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What an odd word.

Just look at it: onus. 

Say it out loud. It even sounds funny when you say it.

It’s a simple, four-letter word but it is powerful because it’s all about exerting pressure elsewhere. 

Have you noticed that a lot of people are very generous at putting onuses on somebody else? Occasionally we put the onus on ourselves but mostly that’s only when it’s an onus we’re comfortable with.

That’s the thing about onuses, we like them best when given away. An onus infers that I want that other person to be responsible to agree with me.

“The onus is on you,” we say, which actually means, I’ve decided that I want you to take responsibility for keeping me happy. An onus is almost biblical because we believe it is better to give than to receive.

Daylight Savings Onus

An onus is kind of like Daylight Savings Time, which you will be participating in this weekend. You will change the clocks in your house because we all want to put the onus on the clocks to control the amount of daylight we get. We want to solve the problem of daylight so badly that we pretend our clocks can control time.

Or like a fantasy novel where the main character discovers that moving the hands on an old, dusty clock somehow changes time and so she increasingly puts the onus on the clock to control the world around her.

I don’t have to tell you that our twice-a-year trick of changing clocks doesn’t literally move the sun or change the rhythms of the birds or bees or tides. We just prefer to believe it does. 

In the same way, putting the onus on someone else probably doesn’t change anything except our level of frustration.

And that’s the thing. We have been increasingly unable to let others be themselves in our countries and we are devolving into factions of finger-pointers, blame-givers, and onus-putters. 

Invisible Reasons

When I was in church leadership I can remember working on boards or committees and discussing complicated issues at great length before briefly presenting our conclusions to the larger body. It was fascinating to me that individuals could vehemently disagree with the committee without benefit of the extended discussion or access to the details. In other words, they put the onus on the committee to make an educated decision as long as it agreed with them.

I have come to realize this more fully over the last couple of years as I have learned more about systemic racism. There are inequalities in culture, the justice system, the educational system, etc. that many of us simply can’t see or understand so we simply refuse to accept them. 

We don’t recognize racism because we are looking for pointy white hats instead of laws and attitudes that close doors. There are invisible reasons why the poor remain poor and live in poverty. There are invisible reasons why there are disproportionately few black coaches or owners in professional football. There are invisible reasons why refugees have difficulty adjusting to our culture.

The Me-Too Movement is another example. Many were anxious to discredit how wide the problem of abuse was until more and more women felt empowered to speak. I know women who have quietly admitted that they know the feeling of being looked down on because of their sex.

A good friend of mine is a black woman who grew up in Toronto, literally the most diverse city in the world. I casually asked her one day if she had ever felt discrimination, expecting her to say that she hadn’t. Her answer was an immediate, matter-of-fact “Yes, of course”.

There are invisible reasons why people use drugs, go to trade school, have an abortion, get divorced, become hermits, can’t save money, live on the street, vote NDP, or wear those clothes. 

There are invisible reasons why people don’t trust Christians, don’t believe that Jesus existed, don’t go to church, or think differently about their faith. 

But when we choose to put our onus on them, expecting them to conform to our view of things, we are not allowing them to be as human as we ourselves are. 


This blog isn’t just about racism or sexism or politics or faith, they are only the most visible examples. Rather, this blog is to remind you to be careful when you judge or point your finger in blame. 

Remember the parable of the Prodigal? There are two sons in the story: the younger one goes away and lives in wanton disobedience while the older son stays home and lives in wanton self-righteousness. The younger sees his sin, repents of it and goes home. The older son angrily puts the onus on his younger brother but never looks inside himself and doesn’t repent.

Putting the onus on someone else to change isn’t even an appropriate christian way of thinking. Christians are to practice love and generosity in our actions and attitudes. 

In fact, it isn’t up to us to judge anybody; our challenge is to look inside and ask God to change our own hearts and perceptions.

So let me ask you to consider putting away your habits of assumptions, judgements, narrowness, and onus-giving.

Instead, consider building habits of exploration, generosity, wideness, and looking within. Ask questions of others and learn about those who are not like you. 

The onus is on you.