In relation to responsibility

[1] Accountability is grounded in the relationality of communion and empowered by the mutuality of responsibility. Accountability complements or flows from responsibility, by moving from the explicitly Christian grounding and non-coerced nature of responsibility to a more public, enforceable accountability. Theologically, accountability is necessary because of the all-pervasive presence of sin, in persons and structures. Social responsibility on the part of economic actors or political policy makers is important and to be encouraged. But seldom are they held accountable where their decisions and actions fall short of this (i.e., “sin”), especially in terms of neighbors who are not close at hand. Moral intentions alone do not necessarily lead to moral consequences. People and institutions must be held accountable-for the outcome of their policies and practices, as well as for the means they pursue toward these ends.

[2] Responsibility corresponds to “responding to others,” as accountability corresponds to “being answerable to others,” especially in publicly transparent ways. Accountability is akin to the realm of duties and obligations. The biblically based priority in both cases is in terms of those who are the most vulnerable or most in need. Thus, God is depicted in Scripture as holding accountable especially those who are in influential positions: “The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of God’s people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” (Isa 3:14-15).

[3] Those who are excluded or unjustly impacted by certain policies and practices have the right and responsibility to hold others, especially those in positions of privilege or access, accountable to effect the needed changes. Especially those with whom we are related, as sisters and brothers in the body of Christ, should be expected to be more accountable to one another, in ways that “move beyond solidarity and accompaniment.”[1] Standing with one another must be extended to taking actions that will make a difference in actually changing unjust realities. The power of the indwellling Christ in us as a communion is what empowers that to occur.

[4] If neighbor-love is what provides direction for responsibility, justice is what gives direction to accountability. The two are deeply intertwined: love must be formed and informed by justice if others are to be loved for who they are. Rather than a formal criterion, justice is a response to the concrete realities of others, in a multidimensional sense. It is the moral bond that holds relationships together.[2] Although responsibility is the primary moral imperative for justice, it is “rights” that compel us to act in the face of injustices. Rights are claims resulting from legitimate expectations of relationships. The assertion of rights by or on behalf of those treated unjustly reminds us of how intrinsically we are connected with the lives of others. This expands the scope of responsibility: we are not only responsible for those we choose to be responsible for.[3]

[5] Furthermore, human rights are political safeguards for the dignity of people. They are a practical way of insuring a minimum threshold for respecting the dignity of people, all of whom bear the image of God.

[6] “Rights” are sometimes suspected of coming out of Western traditions and resulting in a kind of moral imperialism imposed on other parts of the world. In societies with stable role relations, there may be a clearer sense of what people in that society owe to one another. But when these social bonds break down, as increasingly is occurring under the forces of economic globalization, the language of rights is becoming ever more necessary.

[7] One way of conceptualizing these basic rights that need to be protected and furthered for the sake of the “commonwealth” (or community) of all created life is in terms of the tripartite rights of:

• Bodily integrity (especially significant for women),
• Moral, political, and religious choice (and thus cultural diversity), and
• Subsistence (meeting the basic needs of human beings and the rest of creation).[4]
• Each of the three must be simultaneously achieved and protected for a society to be just.
The contested terrain of creation

[8] From a Christian perspective, institutions and actors in economic and political life are accountable for the well-being of human beings, communities, the rest of creation and ultimately to God. The way in which this accountability is intermeshed is more apparent in light of the relational ontology discussed earlier. It is not only persons but wider systems and institutions and how they “act” that are important, especially under the realities of globalization. The challenge is how governmental, economic and civil society agents can be more mutually accountable, with their respective responsibilities in today’s globalized world.

[9] Accountability necessarily moves out into the world, and is spelled out in terms the world can understand, rather than staying in the church or expressed only in “Christian” terms. The warrant for such action is grounded in First Article understandings-the realm of creation, of what God has created as good (Gen 1) but that also has become fallen, distorted through sin. The relationality in that creation, intrinsic in what it means to be created in the image of a Triune God, both expands and enriches the moral terrain. But by focusing here on this as a matter of creation, the move is from an explicitly Christian ethic to one that can regularly engage the world in publicly recognizable terms, can enter into dialogue and negotiation for the sake of effective public action or advocacy. It is not an explicitly Christian agenda that is at stake but a human agenda for the sake of all creation.

