I assume total liability and agree to indemnify, but does this mean I’m up a creek?

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A Tulis boy pauses in paddling a Nature Center canoe; his dad signed legal documents to have the family absorb all risk and liability for a brief waterborne outing.

We sit at a table in the Nature Center’s guest and photocopier room, my son and I, our chairs turned toward a television in which a woman staffer explains how to sign out paddles and life preservers and use a key to unlock the canoe we are borrowing.Jacob, 9, watches her explain how to guide the tippy vessels. But I keep glancing down to a document, a “waiver of liability, release, acknowledgement of risk and indemnification agreement.”

My wife, Jeannette, and I for years have filled out such forms for field trips and homeschooling mock trial travels. Our homeschooling group’s legal form is a single page. The paperwork of the Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center takes two.

The need for such forms is obvious. With lawyers advertising on TV in mid-afternoons and late at night, people are made ready to seek legal redress for a wrong or injury. A 2006 phone book in my desk drawer has 33 yellow pages for law firms: “CIVIL LITIGATION, personal injury, wrongful death, auto accidents, on the job injuries,” and more.

Waiver forms are reasonable self-protection for any group that deals with members of the public.

OUR INGRESS UPON the waterway is pleasant, without negligent misuse of facilities or equipment, neither boy nor dad come close to negligently tumbling from the pier. The sun burns down. We ease ahead, trying to keep to the shade of the right bank of Lookout Creek. “Dad, collision course!” he cries. I fling my paddle to my other side to dodge a floating log, casting droplets across a cooler and a bag containing a towel and camera. “Collision course ahead,” he calls anew; should we go through the branches — or around?

Our canoe bumps over some cross-lying tree trunks, but neither person suffers “abrasion, entanglement on or near” the water. Several times I glance back to see what kind of wake we leave after a bout of fierce rowing (a wavery backdrifting V and bubbly paddle patches). But our wake is hazard free. No one else’s waves cause us peril.

The creek becomes so wide it seems we are on a lake. “Let’s go back,” I suggest, “where the creek might be narrower, and we can deal with more obstacles.” The boy’s cap bill nods.

We cross paths with a turtle, a gar, but no snakes or other perils from wildlife, in God’s providence. We avoid “cuts *** fever or rashes *** from skin contact with water, branches, pollution, debris, or any plant, insect, or animal.” Great herons flap ahead of us as we glide upon them. I admit to myself my desire to face one threat: Members of our own kind. I like being around people, and talking. I know, I know. We risk “negligence of other boaters, visitors or persons who may be present” at or from the facility.

But we press on, and upstream from our pier catch up with a noisesome party.

We paddle past a family in two canoes, with a female making a work-related call on her wireless. Just ahead is a gaggle of canoes with women and children who I learn later are part of a weeklong program run by the nature center and the Tennessee Aquarium.

I have been warned and am aware of these and numerous other inherent risks in using the [facility], canoes, and equipment,” my agreement states. “I fully and voluntarily assume complete responsibility for these risks and the injuries that may occur as a result of those risks even if injuries occur in a manner that is not foreseeable at the time of the signing of this agreement. In consideration of my using or observing the [facility], I *** agree to release all from liability, discharge, and promise not to sue.

Graciously letting us noodle past, the pupils pour around a gate of fallen branches and vanish downstream among arcades of trees.

THE LEGAL AGREEMENTdemands my initials four times. Three times I have signed and printed my name. As I watch my son work the oar and as I gulp a sandwich, I think about the moral and legal grid into which I have placed myself. It outlines a world seemingly out of balance.

On one hand stands the Chattanooga Nature Center, a corporation able to be sued by members of the Tennessee and Georgia bar if “something happens” to a center “client” (that would be me). By my signature I deny myself the right to act in my proper person or to engage a practitioner of the law as my legal agent to sue the corporation.

On the other hand I am a solitary individual unknown to anyone at the Nature Center except for a F$30 yearly membership payment in a coupon deal. A stranger, I am directed to assume all risk and peril in using its canoe, even if I identify “negligence of the owners, employees, or volunteer assistants” at the center.

AS WE DRIFT THROUGH cool caverns of shade and into great patches of sunny water, I brood on a question.

