There is scarcely anything a Western Christian will resist more than the pointing out of communal sin. To acknowledge communal sin cuts against the fierce individualism of Western cultural thought; to think that I am tied up in sins of my society that I may have never consciously chosen or that I may be unconsciously committing suggests I do not direct my own destiny. This is a terrifying thought, for the rugged individuality of the self is core to a Westerner’s very identity. But we must ask ourselves, as Christians, if we are reading the Bible through the lens of Western American thought. Certainly, there are Bible passages which point to the individual aspects of sin and righteousness and faith and unbelief. For example,
Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.–Deuteronomy 24:16 NIV
This verse has parallels in Jeremiah 31:30 and Ezekiel 18:19-20.
However, throughout the Old Testament, we also see the communal mindset of the culture of the Bible, and the sense of the communal nature of sin and righteousness.
We see the Old Testament prophets constantly point to problems in society, to communal sin (sin that members of a society join together cooperatively in committing through omission or commission–for example, the sin of abortion or of uneven standards of justice in the justice system). We see the prophets constantly call whole societies to repentance. Jews in the Old Testament, similar to many cultures around the world, were geared to think communally. That’s why the Pentateuch (despite the verse from Deuteronomy cited above) so often shows through its laws that sin affects the community–not just the individual–adversely. Societies and communities are called to account for sin and experienced communal judgment. This was true of the Canaanites, of Achan’s family, of the idolatrous Israelites.To Western ears, this sometimes seems overly harsh; we cringe when we read stories of entire families or cities or civilizations bearing the weight of God’s judgment on sin. Yet, we must remember these accounts occurred before the coming of Jesus. The coming of Jesus does not negate the communal impact of sin, but it means grace is possible, grace that can empower us to bring a beginning of restoration to community–a foretaste of the ultimate restoration to come in the new heavens and new earth.
In order to argue that only individual sin matters, we have to ignore wide swaths of the Bible. A wiser, more biblical course of action is to acknowledge that the Bible talks about both individual and communal sin. And we as believers in the one true God are to repent from both forms of sin.
There are those that might argue that the Old Testament focuses on communal sin, while the New Testament focuses on individual sin. I think to do so is to read the New Testament through Western eyes. And it is also to ignore the purpose of God’s judgments in the Old Testament, judgments that are often so hard to swallow today. God’s judgments against families, cities, and civilizations came about precisely to show us that sin has an impact on and consequences for our neighbors, communally. They also came about to show us that whole groups of people can collude in sin, either through omission or commission. While Western thought would show us that only our individual actions matter, biblical thought reminds us that our communal actions and their communal consequences matter as well.
In the next section, I will provide several examples from the Bible that deal with the communal nature of sin. There are many more, but for the purposes of this post, I will just focus on three.