[10] As Lutheran churches we stand in a confessional tradition that, through a “two kingdoms” framework, has long affirmed the importance of government and economic activity as means through which God’s ongoing work of creation is carried out. As Luther taught in the Large Catechism: “It is the responsibility of the princes and magistrates to restrain open wantonness. They should be alert and courageous enough to establish and maintain order in all areas of trade and commerce in order that the poor may not be burdened and oppressed and in order that they themselves may not be responsible for other people’s sins.”[5] And later: “The greatest need of all is to pray for the civil authorities and the government, for it is chiefly through them that God provides us daily bread and all the comforts of this life…where dissension, strife, and war prevail, there daily bread is already taken away or at least reduced.”[6]

[11] Although rooted in God’s creative activity, political and economic institutions are contested terrain, where sin is inevitably present. Luther’s realism about sin and evil led him to reflect on relationships of power wherein the “wolves, lions and eagles…would simply devour the sheep…the most vulnerable among us…in such cases, temporal life and flourishing would eventually be reduced to chaos.”[7]

[12] According to Luther, the first and best place for Christians to put into practice the love bestowed on them through the Holy Spirit was in the human institutions, such as those of economic and political life. We are called to be co-workers with God in them. Today this must include examining their legitimacy, how they operate and the effects that they have on humans and others in God’s creation, according to the criterion of what will protect and further the good of all. When they fall short of this, as they inevitably do because of the reality of sin, these institutions need to be called into account and transformed for the benefit of the neighbor. Furthermore, there may be conditions under which churches must disassociate themselves from institutions or systems and participate in creating different ones.[8]

From personal to institutional accountability

[13] When individuals are held responsible for their actions, and found guilty in legal terms or convicted of sin in theological terms, they are thereby held accountable. Although this typically is judged in terms of their illegal or sinful acts, what is basically at stake is the breaking down or violating of relationships. From a Lutheran theological perspective, this breaking down of relationships with one another and with God is the core of what sin is. Theologically, this being held accountable or convicted of sin is what the doctrine of justification especially addresses, with the gospel of God’s gracious forgiveness, redemption, and new life in Christ.

[14] When we turn from the personal to the institutional or structural dimensions of life, matters of responsibility and accountability become more complex. Given the human agency that is intrinsic in responsibility, it is difficult to think of holding institutions responsible in the same way. Although shaped and directed by human beings, their policies, practices, size, scope, and overall effect acquire a power that often seems to transcend human agency. The human responsibility exercised in and through them becomes faceless or anonymous. Even those in positions to make a difference often express feelings of powerlessness or of not being responsible. Such structures acquire a life of their own, an autonomous, dominating power, which holds human persons and communities captive to their own institutional mandates rather than to upholding and furthering the dignity of human beings and the rest of God’s good creation.

[15] In this sense, structures and institutions become like the powers and principalities described in the New Testament (e.g., Col. 1:16; 2:15). Originating as part of God’s good creation, they become pervaded by sin. They acquire a size and influence that makes them seem supra-human, even god-like in their power. For example, economic institutions instrumentalize human beings and the human values and purposes they were intended to serve. “The market tempts persons to dispose of themselves as persons” in order to survive. It is contradictions such as these that must be exposed-along with tapping the power of organized communities to transform these dominating realities-so that they might again serve life rather than holding lives captive to their mandates.

[16] Today there is an increasing awareness of the critical role of a third force-that of civil society-in holding both political and economic powers accountable. Civil society (and within it churches) can serve to check excesses of both of these powers. As civil society companions, congregations have the best opportunity to answer God’s call to an ethos of deliberative democratic citizenship and participate in the Triune God’s creative agency of political authority in our era.[9]

Holding governments accountable

[17] Churches have different experiences in trying to hold governments accountable. Some have been very involved in advocacy efforts, while others have been reluctant to do so because of their own minority status or the risk perceived in so doing. Churches may not feel strong or competent enough to take up the challenge. They may feel they lack access to government leaders or decision makers, even if many in government may themselves be church members. Members may fear offending those in government, and the possible repercussions this might have for the church. These and other factors too often serve as “excuses” for the church not speaking or acting, even though this is part of their God-impelled calling.

