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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Collective Culpability and Original Sin

I have been reading a number of Christian philosophers and apologists lately on the subject of Original Sin. It is very interesting to see how they attempt to defend the idea that we are all somehow guilty for what Adam and Eve did. This idea of imputed guilt runs counter to our innate moral intuitions. Yet, the Bible teaches it and traditional, historic Christianity has held it as a basic doctrine. Why is that? I think its because in the social world of the Bible, people thought in terms of collective guilt. How else can one explain events such as the execution of the Egyptian first-born in Exodus, the execution of Achan's entire family for his individual sin (Joshua 7:24-25), the killing of all the Canaanite children because of the sins of their parents, the killing of the Amalekites in Saul's day because of the sins of their ancestors 400 years prior, and so on. When we come to the New Testament, we find Paul saying that all of mankind is guilty and condemned because of the sin of Adam (Romans 5).

This concept of collective guilt, which was prominent in the societies of biblical times, is I think why the Bible writers themselves saw no moral problem with the events they describe. The writer(s) of Joshua did not see any moral issue with the Canaanite genocide nor does Paul see any moral objection to the condemnation of the entire race due to the sin of Adam. They seem oblivious to the moral concerns that plague Christian philosophers and apologists today with regard to these issues.

While the people of Bible times may have had no problem with the concept of collective guilt, we certainly do today. Why does it bother us but not the Bible writers? My opinion is that our moral sensibilities have evolved to a higher state. The Bible writers also saw nothing wrong with slavery, polygamy, the treatment of women as inferior, the execution of homosexuals, and etc. These things are recognized today by all civilized people as immoral practices.

H.D. Lewis wrote an article in 1948 entitled, Collective Responsibility (reprinted in Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics, eds. Larry May and Stacey Hoffman [1992]). He begins his essay with a very strong statement: If I were asked to put forth an ethical principle which I considered to be especially certain, it would be that no one can be responsible, in the properly ethical sense, for the conduct of another (p. 17).

He says that if we hold to collective responsibility, then we shall be directly implicated in one another's actions, and the praise or blame for them must fall upon us all without discrimination. This, in fact, is what many person do believe, and it is very hard to uphold any form of traditionalist theology on any other basis. Of late this has been very openly affirmed by noted theologians who, if they seem to do very great violence to common sense, have, at any rate, the courage and consistency to acknowledge the implications of their view, and do not seek to disguise them by half-hearted and confused formulations (pp. 17-18).

He goes on to say that the concept of collective responsibility is barbarous (p. 21).

Similarly, Gregory Mellema argues that the concept of collective guilt is a primitive belief. He writes:

One of the ways in which contemporary Western culture is often contrasted with "primitive cultures" is in the manner in which moral responsibility is conceived. People in some primitive cultures supposedly think in terms of entire tribes bearing responsibility for the violation of mores or breaking of taboos by one member of the tribe. This collective way of thinking about moral responsibility is based upon the idea of the guilt of one individual being transmitted to all members of a clan or tribe and is quite foreign to contemporary Western ways of thinking about moral responsibility. Also foreign to contemporary Western ways of thinking is the idea that responsibility can be eliminated by destroying a symbolic object such as a voodoo doll. People sometimes argue that collective conceptions of moral responsibility are associated with primitive or even superstitious approaches to morality and have no place in contemporary Western approaches to morality. They credit Western morality that it has managed to overcome these supposedly primitive and superstitious notions by thinking of responsibility in strictly individualist terms. ( Collective Responsibility ,[1997], p. 2)

I think Lewis and Mellema are correct. It is a primitive and barbarous way of thinking to impute guilt to someone for the action of another. As R. S. Downie argues: Collectives do not have moral faults, since they don't make moral choices, and hence they cannot properly be ascribed moral responsibility. … For there to be moral responsibility there must be blameworthiness involving a morally faulty decision, and this can only occur at the individual level (May and Hoffmann, p. 49).

