Individual or collective responsibility in matters of justice?


If you read blogs you likely follow current news and are aware that a you tube movie trailer has spawned protests, violence and death in Muslim dominated countries. Haven’t seen the movie and don’t intend to. From what I hear it paints Islam and the Prophet Mohammad is some rather unflattering (and for Muslims, offensive) light.

For most Americans and Westerners, it can be hard to understand the reaction. No one (I think) believes the American Ambassador to Lybia had anything to do with the production of the movie or was in support of it’s depictions of Islam. Yet, it would appear that some thought it reasonable to take his life in response to the film’s damage. The same would be true for lesser forms of violence in other parts of the world (car burnings, threats to life, destruction of US property in foreign territories)

Is it religion or culture?

Though we could easily chalk reactions by Muslims up to religion, I think culture may play a greater role in this one. We Americans, apart from religion, see the world as individual. We are concerned about individual justice and individual fairness. It is hard for us to accept responsibility for things we didn’t do. For example, you might hear someone grouse about affirmative action, “I didn’t enslave anyone, why should they get a leg up that I didn’t get.” Or, if a member of my church is exposed for a heinous sin, I’m sad, maybe a bit embarrassed, but I certainly don’t feel I ought to bear ANY of the responsibility for his or her crimes.

Much of the rest of the world doesn’t see it this way. If someone in your family does wrong, your whole family suffers disgrace. If someone in your community does wrong, it is as if the whole community gets a black eye. It is less about individual sin and much more about corporate sin and shame.

Is there a biblical answer to this?

While in NO way validating the senseless revenge attacks on innocent victims, I think it important to consider whether there is a biblical response to the strong individualist-communitarian tensions we feel when it comes to corporate sin and righteousness. If you are looking for a single verse, there isn’t one. However, it is interesting to see OT leaders lead in corporate confession of sin–even if they themselves were not guilty. There is an emphasis on “we”. Jeremiah’s lament, Nehemiah’s confession of sin, the minor prophets warning of destruction to the entire northern kingdom are all examples of this “we.” Maybe even more provocative is that of the destruction of Aachan’s family and animals for his sin or the salvation of Rahab and her family for her individual righteousness.

You might argue that this is an Old Testament thing, however, the community language continues in the New Testament, even if less pronounced. There is focus on unity of the body, Christians as all attached to the head, Jesus, refusal to allow sin by other members to continue within the body, and finally, serious warnings given to entire Churches in the book of Revelation.

While you and I should not adopt and “eye for an eye” motto nor seek to punish those who are innocent of crimes, maybe Christianity isn’t quite so individual relationship with Jesus as we’ve painted it to be in the West….

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Individual or collective responsibility in matters of justice?

  1. Laurel Kehl

    Phil, I so appreciate your response to the turmoil among Muslims from this film. It is very sensitive to culture, which sadly is rare in America. We as the Church have much to repent for corporately, but it rarely registers with our individualistic hearts. Thank you for bringing it back around to OUR hearts!

  2. While I completely agree with you that we need to be more sensitive to those around us, the attacks in the Middle East had nothing to do with the video. They were planned attacks set up days before the video was released. See, for example, http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/white-house-libya-attack-may-pre-planned-175524798–election.html

  3. Tom

    Not a bad piece… A little nuance here. As an anthropologist I don’t really get the distinction between religion and culture. Religion, as a distinct institution is pretty much a product of our western imagination and doesn’t compute for most others. But I like your analysis of corporate sin. Another good example is at the end of Judges – the slaughter of the Benjamites.

    • I agree that most in the world don’t make the distinction between religion and culture. However, wouldn’t tribal culture shape a religious experience (i.e., a tribe changes religious beliefs through conversion but retains much of its tribal identity and thus practices a new religious system that is deeply shaped by tribal culture)? In the case of some places, it seems that tribal culture is more powerful than the Islam that they practice. No?

  4. Tom

    Phil, it’s just that for most, what we call “religion” is an integrated experience. Which is why Muslims (some) respond to insults to the prophet by burning American flags. Religion or culture? Yes. Tribal culture or Islam? It’s one thing. Some self-reflection is useful. Mass conversions on the west coast in the 70’s started the “Jesus People” movement – and churches like the Vineyard. Those are “new religious systems …deeply shaped by tribal culture.” Smile.

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