[18] If economic globalization is to be transformed in ways that will further and sustain human beings, their communities and the rest of creation, effective and accountable governmental and intergovernmental policies and practices are a crucial means through which this needs to occur. Government must challenge and redress patterns of exclusion, injustice, and exploitation that occur under economic globalization.[10]

[19] Historically, especially in Western countries in the twentieth century, government has been seen as the key counter-balancing power to hold economic forces accountable and to meet the basic needs of those marginized or excluded from a livelihood under the dynamics of economic globalization. Yet, at the same time, the government’s role and power have been called into question, and in many cases, compromised. This is further complicated in many parts of the world where, in the aftermath of various reigns of colonialism and imperialism, the building up of democratic traditions and governments has resulted in fragile, often ineffectual governance. Increasingly, however, it is neither local nor national governments, even when they are strong, that are able to reign in and counter the negative effects of economic activity. As this becomes ever more transnational, governmental efforts are needed that are more multinational or international.

Transnational accountability

[20] Today a growing portion of the world’s large economies are unaccountable to the public as a whole. This is especially the case for transnational corporations and financial institutions. The current system of economic globalization limits the ability of people, governments and nations to insist on respect and negotiation of conditions when an outside company comes in to use their natural resources, infrastructure and workforce. Poor and other vulnerable people must be able to participate with dignity in society, while being protected from arbitrary, unaccountable actions by governments, multinational corporations and other forces. [11]

[21] Although they may be primarily profit driven, when companies are embedded locally or at least nationally, there is at least some hope (often disappointed) that the common good for the people who live there would be factored into their sense of social responsibility. This becomes far more complicated under economic globalization, with transnational corporations that transcend national, political, legal, and economic boundaries-and are no longer embedded in a nation’s economy or culture. The usual bases for responsibility (for responding to) or accountability (answering to) no longer apply. Without some kind of restraint or accountability, they can become freewheeling in their quest for profit and growth at the expense of human beings, communities, and the rest of creation. Ever greater spans of God’s creation become instrumentalized, rationalized, or commodified. In the process, the human values and agency to counter such are undercut or rendered voiceless. The corporations themselves become the creators and transmitters of transnational values, as primarily religions and languages were in former times.[12]

[22] It is here where the real challenges confront communities of faith. Both transnational economic players and the churches as a global communion (a) transcend given, natural relations, (b) presuppose that human beings are historical agents, and (c) use “signs” (e.g., churches use narratives, corporations produce and use commodities) that express values and shape identities.[13]

[23] A key difference, however, is that the church should insist that the intrinsic worth of what God has created goes beyond what can be instrumentalized, commodified, or treated as a means to another end.

We must ask: does the emergence and spread of global economic forces…provide any means for sensing the claims of justice as basic to self-understanding and to a construal of the world? … Any cultural force or social institution that nullifies our sense of the reality of justice and mercy is, practically speaking, atheistic and, theoretically stated, nihilistic. If that is true of our global situation, then Christians must advocate ways of containing and constraining transnational corporations. Conversely, if these economic powers do foster, or, at least, do not utterly destroy, a moral construal of the world, then Christian communities can find common cause with them and work for their transformation.[14]

Although in some parts of the world, there has been a growing movement of corporate social responsibility, compliance has been voluntary.[15] Although efforts of companies to be more socially responsible are commendable, given what has been discussed above, and the way in which sin pervades all such intentions, it is crucial that means be developed for actually holding them accountable and answerable to those many stakeholders who are affected by their policies and practices.

A possible action plan

[24] Obviously, holding governments and large economic actors more accountable is a multi-faceted challenge, which we have only begun to explore here, especially because of how complex the challenges are in different contexts. Yet, arising out of our biblically-grounded faith, and the communion and responsibility framework set forth here, some key “benchmarks” can become the basis for addressing specific matters of accountability, in coalition with others in civil society.[16]

[25] The following, which was developed by an LWF staff working team, draws upon what is distinctive to the LWF as a faith-based communion, with member churches, field programs, a secretariat, and related organizations. Being such a communion is the basis for a globalization of solidarity. The primary stakeholders in this are member churches and field programs of the LWF, but it is intended for action with other ecumenical, interfaith, and civil society partners. It builds upon and reflects discussions generated through the LWF documents, “Engaging Economic Globalization as a Communion” and “A Call to Participate in Transforming Economic Globalization” and commitments made by the LWF at its Tenth Assembly. You are encouraged to use this as a basis for strategizing as to how you and your church can be more active in transforming economic globalization.

