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Reason and Revelation Volume 15 #9

"I'm Not Guilty, I'm Just Sick"

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

During the 1970s, one of the most popular comedians on television was Flip Wilson. In his repertoire of fictional characters, he often portrayed an outspoken housewife by the name of Geraldine. When Geraldine misspoke, let slip with an insult, or committed some other faux pas (as she often was known to do), her standard retort when challenged was to shout with a loud, shrill voice, “The Devil made me do it!”

As a comedian in possession of innate talent, great costumes, and stunning make-up, Flip Wilson was able to parlay Geraldine’s plight into an award-winning laugh routine. Nothing was ever Geraldine’s fault, because she always had someone on whom she could blame her predicament, regardless of how dire that predicament might have been. Her refrain, “The Devil made me do it,” absolved her of any guilt whatsoever—or so she wanted the audience to believe.

Truth be told, Flip Wilson had hardly invented “original” material for his comedic sketch. Since the dawn of creation, man has sought to lay the blame for his own wrong actions at someone else’s feet. Man has always needed a scapegoat to bear his burden of guilt, and his inexorable shame—the responsibility of which he had no intention of bearing himself. Eve, the very first human to bear guilt and shame, sought to excuse herself from her violation of God’s commandments by suggesting, “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Genesis 3:13). Or, to use Geraldine’s words, “The Devil made me do it!”

As his march through history progressed, however, man learned that he could fare somewhat better if he blamed something—or better yet, someone—that had a corporeal nature. It became passé to suggest that a mere invisible spirit being could cause so much trouble, or bear enough responsibility to in any way atone for that trouble. Thus, it became popular for man to blame his failings not on the Devil, but instead on his fellows.

Israel’s first king tried this ploy. The prophet Samuel had relayed to Saul God’s specific instructions regarding the destruction of the Amalekites and all that they possessed (1 Samuel 15:1-3). Eventually, Saul went to battle against the Amalekites, and was victorious. But instead of obeying God’s commands, he spared Agag, the Amalekite king, and portions of the livestock. When Samuel asked him why he had disobeyed God’s directives, Saul’s response was that “the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto Jehovah thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed” (1 Samuel 15:15, emp. added). Not only did Saul attempt to shift the blame for his error to others, but simultaneously he attempted to explain his disobedience by suggesting that he acted as he did for God-honoring reasons. So far as he was concerned, he could spare some of the livestock in order to sacrifice them in worship to Jehovah. In other words, the end justified the means.

Both profane and sacred history are replete with examples of men and women who sought to shift the blame for their own mistakes, misjudgments, or misdeeds to someone else. Anna Russell portrayed this sentiment in her “Psychiatric Folksong”:

At three I had a feeling of
Ambivalence toward my brothers
And so it follows naturally
That I poisoned all my lovers.
But now I’m happy; I have learned
The lesson this has taught,
That everything I do that’s wrong
Is someone else’s fault
(as quoted in Zacharias, 1994, p. 138).

Eventually, however, just as at one point in the distant past it no longer became desirable or permissible to suggest that “the Devil made me do it,” it appears that the time has now come when it is no longer popular merely to suggest that our fellows (“the people,” to use King Saul’s words) should bear the burden of our guilt and shame. Apparently “the people” have tired of playing the part of the scapegoat. Perhaps it was because there was simply too much blame, too much guilt, and too much shame to go around. Everyone already had their fair share, and someone else’s as well. A new repository of blame, guilt, and shame was needed. Thus was born the refrain, “I’m not guilty, I’m just sick!”

“NOT GUILTY, JUST SICK”

At almost exactly the same time Flip Wilson was making famous Geraldine’s plaintive cry, “the Devil made me do it!,” serious thinkers among us were beginning to notice that something in the human moral code had gone seriously awry. One by one, slowly but surely, they called our attention to the fact that a singular word, and the concept of personal responsibility that it represented, seemingly had vanished from our vocabulary. That one word—conspicuously missing from the descriptions given above of people who had committed “mistakes,” “misjudgments,” or “misdeeds”—was sin. In the process of finding someone else to blame, we simultaneously divested ourselves of the ability to admit that we had actually sinned.

