Justice (Why We’re All Wearing the Ring)


Condensed excerpt from Scandalous Obligation, by Eric Severson


Of all the magical powers and abilities that inhabit the worlds of fantasy and fiction, which is the most desirable?

The question has been used to pass countless hours of study hall, bus rides and lazy summer days. The power to fly? X-ray vision? Tremendous strength? Spidey sense? Among the leading contenders is the power of invisibility, a fascination that traces back thousands of years. There is something intriguing about the power to interact with the world undetectably. Our fascination with invisibility is reflected back to us in movies like Hollow Man and The Lord of the Rings.

In The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien renders the dehumanizing effect of the “ring” quite literally in the transformation of the character Gollum. A deformed and twisted creature who plays an important role in Tolkien’s legendary tales, Gollum was once a normal person (perhaps of distant kin to the Hobbits) who knew about love, loyalty, faithfulness and morality. The power of the ring prolonged his life unnaturally, and he became blind to anything but his desire to have the ring. Tolkien cleverly depicts this character as a split personality. Gollum refers to himself in the plural, as “we” and “us.” The pitiful creature can be overheard arguing with himself. The power of hiding had consumed Gollum, but not without something remaining. The man who once knew of friendship and community was forced to seek it internally. His alter ego became his community. The ring had literally dehumanized him, disfiguring him inside and out.

Literal invisibility is the stuff of imagination, of comic books and movies and novels. [1] But these playful fictions a re-extrapolations of less fantastic evasions common in everyday life. The contortions of Gollum symbolize the dehumanizing effect of internalized existence. Sucked into the seductive power of the ring of invisibility, Gollum is extricated from community. The freedom is intoxicating, but this liberty is bought with a high price. Evading other people removes Gollum from community, which eats away at his very constitution as a person. To act without consequence is surely a charming fantasy, and one that people subtly pursue more often than we care to admit. But success in this venture is perilous. The cost is our very humanity.

Such evasions wreak havoc on the people from whom we hide. Victims of violence, greed, oppression and discrimination search in vain for a person to hold responsible for their plight. Since we are concerned here with responsibility and its relationship to social justice, it is important to address the temptation of invisibility. Among the most obvious obstacles to justice is evasion. We humans are far too good at it, and apparently we always have been.

Jewish and Christian Scriptures abound with examples of ethical evasion . . . King David “turned the ring” of his wealth to commit murder and adultery, only to have his invisibility unmasked by the prophet Nathan. His evasion of responsibility wreaked havoc on his life and legacy, but particularly on the lives of others. Money and privilege work well as our modern-day ring . . . Cash shields us well from the suffering of the world. Credit shields us from responsibility for our own purchases. Many North Americans give no second thought to the sources that provide the products we buy each day. Money provides insulation; we need not be aware that clothing we wear may have been sewn by young children in an overseas sweatshop. We drink our coffee in peace, never forced to see needs. We live away from, and drive around, the parts of the world where suffering and poverty go hand in hand. The things we eat, play with, wear and enjoy are isolated from their histories. We like it that way. We also expend significant energy “hiding” from ourselves. It is uncomfortable to survey the damages wrought by actions we have done, or the victims of systems we support . . .

Given the temptation to evade and the ease with which we shift and shirk responsibility, what measures can we take to avoid our addiction to [invisibility]? This question leads us back to the heart of ethics and the roots of our struggle for justice. If only doing away with the “ring” of evasion was as simple as Tolkien’s volcanic fire, which finally consumed Gollum and his precious ring. Tolkien barely conceals his ultimate referendum on invisibility: even the noblest of characters falter. But our own confrontations with the ring-of-evasion, which creates and supports injustice, is much more complicated than the travails of the fictional Middle Earth. We must do more than name and discuss the phenomenon of ethical evasion. The question at hand regards the height of responsibility.

Just how responsible am I for the suffering of another? This, too, is an ancient question.

It is one of the oldest questions, in fact, judging by the story we find in Genesis 4. God is interrogating Cain, who recently killed his brother Abel. Like a good Law and Order suspect, Cain dodges the question and asks one of his own. These words echo across the pages of human history: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (verse 9). The attempt at sarcasm is palpable; Cain mocks the insinuation that he should be responsible for his brother’s location. Should he really be considered responsible for the everyday events of Abel’s life? Cain has flipped the ring inward, attempting to hide the blood on his hands. He struggles to disconnect his actions from their consequence. The irony of his question is that in trying to hide from his own history he presupposes that he is not responsible for Abel’s daily well-being. Cain’s question is laced with the assumption that it is absurd to consider him responsible for something as petty as his brother’s whereabouts. Cain’s unanswered question leaves us wondering: To what level of responsibility are we held?

There is an audacious possibility that the answer to Cain’s question is yes and that, aside from not murdering his brother, he was also responsible to be Abel’s keeper. To such a level of responsibility one could never be worthy. A good person, if very dedicated, might manage to avoid hurting his or her neighbors. But Cain’s unanswered question leaves us to wonder whether he is to protect Abel against snakes and bandits and potholes wherever he may be. Such responsibility would surely exceed the realm of possibility. Nobody could be that responsible. The impossibility of responsibility may represent the most important and intriguing of all mysteries.

. . . we face the world with the familiar power of disappearance temptingly close to our fingertips.



1. Interesting advances in technology are allowing scientists to develop a rough version of an “invisibility cloak.”

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