How should we balance personal (individual) moral responsibility with collective (group) moral responsibility?

Holy Scripture is replete with examples of individuals transgressing God’s law and destroying themselves and others. The law of Moses has many provisions for individuals to bring sacrifice to atone for individual sins. There are also countless examples of people, tribes, nations—collective groups of individuals—sinning against God and neighbor. The law of Moses has many provisions for collections of people to bring sacrifice, for one person to intercede for another, to atone for collective sins. Individual people are torn apart by sin. But tribes are also torn apart, entire nations are destroyed. To read the story of the Bible is to read an intricate dance between individual and collective wickedness crumbling to the ground from Genesis 11 (Babel) to Revelation 18 (Babylon).

You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:5)

Individually and collectively, the principle of judgment is the same: first, deal with your own personal, internal wickedness. Then you may well be on the path toward possessing the holy and humble posture necessary to see your neighbor’s folly and bring life.

One humble and devoted person can hold a household together. The principle expands, but always stays the same. One holy family to bless all families. One nation devoted to the Lord in order that they would adopt all nations into the kingdom, all kinds of people united together in humble submission to the King of heaven and earth.

This is not simply a biblical principle. Behavioral psychologists concur. Get your own self in order first. First, order your own room, your own family, your own neighborhood, your own city, your own state, your own nation (I think you get the point); get those things closest to you in order first, so that you might bring life to the larger and wider circles in which you live.

For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God. (1 Pet 4:17a)

Still, it is a perennial challenge in every age to balance individual and collective moral responsibility. In our present American moment, both Christians and CINOs (“Christians in name only”) tend to over-emphasize individual moral responsibility. We rightly highlight the need for personal responsibility, but we forget that collective judgment runs through the whole narrative of the Bible and human history:

  • The story of the flood is a story of collective judgment on a large group of people… all people everywhere! All men, women, children, and property without distinction are destroyed. (Gen 6:5-7)
  • The Levitical law outlines instructions for individuals to bring sacrifice to the tabernacle to atone for their personal sins of various kinds (e.g. Lev 1:2ff). But certain individual’s sin can also bring judgment upon all the people (e.g. Lev 4:3ff). All of this leads to the climactic Day of Atonement (Lev 16) wherein the Aaronic priest makes atonement for himself, his household, and finally for all of the people. If individuals and individual households neglected to bring sacrifice for their sins, this one sacrifice made by one man (the high priest) makes atonement for all the people of Israel.
  • All of the stories of collective judgment in the conquest of the promised land (however you interpret them) make modern, individualistic folks quite uncomfortable. If you missed out on reading the book of Joshua in the Daily Office, go read Joshua 8 and prepare to squirm. How can men, women, children, and property come under one collective judgment (the worldwide judgment in Genesis 6 should make you feel a similar angst)? Without a doubt, however we interpret these stories, collective sin and collective judgment run throughout the story of God’s people.
  • The prophets conclusively indict the nation of Israel (along with the wicked nations that surround them) for their collective rebellion against Yahweh. And all of this leads to…
  • Romans 5:15b–19: “For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

Our salvation is only possible by our union with Christ, our collective redemption in him. You cannot have one (collective redemption in Christ) without the other (collective judgment in Adam). All of us together, either collectively in rebellion against God, or collectively righteous together in Christ.

You are Wretched; You are Great

Writing in the mid-seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal wrestled with both the wretchedness and greatness of human beings. Every person is profoundly wretched. And at the same time, every person is inconceivably great, reflecting the glory of God in innumerable ways. Pascal wrestled with both the broad category of “humanity” and his deeply affectionate and personal struggle to reconcile his own sin with his own greatness.

In seasons of large scale, national, and societal conflict, whether in wartime or civil disobedience (just or unjust), we tend to think in broad categories (“humanity,” “national sin,” us, them). This wide-angle perspective is good to have, but it can also be a diversion. We confess “our” sins, while my sin is never confessed. And we are happy to do just that.

“We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and our own being. We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression. We strive constantly to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one. And if we are calm, or generous, or loyal, we are anxious to have it known so that we can attach these virtues to our other existence; we prefer to detach them from our real self so as to unite them with the other. We would cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery. How clear a sign of the nullity of our own being!” (Pensées, Line 806, Book 147, quoted in Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 79, emphasis added)

We distract ourselves in collective shame so that we don’t have to think of our own sin. Diversion takes many forms and it is always a great danger to us. Know yourself first. Acknowledge your sin first. Then what? How can we begin to personalize our own wretchedness, and, at the same time, act out our own greatness in love and responsibility toward our neighbors?

A Grand Principle & Great Temptation

In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, in letter number six, Uncle Screwtape writes to his apprentice demon with a grand principle, a great temptation that cuts through every age—in Pascal’s 1600s, in Lewis’ war-torn 1940s, and in our contemporary age—it cuts through every human soul, especially in seasons of great unrest. Screwtape opines:

“The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”

We distance our good deeds from our everyday life (making public stands alone). I post wonderful quotes that I read online, and then I let my impatience toward my children go unconfessed. We make “public” stands on social media, and then we grumble all day long in our homes. We are all very good at judging others before we judge ourselves, and even more insidiously, we are all very good at abstracting our righteousness, distancing righteous actions to ideas, groups, society, and the internet, all the while cultivating sinful, soul-crushing, and relationship-destroying habits in everyday life. We are personally wicked, but we make ourselves feel better by posts on social media, sending money to poor nations, or forgiving people far from us who have never in any meaningful sense sinned against us.

