I’ve been in conversations with a 20 year old aspiring politician. He is brilliant and thoughtful, and most of his political ideas are in complete opposition to how I vote. There is one point we share: we are invested in the actions of a small group of politicians we’ve never met; actions that will impact the lives of millions. We debate how a small group (the United States federal government), takes responsibility for millions of citizens. Even if I cast my vote with passion, I don’t often consider the full consequences of my choice. Should I be held responsible for the actions, past or future, of the groups I identify with?
Collective responsibility is a dangerous concept. It has been used to justify the collective punishment of whole communities for the crimes of a few. That’s terrifying and paralysing, to think about being blamed for all the bad things that a group we identify with has done. It appears in the Old Testament in the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and Gomorrah. A God that punishes the potentially innocent for the sins of society is scary. I don’t want to be lumped in with everyone who calls themselves a Christian. When someone compares all Christians to haters and references Westboro, my immediate reaction is defensiveness. “I wasn’t there! That’s not me!” Collective punishment looks a lot like retribution, where followers or children of the wrongdoer are punished. Shall I pay for the sins of my ancestors? Should I feel collective guilt for things that happened before I was alive?
I understand why we don’t want to get on that slippery slope- we don’t want to be held accountable for things we did not directly do. However, we have no problem reaping the collective good from the actions of those that bettered our lives. The women's suffrage movement, loss of native lands, wars, conquests, creators, and inventors all have made my life easier. I enjoy the fruits of their labor, and the spoils of their conquests, every day. Even with my own daily choices, I will likely never have to pay for my own carbon footprint, justify the bad decisions of the governor I voted for, or apologize to the Black tenants for the popularity of my favorite pizza joint, which gentrified them out of the neighborhood.
Even with my own daily choices, I will likely never have to pay for my own carbon footprint, justify the bad decisions of the governor I voted for, or apologize to the Black tenants for the popularity of my favorite pizza joint, which gentrified them out of the neighborhood.
The term “collective responsibility” is being used more frequently, applied to environmental responsibility, institutional racism, and corporate responsibility. Collective responsibility is also in the creation story. The explanation for the entire human condition comes down to the choice of one man and one woman. In an over-simplification of this complex poem, they eat the forbidden fruit, now humanity collectively carries the mark of their sin on our lives. Collective responsibility and collective guilt seem embedded in the Christian narrative. A fundamentalist might say, we all deserve punishment. I can be held responsible for my actions and I am affected by the actions of those that came before me.
Collective responsibility and collective guilt seem embedded in the Christian narrative.
If we turn the page on this Bible story, we see something a little different. In Genesis 3, God dwells with humanity. God calls out to the couple after they eat the forbidden fruit, desiring to walk with the people “in the garden, in the cool of the day.” When God calls for them, they hide. They cover themselves up, they don’t trust in forgiveness. The end result is they no longer walk directly with God. But God is not absent. Fast forward to Jesus. Christians believe Jesus is the embodiment of God, walking with us on earth. After Jesus left, God’s Spirit (AKA the Holy Spirit) came to dwell inside people- God walking with us, everywhere we go. The New Testament tells how God-with-us is available to all humanity. I call this collective grace.
Are we collectively responsible? As a Christian, the answer is yes. I share responsibility for the path that brought me here- and how that affects your path. I am responsible for the actions of the groups I benefit from, and the suffering that results. But, Jesus’s response is not collective punishment or collective guilt, but rather collective grace. The weight of what we have done is real and consequential. Yet it is not too heavy, because we do not carry it alone. Our hope is in collective redemption- the belief that even the worst can be made right.
I am responsible for the actions of the groups I benefit from, and the suffering that results. But, Jesus’s response is not collective punishment or collective guilt, but rather collective grace.
Instead of getting bogged down in collective guilt, or wasting time enforcing or fearing collective punishment, we are freed by grace, to ask forgiveness for where we are, and ask with hope how we can move forward into collective restoration.
There is another historical reference to collective responsibility, in the epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and retold by the band Bastille in “The Weight of Living.” A sailor, with the knowledge of his crewmates, kills an albatross that has brought luck to the voyage. The winds change for the worst and the voyagers begin to die of thirst. The guilty sailor wears the dead albatross tied around the neck, but the entire crew pays with their lives. The sole survivor carries the albatross and his guilt nearly to his own death until the albatross falls from his neck and his guilt is wiped out. The ship miraculously arrives at the homeport where the sailor receives absolution.
We are absolved - we don’t have to fear the guilt of our history. We are free, therefore we must take responsibility for what has happened, so we can move forward into a better future together. We have done awful things to one another. I benefit from atrocities, people died for me to get where I now stand. I am guilty, and I benefit. Forgiveness frees me and forgiveness compels me to work towards undoing the sins of the past. Forgiveness frees us to listen and lend our strength to bettering the path that has been made hard by our history. We will likely get it wrong- at least some of it. `
We are free, therefore we must take responsibility for what has happened, so we can move forward into a better future together.
This is how we walk each other home, joining hands with those that came before us, and those that come after us. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” We are all touched by the generations that came before us. Our ignorance of their choices doesn’t excuse us from benefiting from and perpetuating harm. I wasn’t there when my colonial relatives took native lands or enslaved people. I can’t go back in history and demand they do better. But, I can take responsibility for what has happened by learning about it and make choices with my life that move towards breaking down the harmful systems that resulted. I hope future generations give me the same grace, to redeem my mistakes with their reflective knowledge.
I hope future generations give me the same grace, to redeem my mistakes with their reflective knowledge.
What is the result of collective grace? If collective guilt paralyzes us or embitters us, and individual denial excuses us, what does collective responsibility paired with collective grace do? What will be the result of us taking collective responsibility, accepting collective grace, and taking steps together towards a better, redemptive future? I hope we can move with love and grace into the cool of the garden- where we can walk in mutual peace and hope, together.