Much of the philosophical discussion of collective responsibility took place in an attempt to assess blame for the holocaust. Was the entire nation of Germany responsible for the evil enterprise or were only certain individuals within Germany responsible? Iris Young describes the debate:

. . . [Hannah] Arendt insists that moral and legal concepts such as guilt and blame should not be applied to entire groups or collectives. The paradigm case for her was Nazi Germany, about which she had debates with Karl Jaspers, among others, concerning the appropriateness of labeling the German people as a whole “guilty” for Nazi crimes. She insists that the concept of guilt (or innocence) applies strictly to individual deeds. Guilt loses its meaning if applied to a whole group or community related by association to a wrong. “Where all are guilty,” she says, “nobody is. Guilt, unlike responsibility, always singles out; it is strictly personal.” (“Collective…” p. 43) Twenty years earlier, in “Organized Guilt and University Responsibility,” Arendt expressed this thought in almost the same words; “Where all are guilty, nobody in the last instance can be judged.” (“Organized Guilt…”, p. 126) The point of locating guilt or leveling blame is precisely to single out: to say that this person, or these people, by virtue of what they have done, bear direct moral and often legal responsibility for a wrong or a crime. Others do not, because their actions have not done the deeds. The practice of blaming or finding guilty requires singling out some from others, and applying some sanction against them or requiring compensation from them. The application of moral and legal guilt in this sense becomes meaningless if we extend it to a whole collective which is associated with the crime or wrong by virtue of being in the same society and passively allowing it. Guilt loses its practical meaning if we say that everyone in the society, or a large portion of people, is guilty of crime or wrong committed in a society or in its name (Guilt versus Responsibility: A Reading and Partial Critique of Hannah Arendt, paper presented to the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, September 2005, pp. 2-3)

I think it is possible to distinguish between collective responsibility and collective guilt. Responsibility for an action can be attributed to someone who did not directly commit the action, but guilt can only be ascribed to the one who did directly commit the action. For example, if my non-adult child were to vandalize my neighbor's property, I would have the responsibility to repair the damage. However, I would not be personally guilty for the action of my child and I could not be prosecuted for it. So, in that sense, I think it may be correct to say that as a white American living in the 21st century, I have some responsibility to try to repair the damage that was done by my ancestors holding slaves in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. However, I can not and should not be held personally guilty for their actions.

Therefore, if one were to assume the truth of the Bible and evangelical Christianity (which I do not), then one could possibly make the argument that all of mankind shares some responsiblity for trying to repair the damage done by Adam's sin and mitigate its effects, but that is entirely different than holding each individual human being personally guilty for what Adam is said to have done.

Thus, I think Christian philosophers and apologists are fighting an impossible battle in trying to justify things such as the Canaanite genocide or the traditional doctrine of original sin. These ideas made sense in a society that accepted the notion of collective guilt but they make no sense in our modern day. Thankfully, our moral sensibilities have evolved beyond those primitive concepts.


  1. Interesting post Ken. You've put your finger on something bizarre and perverse in Christianity. You're absolutely right that no one, even Christians, would tolerate the same ethical implications today. Imagine if someone showed up at your door and said that he had done some research and had found that your grandfather had murdered his grandfather. You might feel sad for him, but you'd think it was completely twisted if he demanded that you give him money, or sacrifice goats, or enslave yourself to him for restitution. You didn't do anything wrong.

    I don't know much about the ancient world, but I imagine that another element of the notion of sin is that people then thought that immoral actions created a sort of taint or metaphorical stain on a person that was spread by tribal, familial, or ethnic affiliation. That's really bizarre to us, and yes we've evolved beyond these notions, but to them then it was obvious and natural I suppose. Nice work.


  2. Matt,

    thanks for the comments. For those who may not know, Dr. McCormick is a philosophy professor and has an excellent blog entitled, Atheism:Proving the Negative. I highly recommend it.

    In addition, Matt has a book which should be published sometime this year entitled, The Case Against Christ: Why Believing is No Longer Reasonable. I look forward to it.

