Moral Agents versus Victims

Dear Reader,

So I ran across this article in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe:

The idea, by Harvard psychologist Kurt Gray, is that we tend to put others into one of two categories. They are either moral agents who have power and act deliberately, whether for good or evil, and victims who are powerless, feel more pain, and are held less morally responsible for their actions. 

The idea rings true with me. I think we do tend to do this. My question is should we? Is it biblical? Is this how God views us?

My answer I think would be yes and no. God clearly holds those who have power or authority to a greater standard (see Matthew 18:6 “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” [NIV] and parallel passages in Mark and Luke). God also seems to acknowledge that some groups of people are more powerless and are thus open to oppression. In the Psalms in particular He seems to single out “widows and orphans” and “the poor and needy.” These couplets both appear many times.  These groups come under the special protection of God and we likewise are called to look out for them. That’s the yes part of the amswer.

But I think our view is not idential to God’s. God would not excuse the sins of widows and the poor simply because they are victims. This too often is what we do. A criminal who demonstrates that he was abused as a child wins our pity. We are more lenient towards him. But God does not excuse sin. We all stand before Him as moral agents who must either bear the consequences of our sin or throw ourselves on His mercy which has been won for us through the death of His Son Jesus.

What are the implications of all this? Does it affect how we live? If we have power and authority, I think the consequences are clear. We are held to a higher standard and therefore should tread fearfully, always mindful not to take advantage of those over whom we have power. But what if we find ourselves among society’s victims? God does not let us off the hook. Neither should we let ourselves use our lowly position as an excuse. We are still responsible for our actions. We may find ourselves at times unable to change much about our outward circumstances but we can always control our responses to those circumstances (with God’s gracious help). We may not ever have power or authority over others but we can still act as if we are moral agents (as indeed we all are before God) and strive to do good in whatever sphere He sets us in. 



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