One of the first voices to try to restore a recognition of the concept of sin, and the acknowledgment of personal responsibility it required, was renowned psychiatrist, Karl Menninger. In 1973, Dr. Menninger authored his now-famous work, Whatever Became of Sin?, in which he wrote:

Human beings have become more numerous, but scarcely more moral. They are busy, coming and going, getting and begetting, fighting and defending, creating and destroying.... They now communicate with one another in a thousand ways, swift and slow; they transport themselves rapidly on land, sea, and through the air.... It became the epoch of technology, rampant and triumphant. We boasted of our inventions, innovations, and gadgets. Rugged individualism, acquisition, thrift, boldness, and shrewdness were acclaimed as the great national virtues. Although hard work was admired, luxury and ease were inordinately esteemed. And as we appropriated and accumulated, we bragged and braved.... Suddenly, we awoke from our pleasant dreams with a fearful realization that something was wrong....
In all of the laments and reproaches made by our seers and prophets, one misses any mention of “sin,” a word which used to be a veritable watchword of prophets. It was a word once in everyone’s mind, but now rarely if ever heard. Does that mean that no sin is involved in all our troubles—sin with an “I” in the middle? Is no one any longer guilty of anything?... Wrong things are being done, we know; tares are being sown in the wheat fields at night. But is no one responsible, no one answerable for these acts? Anxiety and depression we all acknowledge, and even vague guilt feelings; but has no one committed any sins? Where, indeed, did sin go? What became of it? (1973, pp. 4,5,13, emp. in orig.).

Dr. Menninger began his book with the thesis that “the disappearance of the word ‘sin’ involves a shift in the allocation of responsibility of evil” (1973, p. 17). Following Webster’s definition, he observed that “Sin is transgression of the law of God; disobedience of the divine will; moral failure. Sin is failure to realize in conduct and character the moral ideal, at least as fully as possible under existing circumstances; failure to do as one ought toward one’s fellow man” (1973, pp. 18-19). He then lamented:

It is surely nothing new that men want to get away from acknowledging their sins or even thinking about them. Is this not the religious history of mankind? Perhaps we are only more glib nowadays and equipped with more euphemisms.... Disease and treatment have been the watchwords of the day and little is said about selfishness or guilt or the “morality gap.” And certainly no one talks about sin! (1973, pp. 24,228).

The assessment of the problem made by Menninger in 1973 not only was correct, but also foreboding. We were running out of both devils and fellows upon whom we could heap the blame for our wrongs. The wrongs had become too many, and the scapegoats too few. It was time for “a shift in the allocation of responsibility of evil,” to use the doctor’s words. What was needed was a way to completely escape the blame, without having to heap it on someone else. Such a procedure would make unnecessary the unpleasant task of finger-pointing, while at the same time absolving the guilty of any personal responsibility. And so, we decided to blame our shortcomings not on an incorporeal spirit, or even on those around us. Rather, we simply declared ourselves “sick,” and as Dr. Menninger correctly observed, “disease” then became the watchword of the day.

Rare were those who could not find a “sickness” that guaranteed them absolution, in whole or in part. Richard Berendzen, the president of American University, was caught making obscene phone calls. He claimed that he had been a victim of child abuse, and checked himself into a hospital for “treatment” (another word, as Dr. Menninger noted, that has become a “watchword” of our day). Robert Alton Harris, a convicted murderer of two sixteen-year-old boys, explained to the court that he was not the culprit, but the victim, due to the fact that he was programmed in utero—as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome—to be violent. Dan White, a San Francisco supervisor (a position akin to a city councilman), killed the city’s mayor and another supervisor. After being apprehended, he claimed that he was not responsible for his actions since his steady diet of, and addiction to, junk food made him a victim whose judgment had been clouded, thereby causing him to turn violent in ways he could not control (interestingly, this became known in legal circles as the “Twinkie” defense). Lyle and Erik Menendez, planned the premeditated shotgun murders of their parents in their own living room, admitted to the crime, and then claimed the mantle of victim, suggesting that they had acted out of fear for their own lives as a result of continual abuse doled out by their unloving parents (see related article: “Wrong Must be Explained”).