  3. Excellent post!

    It got me thinking also about the practical implications of "collectivizing" guilt versus "individualizing" guilt.

    After WWI, the victor nations imposed such draconian measures on the Germans AT LARGE (collectively), that it played a large role in pushing them to retaliate and (collectively) they felt a nationalistic urge to get their pride back. Making the punishment collective primed the pump for Hitler.

    After WWII, we punished the guilty (individuals) and put the (collective) nation back on the path to prosperity. We did the same in Japan. The results are dramatically different.

    It seems that collectivizing guilt may be bankrupt practically as well as ethically.


  4. "This idea of imputed guilt runs counter to our innate moral intuitions. Yet, the Bible teaches it ..."

    Although, Ezekiel 18 -- the entire chapter -- repudiates the idea in plain language.

  5. Steve,

    Yes it does and so does Deut. 24:16 and 2 Kings 14:6. This is another problem for the evangelical who believes in biblical inerrancy. I think it can be explained by the fact that these three books are pretty late in the historical development of the OT canon and there was at least some Jews whose moral sensibilities were beginning to evolve beyond the primitive system of their fathers. We see different strains of Jewish theology developing within the the OT and especially during the intertestamental period.

  6. “This idea of imputed guilt runs counter to our innate moral intuitions. Yet, the Bible teaches ...”

    I agree, the imputed guilt theory rubs thinking people the wrong way. I disagree that the bible teaches it. At least the part of the bible that people call old.

    What about the odd story of the Almighty needing to tell Abraham about His planned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18?

    Genesis 18:17-33 The narrative reads that the Almighty loves Abraham because he commands his children and his household to keep the ways of the Almighty - doing charity and justice. Charity (tzedakah) and justice (mem, shin, pey, tet) seem to be character traits the Almighty cares quite a Lot about. Immediately following the reasons why Abraham is loved, comes a story about the Almighty’s system of justice.

    Doesn’t Abraham ask the same question that you are asking in this blog? Abraham argues with the Almighty, saying, “Will You also stamp out the righteous along with the wicked?”...It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous with the wicked; ...Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”

    Abraham asks the Almighty if He will destroy a city with 50 righteous people and the Almighty says no. The Abraham asks about 45 righteous people, then 40, 30, 20, and then 10, and each time the Almighty says He will not destroy a city with that number of righteous people. Abraham is on a roll, so why not ask about 5 righteous people? Really, what is the bottom number? Whatever it is, Abraham seems satisfied with it because he stops asking. Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches if there are a certain number of righteous people in a city it is still possible that they will influence the rest of the city to change for the better. Look at Jonah and Ninevah.

    Here’s the interesting part. Why do the Jewish people ask Jesus if John the Baptist is Elijah? I’m going to suggest that the concept of reincarnation, which is a Jewish concept, is what they are referring to. Just as we don't know what heaven is like or what happens to souls, the Almighty is clear that we can only see what He does, after the fact. I’ve heard it said that secularists think the soul is a blank slate. The Christians think that the soul is sinful and the Jewish people believe the soul is eternal. Maybe these souls signed up for their part as Canaanite women and children in the human drama of souls. Maybe they wanted to help humanity so much that they chose the part of the evil villain. Or it may be the death of the Canaanite children and women is really a benefit for them and they are given other lives. Maybe we’ve been here before or maybe we're not who we think we are. We won’t understand it until we die. Until then it is our job to follow the bible principles that help people find holiness in living.

    According to the scenario in Genesis 18, there would be no one to influence the people of Sodom for the better, to teach them the correct path in life. That’s why the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah follows immediately after the Almighty saying He loves Abraham because he teaches his children and household to keep the way of the Almighty. Maybe it only takes one person.

  7. Emet,

    Thanks. Its good to hear the persepective of one coming at this from strictly a Jewish point of view.

    First, the passage in Genesis about Sodom is interesting. Its interesting that the term "righteous" is used instead of "innocent." Surely there were more than 10 babies in Sodom. God did not consider them righteous apparently. So, he (or actually the people writing Genesis), made a distinction between innocent and righteous. I need to think on this point some more. Why were the babies considered "unrighteous" unless there was some type of concept of "original sin."

