Generational and Collective Guilt

If you've ever tried to wade into conversations with people, family, or friends on the political right about racism in America, one of the issues that you frequently bump into is the issue of generational and collective guilt and responsibility. You often see attempts to reduce guilt and responsibility for the historical sins and legacy of racism by drawing a hard line between "now" and "the past," and what our "forbears" did versus what "I" have done. The notion is that slavery was a sin of the "past" and that, since "I didn't own slaves," I'm absolved of any guilt or responsibility for the ongoing legacy of slavery.

Today I was thinking again of generational guilt and responsibility from a Christian perspective. The trigger that prompted the reflection was an conversation with an upset member from our church, objecting to some of our recent attempts to begin hard but long overdue conversations about racism in our congregation and country. In providing reasons for having those conversations, the church has pointed to the legacy of slavery and racism in our country and how we need to take responsibility for it. The upset member shared with me that, in his opinion, the notion that we are complicit in the sins of our ancestors is a theologically and biblically bankrupt idea.

But what's exceedingly strange about that contention is that the Old Testament is full of statements describing God as "visiting the sins of the father upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." Also, the Children of Israel suffer the Babylonian exile for over a hundred years, children paying for the sins of their ancestors. And finally, there's the legacy of Adam, the consequences of his sin affecting all of humanity, the children paying for the sins of our ancestor.

And yet, despite all this very clear biblical evidence, there is something in the American Christian conscience that rejects the notion of generational and collective guilt and responsibility. 

For example, I was asked to help draft a statement for our church about our need to wrestle with the legacy of racism, and in that draft I had a line about "the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children," making an explicit biblical point that the sins and guilt of the past echo down through the generations, the dark ripples in the pond of human history. We inherit and are affected by those ripples. The guilt gets handed down, and we have to share in the responsibility of addressing past wrongs. No generation is an island in history. No individual is free of their inheritance. The present is the past, and the past is the present. It's all connected, and it's all very biblical.

But guess what? That line I drafted in our statement got nixed. It's all right there in our Bibles, but it's just too much for anyone to hear.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply