The Threshold of Collective Guilt

“how in the world did you let yourselves get to this point?” – OTS, June 2010

I had an interesting chat, via email, with a friend in seminary about the nature of collective guilt. My friend, who we refer to on this blog as OTS, has some interesting commentary on a not-so-cut-and-dried issue.

(Side note: my initial reason for the discussion was related to our continuing discourse on progressivism. The collectivist ideologies rely heavily on making broad collective judgments. We often see this in stereotypes and generalizations [see Hitler on the Jews, or Woodrow Wilson on African Americans]. We also see it in notions of collective guilt and guilt by association.)

OTS points out that the rugged individualism of American life, and American Christian discourse may have lead us beyond a reasonable point in understanding collective guilt. He points to the issue of Achan in Joshua 7, where all of Israel had “broken covenant” due to one man’s sin. (When punishment was handed down, Achan’s sons and daughters also met their end.) Of course, he counters this with Romans 2, where we see a defense of the individualism notion.

This isn’t a theology blog, and I don’t suppose to tackle the whole issue today. I will refer back to OTS’s quote, at the beginning, and expand it a bit:

“doesn’t it seem that there are certain forms of wickedness that become systemic in certain sectors of society so that you just wanna shout at the whole mass of them and say ‘how in the world did you let yourselves get to this point?’ Idolatry among Ancient Near Eastern cultures seems to be this sort of problem. God was just angered by the whole culture.” – OTS

Indeed. while I can’t tell you where the threshold of collective guilt lies, or even what it implies, it would seem logical (and scriptural) to infer that it is there in some form or fashion.

Were there German Christians who opposed the rise of National Socialism? You bet, but there were more who supported it. Did the ones who opposed the Nazis feel the pain of earthly punishment when the war ended and Germany lay in ruins? You bet. At some point, the church was no longer salt & light enough to turn society away from Fascism.

Were there southern, white Christians who opposed slavery? You bet, but there were more who supported it. Did the ones who opposed slavery feel the pain of earthly punishment when the Civil War decimated the south? You bet. At some point, the church abandoned its position of salt & light, and let the society spiral out of control into mass oppression.

Are there American Christians who oppose abortion, which we see as the needless killing of an innocent child? You bet, but there are plenty who will say “there are other, more important issues at state.” I’ve never claimed to be a prophet, but if history is any indicator, it’s not an indicator of good things to come for our part. We need to be salt & light.

[Now, as for the “other issues” argument, it is here that I’d like to make a side note on big and little sin. We’ve been told, in every Sunday school class I’ve ever attended, that there is no big and little sin – it’s all the same. Certainly there is Biblical support for this argument (James 2:10 comes to mind). So, before God, sin is sin. Then again, when we consider this in light of the Golden Rule, I’d have to say if given the option of being killed or robbed, I’d rather be robbed. Thus, I should consider it a greater sin (on my part) to kill a man than rob him. I should hope I’d do neither, but abortion seems to be a bigger issue than the debt-slave American economic policy. The one is robbing from our children, the other is killing them.]

I’d like to leave you with some lyrics from a Casting Crowns song, while you were sleeping. If you know the song, feel free to hum along:

United States of America
Looks like another silent night
As we’re sung to sleep by philosophies
That save the trees and kill the children
And while we’re lying in the dark
There’s a shout heard ‘cross the eastern sky
For the Bridegroom has returned
And has carried His bride away in the night

America, what will we miss while we are sleeping
Will Jesus come again
And leave us slumbering where we lay
America, will we go down in history
As a nation with no room for its King
Will we be sleeping

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