So what should we actually do?

1. We must lament, grieve, and repent of my personal sins and our collective sins.

The big question is still: How? Which sins and who says?

Whether we are repenting the collective sin of my family, my church, or my nation, they must be our sin. It is hard for a family to see their collective sin. It is hard for a church to see their sin. We need an outside perspective. But even so, no one but God alone can look into my wicked heart. We need the Spirit of Christ. We must beg God to look in and expose our sins.

“The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class—its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations [and strong public criticisms], its breaches of the Fifth Commandment. Of these sins I have heard nothing among them. Till I do, I must think their candour towards the [collective] enemy a rather inexpensive virtue.” (C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 191)

As we turn to matters of collective moral responsibility, it is no good (on both an individual and collective level) to repent of sins that are not our own. Not merely our own personal sins, but also those sins that collectively plague us. St. Thomas Aquinas considered this act of confessing sins that are not our own sins a violation of the eighth commandment (“Thou shalt not bear false witness”):

“There are some who lie for their own advantage, and this in a variety of ways. [The first way:] out of humility, people sometimes lie. This may be the case in confession, about which St. Augustine says: ‘Just as one must avoid concealing what he has committed, so also he must not mention what he has not committed.’” (Aquinas, God’s Greatest Gifts, p. 69)

The sins we confess must be our sins.

“The first and fatal charm of [collective] repentance is… the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others.” (Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 191)

Our first point of action is to repent of my and our sin(s). We need an outside perspective, whether that be another brother, another culture, or another time period (read old books!). But chiefly, we need the Spirit to cut deeply into our hearts. So we repent first. Then, with humility before God and man, you might be in the proper place to point out someone else’s sin (whether an individual or a group: family, church, nation, etc). With much trembling and with great humility…

2. Whatever we do, we must not enjoy the rebuke.

With the amount of time we have devoted to digital displays of collective repentance, you might think that we rather enjoy the exercise. At the very least, we enjoy the distraction it gives us from seeing and mortifying our own sin.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)

Individual or corporate rebuke, to point out the sin of a person or a collective group, can only be “profitably discharged” if it is done with reluctance (God in the Dock, p. 192).

It should be painful to deny or rebuke someone whom you love deeply. There is a feeling of deep loss when we forsake all of our idols—our family, our class, our race, our nation—those things which we so often love more than Jesus.

Take our present debate as an example. If you worship the United States of America or a fanciful virtuous nation in our past; then you must repent, you must hate your country and follow Jesus. If you have distrusted the government your whole life, then you are far from idolizing this country. The sin of nationalism is not your sin. This wickedness is not the sin that you must mortify.

Imagine a son, who deeply loves his mother. Through tears, he comes to her and he tells her of her sin. Now imagine a son who despises his mother doing the same thing. If we enjoy the rebuke, then our display of public rebuke is “disgusting,” like a son who enjoys rebuking his own mother (God in the Dock, p. 192). We must not enjoy the rebuke.

3. We must quickly forgive and continually receive forgiveness.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:7–8)

In recent years, the revealing light of social media, the exposure of police bodycam footage, this technology has unveiled the darkest parts of our personal and collective lives. As followers of the Light of the world, we must walk in the light—our darkness must be exposed. Individual and collective confession of sin is not optional, both spontaneously and personally, both liturgically and corporately.

The light, the exposure of social media is good, but it is superficial. And it rarely leads to forgiveness. The true light that has come into the world, the light of Jesus Christ in the gospel; His light fully reveals our sin. This exposure of sin is painful, but it is not shameful, and only there is forgiveness found.

Facebook confession is easy. Twitter outrage is cheap. Deep confession and personal mortification are hard. Approaching your brother, or your wife, or your bishop with a lump in your throat to confess your sin… that approach is hard, because our sin actually causes pain and breaks relationships. But hiding sin in order “not to hurt someone” doesn’t work.

In the presence of the Light of the world, all of our darkness is exposed. Public display of confession on social media is not the “bringing to light” that we need.

Our personal wretchedness, our collective sins have been clearly seen in the last few weeks. Even if someone has falsely accused you of sin, slander all too often exposes my sin, my quickness to return reviling for reviling. We cannot hide our sins in protest marches or in staying at home and condemning protest marches. It’s all fig leaves. We cannot hide our sins.

By God’s grace, we are being made acutely aware of many personal and collective sins. Collectively, the Church has sinned. Collectively, majority ethnicities have sinned. Collectively, minority ethnicities have sinned. Beware of diversions. Beware of indifference. Twitter confessional and Facebook righteousness are dangerous diversions. Dopamine hits are exchanged for broken hearts.

Our personal and collective sins are before our faces, and we are exposed. True repentance feels like raw skin exposed underneath the scales torn away. But in that place of exposure, in the presence of our holy and merciful King, this is the only place that forgiveness is found, sin is exposed, sinners are washed, and raised to walk in newness of life.