As the list of alleged “sicknesses” continued to grow, it began to take on a life of its own, covering not just illegal acts such as murder and child abuse, but practically every other facet of human existence. People, we discovered, were “sick” because they had been discriminated against for practically everything—from being overweight to being too old. Or they were “sick” because of something their parents did even before they were born. Or they were “sick” because their environment made them so. In his brilliantly-written book, A Nation of Victims, Charles J. Sykes, a former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal and editor of Milwaukee Magazine, addressed this concept:

As it becomes increasingly clear that misbehavior can be redefined as disease, growing numbers of the newly diseased have flocked to groups like Gamblers Anonymous, Pill Addicts Anonymous, S-Anon (“relatives and friends of sex addicts”), Nicotine Anonymous, Youth Emotions Anonymous, Unwed Parents Anonymous, Emotional Health Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Dual Disorders Anonymous, Batterers Anonymous, Victims Anonymous, and Families of Sex Offenders Anonymous....
In place of evil, therapeutic society has substituted “illness”; in place of consequence, it urges therapy and understanding; in place of responsibility, it argues for a personality driven by impulses....
Celebrities vie with one another in confessing graphic stories of abuse they suffered as children, while television talk shows feature a parade of victims ranging from overweight incest victims to handicapped sex addicts.
Dysfunction is, in every respect, a growth industry.... From the addicts of the South Bronx to the self-styled emotional road-kills of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the mantra of the victims is the same: I am not responsible; it’s not my fault (1992, pp. 9,13,12, 11, emp. in orig.).

Everyone—not just murderers and rapists—now could claim to be a victim. We are “sick,” we are not responsible, and we are not to blame. So suggests the current, politically correct common perception.

As Sykes continued his examination of this thesis, he suggested:

American life is increasingly characterized by the plaintive insistence, I am a victim.... The National Anthem has become The Whine.... Now enshrined in law and jurisprudence, victimism is reshaping the fabric of society, including employment policies, criminal justice, education, urban politics, and, in an increasingly Orwellian emphasis on “sensitivity” in language. A community of interdependent citizens has been displaced by a society of resentful, competing, and self-interested individuals who have dressed their private annoyances in the garb of victimism. Victimism obviously worked... (1992, pp. 11,15,80, emp. in orig.).

Indeed, victimism does work—for at least two reasons. First, if people can be portrayed convincingly as being the victim of a disease, illness, or addiction, it can, suggests Stanton Peele in his book, The Diseasing of America, “legitimize, reinforce, and excuse the behaviors in question—convincing people, contrary to all evidence, that their behavior is not their own. Meanwhile, the number of addicts and those who believe they cannot control themselves grows steadily” (1989, p. 28). Second, generally speaking it is human nature to look kindly on those who cannot prevent or correct their own pitiful condition. As Sykes has suggested: “Americans, of course, have a long tradition of sympathy for the downtrodden; compassion for the less fortunate has always been a mark of a nation’s underlying decency and morality” (1992, p. 12).

As a result of these factors, and others, we find ourselves in an era where practically every human action can be accounted for by the plea, “I’m not guilty, I’m just sick.” Unfortunately, on occasion, the scientific/medical community has exacerbated the situation (although not always intentionally) by lending credibility to the idea that an alleged victim is not responsible for his/her actions due to factors—sometimes physical, sometimes mental—over which he/she ultimately had no control.

On the physical side, it is becoming increasingly common to hear the suggestion that alcoholism is an inherited condition that produces results completely beyond the control of the person it affects. This has significant personal, as well as societal, implications. Few would ever suggest, for example, that a person should bear responsibility, or blame, for the fact that he was born with an extra number twenty-one chromosome, thereby producing Down’s Syndrome. Such an occurrence is not that person’s “fault.” Nor should personal responsibility be assigned to the alcoholic, it is now being suggested, due to the fact that there may be, and most likely is, an underlying genetic cause.

