjoy. Our freedom, our privilege, and our potential was acquired at a cost. Those debts need to be paid back with compassion, love, and our best effort to create the same opportunities for others—for everyone.

That’s The Kimray Way.