American Individualism and Collective Guilt

I have never understood the idea of collective guilt, not really. Considering how engrained the American value of individualism is in our society, I suspect that I am not the only one. I have never been able to get my mind (or my heart) around the idea that I am in some way guilty or stained because I am part of a group that is guilty. I will take responsibility for my own faults, but I am not going to be on the hook for those of others, thank you very much.

I would bet that most of us in the church have a similar attitude towards collective guilt. That is, if we are actually aware and thinking about such a thing. The problem is that I keep running into this idea when I read my Bible. Throughout Scripture this idea materializes, especially in the Old Testament when some of Israel’s leaders confess on behalf of the nation something like, “We have sinned, us and our fathers” (Jer 3:25; Dan 9:8). I get confessing my sin, but what does my fathers’ sin have to do with me? It is easy to gloss over and ignore, but there are simply too many occurrences of this type of confession to dismiss it as irrelevant.

The passage that comes to mind most immediately for me is Isaiah 6:1-7. In this very familiar passage, the prophet Isaiah is given a vision of the throne room of God, and the experience undoes Isaiah. The sight of God on His throne and the refrain of the angels (“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”) leads Isaiah to exclaim in despair,

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

As an individual sinner, I can follow along with the first part of Isaiah’s statement. To stand in the perfect light of God’s holiness will only reveal to depths never before understood the reality of my sinfulness. As Christians, we can identify with how Isaiah is feeling. But consider the entirety of his exclamation: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (emphasis mine). His despair is not limited to his own sin but includes the fact that he lives his life among a sinful people. Which is where he usually loses me. How does the presence of sin around him have any impact on his own standing before God? I have no category in my mind for what he is expressing.

But consider this. We cannot help living lives that intersect and intertwine with the lives of others around us. These connections may be big and significant, like amongst the members of your community group, or they may be small and fleeting, like the group of people you sat in traffic with yesterday. As much as we like to think of ourselves as autonomous agents moving about independently in the world, the reality is that none of us is free from impacting and being impacted by the actions of those around us. If I make a last second lane change and cut someone off on the freeway, I’m probably startling the person I cut off (at least) and potentially soured their mood for the rest of their drive, if not longer. The point is that, none of us can live truly independent and unaffected lives from the community around us. And when we live in a fallen world like ours, it is inevitable that our connectedness will also leave us stained.

Isaiah addresses this interconnectedness elsewhere in his book. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — everyone — to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). “Sheep” is one of those funny English words that can mean either one or many. When we read this verse, we probably picture one wayward little sheep leaving all the other sheep behind. The word that Isaiah uses, however, is not the word for a single lamb but for a flock of sheep. The flock has gone astray, and when the flock moves in one direction (think of a stampede), all the members get sucked along with it. In a stampede, everyone gets dirty.

Events of the last year have done much to help me understand these connections and collective guilt on a personal and practical level. It started with the videos of young black men being shot and killed by police officers. Conversations with my ethnic-minority friends has caused me (a white man) to consider that so-called “white privilege” might actually be real.

Then, the LA Times ran an expose last year that uncovered the deplorable treatment of farm workers in Mexico that provide much of the produce that fills our grocery stores. I had never thought much about where my oranges come from in February, they are just there.

The biggest impact has come from the Planned Parenthood undercover videos. Somehow, I didn’t become aware of them until the third video was released. I watched it in shock, then promptly watched the previous two. And I wept. I wept for the babies, the grotesquely callous behavior of the doctors and staff, but mostly, I wept over my own dumb ignorance of just how horrific abortion actually is.

As the videos kept coming (ten as of this writing), lists started to show up of corporate donors to Planned Parenthood. Among the companies that have given money are my cellphone carrier, and the naming rights partners for the stadiums of my two favorite sports teams.

One website posted an article from a medical journal that was published in the ’70’s that used aborted fetuses in its experimentation. The study was sponsored by Nestle, presumably for the development of baby formula. Baby formula? Like the kind I’ve given to my children, or my parents gave to me?

With each successive event and revelation, the depravity reported in the news seems less and less removed from me. In fact, the problems that used to seem so ambiguous and . . . I don’t know . . . out there somewhere have started to seem very specific and near. My head has been spinning as questions of culpability rush towards me. How much of my life–my status and what I have–has been built upon the oppression and exploitation of minorities? Have I been contributing to the misery of these poor farm works in Mexico, all because I want my citrus in the middle of winter? How can the world around me–my coworkers, the media, our government–respond to these videos with little more than a shrug? For that matter, how could I have gone so long with such a similar attitude? How much of my money has been given and used by PP? How often have I benefited from the “science” being used to justify the harvesting of organs from these little babies? Each question is almost impossible to answer, and as they keep coming, my head (and my stomach) spins faster and faster, desperate to find a means of escape.

My reaction has been unique in my life. Don’t buy produce harvested from outside the U.S. Read and tweet and retweet as many news articles, blog posts, and hashtags as I can. Petition politicians, executives, and other leaders. I’ve looked into organized protests to join. I’ve looked for pro-life organizations with whom I can volunteer. I’ve watched a Republican Presidential Primary debate with a more critical ear. Anything, anything I can think of to try and remove the filth.

And that’s when I realized what I had forgotten. In all of my reaction, I forgot to rest and take comfort in the Gospel. We know that it is the Gospel that saves us and purifies us from our own sin. But our understanding of sin is often limited to a private and individual affair. Here I am confronted by a whole new category of sinfulness that I had previously been blind to, and the sudden realization of it has been remarkably destabilizing. I know how to respond when I commit an offense against my spouse or my children, but what on earth am I supposed to do when I find myself caught up in the sinfulness of my society? And the answer is, turn to the same Gospel.

“Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’” –Isaiah 6:6-7

This was the answer for Isaiah. The guilt of his people that he bore was not atoned for by his work as a prophet. His guilt was removed by the burning coal from the altar of God. It was God who removed his guilt. It was God who purified his lips. It was God who reconciled him to Himself instead of casting him out in condemnation. The Gospel solved the problem of both his personal guilt and the collective guilt that he bore. And it does so for us. Are you like me? Has your mind and heart been left reeling from the revelations that we have seen in the last year? Remember the Gospel.

Don’t misunderstand me, not for one second am I suggesting that we can just sit back and feel all better about ourselves. That was not what Isaiah did. His redemption was followed by a commission, to use those purified lips to proclaim that same Gospel to the broken and unclean world in which he lived. We, too, have a commission. There are right and necessary actions that we must make in response to what we have learned from all of these issues. But what I realized is that my own actions were not so much in response to the Gospel as they were a replacement for the Gospel. I must make up for this, I must wash my hands clean, I must shake off this guilt. Don’t be like me. Don’t act for a life that you must try to gain, but from the life that you have already been given.