The battle in the scientific community over whether alcoholism should be categorized as a “disease” has been long and loud. Some researchers advocate the view that certain individuals possess a “genetic predisposition” to alcoholism; others deny any such genetic predisposition. As Sykes has noted:

At best, the scientific search for a definitive physical or biological cause of uncontrollable drinking has been inconclusive. Although some experts insist that alcoholism is indeed genetically based, others, equally adamant, either deny the biological link or insist that it has been greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, the definition of alcoholism as a disease, trumpeted by a growing network of helping professionals, alcoholic-treatment institutions, and related lobbies, has won widespread acceptance.... If someone who drinks excessively is sick, then the notion of moral responsibility becomes highly problematic. Perhaps for that reason, alcoholism-as-disease has proven an attractive model in the new self-help culture (1992, pp. 136,147).

The same line of reasoning applies to other physical or mental illnesses. In addition to the examples mentioned earlier that purport to absolve a person of individual responsibility (e.g., fetal alcohol syndrome, the “Twinkie” defense, etc.), it has now become popular to explain a person’s problems through the use of “repressed memories.” The idea behind repressed memory syndrome is that a person acts as he does due to events that transpired long ago, the memories of which have been “hidden” or “repressed” in his mind. Through the use of psychological therapy, a counselor “releases” these formerly-repressed memories, thus providing the answer to present-day actions or situations, and possibly providing the basis for a cure or solution.

However, genuine cases of repressed memories causing psychological problems may be fewer than fashionable opinion suggests. Elizabeth Loftus, an outspoken critic of the misuse of repressed memory therapy, has suggested that “the pressure to find memories can be very great” (1995, 19:25). Loftus also observed:

A recent survey of doctoral-level psychologists indicates that as many as a quarter may harbor beliefs and engage in practices that are questionable. That these kinds of activities can and do sometimes lead to false memories seems now to be beyond dispute. That these kinds of activities can create false victims, as well as hurt true ones, also seems now to be beyond dispute (1995, 19:24).

While Loftus, and others like her, do not desire to “throw the baby out with the bath water” by suggesting that there are no such things as genuine repressed memories, they urge caution at every turn so that neither the therapist nor the patient is tempted to “invent” memories merely for the sake of “feeling better.” As Loftus has noted about various kinds of claims based on repressed memories, “...not all claims are true” (1995, 19:28; see also Bower, 1993a, 1993b).

THE BIBLICAL RESPONSE

The increasing use of the excuse, “I’m not guilty, I’m just sick,” to absolve one of moral responsibility for his own actions should be of concern to every Christian, as should the idea that people cannot be held accountable due to the fact that they are a “victim” of their upbringing, their environment, or their genetic predispositions. The idea that the blame must always be placed somewhere else, Sykes has remarked,

...is a formula for social gridlock: the irresistible search for someone or something to blame colliding with the unmovable unwillingness to accept responsibility.... If everyone is a victim, then no one is. But it is increasingly obvious that victimization has become the too plausible, too pat explanation for all that ails us. Tragically, its evocation has the effect of distracting attention from actual causes and from legitimate policy response to those problems. The science of victimization is the quackery of our times (1992, pp. 15,18).

Sykes has suggested, therefore, that it is time for a “moratorium on blame” because “blame has become the all-purpose excuse to do nothing. It is time to drop the crutch” (1992, p. 253). But how might that be accomplished. And what should be our response to the concept of “not guilty, just sick”?

First, Christians must accept the idea of personal moral responsibility (Romans 14:12), despite the trends in society to the contrary. In this regard, Winford Claiborne has asked: “When are we going to awaken to the truth that we are products of our own choices and must pay the consequences?... What has happened to human responsibility in America?” (1995, p. 100). Sykes suggested the same cure when he wrote: “Recognizing our own responsibility and the need to stop blaming others is the first step toward dismantling the culture of victimization” (1992, p. 253).

Second, we cannot, with impunity, overlook the fact that each accountable person was created by God with freedom of choice. The adage that we are “free moral agents” is true; the Scriptures are clear on that point. When Jesus addressed the Pharisees in John 5:39-40, He told them: “Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of me; and ye will not come to me, that ye may have life.” The Pharisees could have come to Christ in humble obedience, but they freely chose not to. When Joshua addressed the Israelites shortly before his death, he urged them to “choose you this day whom you will serve...” (Joshua 24:15). The Israelites, possessing freedom of choice, were now being instructed on the use of that freedom of choice. That we are creatures made in God’s image, and possessing freedom of choice in our actions, is affirmed throughout Holy Writ.