[26] “Confront”: See and understand the realities of economic globalization.

• Recognize and testify how economic globalization manifests itself in local contexts of the communion.
• Deepen the understanding of the dilemmas and contradictions economic globalization poses across the communion.
• Challenge economic globalization in light of the biblical vision of the fullness of life.
[27] “Choose”: Life rather than death, God rather than mammon

• Challenge economic globalization from out of the heart of the Christian faith.
• Teach and preach in churches in ways that empower members to resist forces of economic globalization in their lives and world.
[28] “Change”: Advocate for changes that will result in greater justice, inclusion, responsibility, and accountability for the sake of the common good of all.

• Change production, purchasing, consumption, and investment practices to be more socially and environmentally responsible.
• Seek more democratic, responsible governance and effective policies that can regulate economic globalization and protect the most vulnerable.
• Challenge the ethical legitimacy of unsustainable debts of severely indebted countries, and cancel these debts.
• Implement effective means of deterring speculative movement of currencies and investments that destabilize local economies and increase inequities.
• Assure that trade agreements are negotiated that factor in human rights and benefit disadvantaged countries.
• Through relationships of the communion, challenge and hold accountable those who make economic decisions that adversely affect other parts of the world.
• Actively participate in ecumenical, interfaith and secular movements and campaigns for global economic, social, and environmental justice, as part of a globalization of solidarity.
[29] What are or could you be doing to pursue commitments and actions such as these?

Published with permission from the Lutheran World Federation Documentation book series. Karen L Bloomquist (ed.). Communion, Responsibility, Accountability. Responding as a Lutheran Communion to Neoliberal Globalization, Documentation No. 50. Individual copies out of the series are available for $13 US. Order through the Lutheran World Federation: .

[1] “For the Healing of the World,” Official Report, LWF Tenth Assembly, Winnipeg, Canada, 21-31 July 2003 (Geneva: The Lutheran World Federation, 2004), p. 52.

[2] Bernard V. Brady, The Moral Bond of Community: Justice and Discourse in Christian Morality (Georgetown: Georgetown University Press, 1998), pp. 101ff.

[3] Ibid., 103.

[4] Peter G. Brown, Ethics, Economics and International Relations: Transparent Sovereignty in the Commonwealth of Life, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), pp. 20ff.

[5] Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in Kolb and Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), p. 419.

[6] Ibid., p. 450.

[7] Martin Luther, “On Trade and Usury,” in Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works, vol. 45 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962), p. 92.

[8] Ulrich Duchrow (ed.), Lutheran Churches: Salt or Mirror of Society? (Geneva: The Lutheran World Federation, 1977), pp. 311ff.

[9] Gary Simpson, “Toward Lutheran ‘Delight in the Law of the Lord’: Church and State in the Context of Civil Society,” in John R. Stumme and Robert Tuttle (eds), Church and State: Lutheran Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), p. 49.

[10] See “Reclaiming the Vocation of Government,” in Karen L Bloomquist (ed.). Communion, Responsibility, Accountability. Responding as a Lutheran Communion to Neoliberal Globalization, Documentation No. 50., (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 2004), pp. 215ff.

[11] From “A Call to Participate in Transforming Economic Globalization,” in in Karen L Bloomquist (ed.). Communion, Responsibility, Accountability. Responding as a Lutheran Communion to Neoliberal Globalization, pp. 113ff.

[12] Schweiker , op. cit. , pp. 124f.

[13] Ibid., p. 127.

[14] Ibid., p. 129.

[15] See the discussion of the UN Global Compact in, Elisabeth Gerle and Kerstin Sahlin-Andersson, “The UN Global Compact as a Web of Social Responsibility,” in this publication, pp. 195ff.

[16] Those listed in “A Call to Participate in Transforming Economic Globalization,” op. cit., are only a beginning. See for example the extensive study and recommendations by the International labor Organization, “A Fair Globalization: Creating Opportunities for All” (2003).

Karen L. Bloomquist

Karen Bloomquist, ordained in 1974, has served as pastor of Lutheran congregations in CA, NYC, WA, and after completing her PhD at Union in NY, has been on faculties in Chicago, Dubuque and Berkeley, as well as director of departments in the ELCA and the LWF.  She also has taught at seminaries throughout the world, and has authored or edited many publications. She currently is a theologian-at-large, and lives in  both WA and CA.