If I indemnify the Nature Center and assume all risk, haven’t we in fact accepted a world of total liability? That’s the old world of the common law. That’s the world described in the case laws of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Isn’t a world of total personal liability one that God imposes? Isn’t that the kind of reality God wants us to swim in every day, to breathe in, to move in — to have full responsibility for our actions, every last one of them, and not be able to assign them to others?

It bothers me that I’ve spent 20 minutes watching a lawyer-vetted video and handling legal issues before getting into a canoe for a jaunt restricted to 120 minutes. The pre-trial diversion of my legal interest in that anteroom with the TV and racks of life preservers treated me as a child. It has cast me into a position as a terror, a troublemaker, a trickster. It holds me out at arm’s length, flail as I might to resist being manhandled.

It bothers me that I absorb all risk at the Nature Center just as my towel bag soaks up the water on the floor of the canoe.

The risk, as it were, is like the big wet spot on my chest left by the life preserver I agreed to wear 100 percent of the time past the canoe gate. Yet isn’t the near total absorption of risk what God expects of the Christian? Doesn’t God expect any of His children to suck into his breast the peril, woes, agonies, wrongs, lies, misrepresentations, abuses and other evils in this world — and to do it gladly?

The idea perplexes me. We live in a world wholly of God’s making. I perceive we cannot escape its parameters, no matter how sinful we are as men or as a people or nation. Whether we run to one side of total liability, or to the other where no one is personally responsible for anything, we are within a realm of God’s making that we cannot escape. He will impose His conditions upon us, whether as blessing or as judgment.

THE SOCIALIZATION of risk marks most of the world economy today. Across the U.S., profit-seeking companies prowl for ways to remove risk from shareholders and place it on the taxpayer. When Olan Mills Inc. shed F$41 million in liabilities upon the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a government outfit, it went back on its promises, and cast their fulfillment upon the U.S. taxpayer. The PGC itself is overleveraged (insolvent), and faces a taxpayer bailout or default. ‡

Canoes full of children and guardians pass in the opposite direction on Lookout Creek, reducing our risk by some immeasurable amount as they drifted away from us.

Generations have shed personal responsibilities upon the welfare state. Social Security. Medicare. Medicaid. Bank deposit insurance. Food and Drug Administration. Uncle Sam is the great economic tampon that will soak up leakage of careless excess his government has long taught every soul to pursue as a patriotic duty and benefit. Everyone trusts he will make things right, somehow.

Christianity offers an alternate universe of total personal liability, one that is reflected in the routine indemnity and waiver paperwork of Chattanooga Nature Center.

WE ARE PERSONALLY LIABLE, first of all, for our offenses against God and man. We cannot blame others for our sins of omission and commission. Their result resides with us, and we commit to being obligated to pay for them. The doctrines of sorrow for sin and repentance account for this burden. These doctrines let us measure the torts we have birthed, regret them, and obtain God’s forgiveness for them.

In the sway of Christianity a person becomes more fully responsible for his actions. His sense of personal liability grows stronger. To service he becomes more open. To aid and comfort he becomes familiar. To authority he grows accustomed and compliant. A convert sees by degrees new arrays of duties he yearns to fulfill, and knows he must. He wants to please his Savior. He fears to offend Him, and desires to expand God’s sphere of influence through his calling, his personal and professional life. His Bible gives not just “spiritual” advice, but practical.

The course of life for a person whom God has found and to whom He revealed Himself is toward ever greater liability and responsibility. It is toward ever greater comfort in the perception that he need not — for he cannot — atone for sin. The convert realizes he cannot expiate — make good, pay for — his sin. He realizes that Christ bears the guilt and burden of man’s violation of God’s laws and standards.

Anticipating salvation and tasting it in his daily life, a man assumes liability. He reads the indemnity form and signs it, as I just did. He takes charge, acts responsibility, constantly aware of God’s watch and care over him. The liability waivers aren’t as annoying as they once seemed to be. ‡‡

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‡ A default, or refusal to pay, spreads the loss to those who use the federal paper currency and all manifestations of it, bringing a proportionate loss to every existing dollar, at least in theory.

‡‡ Tom Shirley, at the nature center’s front desk, says no one complains about the paperwork, though occasionally someone asks a question. Only once has he encountered anyone who refused to sign.