Third, since we were created with the ability to make our own choices, each accountable person has a responsibility to choose wisely and correctly. And most people know that from simple common sense, as Sykes has noted:

At some level of our being, we all know that something is required of us, however much we may try to shake it off. Instinctively and rationally, we know our responsibilities; we know that we are not sick when we are merely weak; we know that others are not to blame when we have erred; we know that the world does not exist to make us happy (1992, p. 255).

Choices have consequences, which is why it is so important that our choices be circumscribed by the Word of God. It is useless to continually blame the Devil, our fellows, our genes, or the environment of our youth for the problems that we cause ourselves through our own bad choices. For example, even if it were true that there exists some kind of biological causative factor for predisposition to alcohol, no one forces the alcoholic to take the first drink, or to continue to drink. While the choice not to drink might be difficult, and even require medical assistance, that choice is available, nevertheless. Furthermore, treatment and counseling are available to assist the alcoholic with his problem.

Regardless of whether “genetic predispositions” toward certain conditions do exist, and regardless of whether evil things happened to us in our “forgotten” past, the fact nevertheless remains that not a day passes that we do not have to make personal choices. Sometimes those choices are quite easy; sometimes they are terribly difficult. And more often than not, it is the choices we make that affect our lives the most. No one has to live in sin. In fact, the apostle Paul, after enumerating several sinful conditions, wrote of the Christians in Corinth in the first century: “And such were some of you, but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 6:11; emp. added). It may be difficult, but it is not impossible, to transform our lives into the image of Christ. Genetic predispositions (if they do, in fact, exist), or environmental conditions, may make our choices more difficult, but they do not rob us of the ability to make the correct choice.

CONCLUSION

Professor Hobart Mowrer taught at both Harvard and Yale, and was a one-time president of the American Psychological Association. In an article in the official organ of that society, the American Psychologist, Dr. Mowrer lamented the demise of the concepts of sin and personal responsibility when he wrote:

For several decades we psychologists looked upon the whole matter of sin and moral accountability as a great incubus and acclaimed our liberation from it as epoch making. But at length we have discovered that to be free in this sense, that is, to have the excuse of being sick rather than sinful, is to court the danger of also becoming lost. This danger is, I believe, betokened by the widespread interest in existentialism, which we are presently witnessing. In becoming amoral, ethically neutral and free, we have cut the very roots of our being, lost our deepest sense of selfhood and identity, and with neurotics, themselves, we find ourselves asking, “Who am I, what is my deepest destiny, what does living mean?” (as quoted in Zacharias, 1994, p. 138).

Humans have always sought a way to shift the blame for their sinful actions. They have shifted the blame onto Satan, they have shifted the blame to those around them, and now it is popular to find a medical or environmental scapegoat, thus relieving the sinner of any personal responsibility. These attitudes, however, ignore Christ’s admonishment that “the Son of man shall come in glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he render unto every man according to his deeds” (Matthew 16:27; emp. added).

REFERENCES

Bower, Bruce (1993a), “Sudden Recall,” Science News, 144[12]:184-186, September 18.

Bower, Bruce (1993b), “The Survivor Syndrome,” Science News, 144[13]:202-204, September 25.

Claiborne, Winford (1995), “Charles J. Sykes’ A Nation of Victims: A Book Review,” Family, Church, and Society Restoration and Renewal, ed. David L. Lipe (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman University).

Loftus, Elizabeth (1995), “Remembering Dangerously,” Skeptical Inquirer, 19[2]:20-29, March/April.

Menninger, Karl (1973), Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books).

Peele, Stanton (1989), The Diseasing of America (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books).

Sykes, Charles J. (1992), A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character (New York: St. Martin’s Press).

Zacharias, Ravi (1994), Can Man Live Without God (Dallas, TX: Word).



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