    Second, your idea about reincarnation is in my mind the same "grasping at straws" that we see evangelicals doing when they attempt to defend the genocide.

    You may be correct but as you say we won't know until after we die. In the meantime, I don't find it plausible. You say: "Until then it is our job to follow the bible principles that people find holiness in living." Why is that our job? I don't agree.

  8. My purpose is to compare the two documents which I call the Hebrew writings and the Greek writings. The English words sin, righteousness, unrighteousness, salvation, innocence, heaven, hell, messiah, sacrifices, one, Satan, all mean something different in Hebrew and in Greek. I'm not surprised that it is difficult to understand the Hebrew writings when you have a Christian foundation.

    When I was in Jewish classes and said that I came from a Catholic/Evangelical background, people would wait for me after class to find out how the Christians come to their understanding. During the time that my Evangelical bible studies overlapped with Jewish bible study, everyone wanted to know how the Jewish people explained Isaiah 53. Maybe what set me apart from everyone else is that I rejected the bible as *%^#$@**. I went into Christian bible studies saying that I didn’t believe it was true. The Christians wanted to prove to me they were correct, and I wanted answers to the discrepancies that I found in the Greek writings. I never got them. Maybe I just didn’t understand it. I still want to know why the sin of blasphemy against the holy spirit is an unforgivable sin. What does that even mean? Ken, maybe you can tell me.

    The Orthodox classes only wanted to know that I was sincerely looking for answers. When I started to learn things in Judaism I would see the blaring discrepancies, not only in the use of words but in the concepts too. I think people would be shocked to learn the nature of the Passover offering and the irony of Jesus or the writers of the gospels using that term to describe him. When I see your blog, I understand the questions you are asking but I’m not a good writer so my explanations are not very clear. A Rabbi told me, if you can’t explain something you don’t really know it.

    I like learning from your blog and I look forward to your book. Your scholarship is excellent. Thank you for your patience.

  9. What I heard is a rejection of inherited sin. That was interesting and well thought out but nothing addressed the main thrust of the New Testament.

    I heard nothing about the main principle of Christianity, which is having a relationship with Jesus Christ. My meger understanding is that according to the Bible, Christ was a sacrifice offered by God and there is an enjoined invitation to follow Christ.

    If the Bible is really authored by God, Ken's premise is mute. If the Bible was not authored by God, there is no need for any arguments. Nothing in the Bible would have any relevance to us today.

    This is up to individual readers. We live and die by our convictions. All actions have consequence, either good or bad. That is unchangeable both by natural and supernatural law.

    Is there an "eternity" or is this life all there is - and then we die? Is that a question worth looking into?

  10. The notion of collective guilt represented by the Christian doctrine of original sin is as groundless as leftist assumptions of our collective guilt, such as those requiring an apology for wrongs committed centuries ago.

  11. You echo my own criticism of the so-called "Original Sin". Another question to pose would be that if collective guilt allegedly applies to sinners, then would the same logic not also apply to saints as well? If so, then is not illogical to "expect" The Church to also reward each new future generation for all goodness done in the world up to this point? If so, then wouldn't the positive inverse on the same logic span a generation expecting entitlements?

    I also question the circular-logic that proclaims "The Bible" as the flawless word of God because, allegedly, "God would never allow for His word to ever be misused". Oh really? And the same God would never allow some of the worst biggest self-inflicted tragedies to never happen either - yet they *also* do, don't they?

    I hold that much of Christian dogma is ripe with psychologically-manipulative constructs that primitive minds could not comprehend, yet most in modern times has the ability to understand and call out. I hold that these psychologically-manipulative constructs are politically-motivated, not spiritually-enshrined as they are purported to be. Organize religion is and always has been so consumed and engulf in worldly tribal politics, so much the exclusion of spirituality, that I question the value of religion in modern society as nothing more than merely a political party window-dressed in spiritual clothing.