In a sinful world, one reality particularly hard to digest is when innocent people are punished on account of the guilty. Children, for example, suffer for the sin of divorcing parents. The children are not guilty, it was never their choice. Still, they suffer punishment. This punishment is different from someone who is the direct victim of sinful intent, like a mugger and his prey. Nor is it akin to suffering the natural consequences of one’s own actions, like a hangover after consuming too much beer. This is fallout– the collateral damage of sin. Children are the passive recipients of someone else’s wrong actions, namely, the parents getting the divorce.
However, there are social sins which set the stage for these individual sins. It is the community, or nation, that agrees on these. Thus, no-fault divorce laws make actual divorce much easier and more attractive to the country’s citizens. Moreover, the unjust laws diminish (or try to diminish) the seriousness of the wrongful act. It is, after all, seen as legal. For many who have no pre-political foundation or source of morality, if something is “legal” it is moral. And for many who claim a pre-political foundation for morality, e.g. the Bible, they still fall into the trap of viewing sin only according to the laws of the land and not the Law of God.
Finally, unless redeemed, children damaged by divorce tend to perpetuate more damage themselves. As such, the social sin of no-fault divorce facilitates actual divorces. This, in turn, causes a kind of generational punishment to ensue as formerly innocent people who are now hurt (the children of divorce) go on to hurt others. The biblical story speaks repeatedly about this cycle of sin. Social sin facilitates individual sin, individual sin leads to generational punishment and under generational punishment the innocent are punished. It is at the final point of the cycle, however, when the innocent person, realizing they have been unjustly punished, must make a critical choice– a Gospel choice.
Sin and The City
The city, according to Jaques Ellul, is the center of man’s rebellion against God. Commenting on Genesis 11, Ellul speaks of the inhabitants of Babel’s desire to make a name for themself:
They want to name themselves. In fact, they want to make a name for themselves. For it is not enough to give oneself a name, the name must be earned. It must mean something. To make a name for oneself has nothing to do with the modern expression referring to a reputation; it means becoming independent, and that is what their attempt at building meant. The people wanted to be definitively separated from God.
Jaques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 16
In Babel the people collected, coming together in order to rebel more fully against their Maker. Collectively they thought they could declare their independence from God. In doing so they thought they could earn their own identity, leaving behind their identity as “creature” and moving toward their identity as “creator” or “self-creator.” The city’s strength-in numbers rebellion will incur a commensurate divine response.
Commenting on Sodom’s collective destruction and Nineveh’s collective repentance, Ellul clarifies for us moderns this idea of corporate sin and punishment:
The men of Nineveh are condemned exactly as were the inhabitants of Sodom. They have all been taken in the same trap, they are all in the same basket because of the curse on the city. Doubtlessly this collective punishment revolts us, we who are accustomed to scrupulous moral weighings and to attentive evaluations of sin and virtue; but in reality the enormity of the city’s revolt far outweighs all the conversions that the men of the city could individually muster up….The social group which the city represents is so strong that it draws men into a sin which is hardly personal to them, but from which they cannot dissociate themselves even if they so desire. Individual virtues are engulfed by the sin of the city.
Ellul, Meaning of the City, 67 [emphasis added]
Unlike our contemporary, Western understanding of guilt and punishment, the biblical story uses a different context. Sin migrates like a pollutant, it has an almost physical nature. To be near it, is to be partly involved in it. Only divine intervention can fully take one out of the city. The angels YHWH sends to rescue Lot is one example.
The city’s moral corruption and this higher-order rebellion against God has consequences for all the city’s inhabitants:
Some committed the sin, while others suffered the consequences, and there is no more connection between the fault and its punishment than the one existing between men themselves. This feeling of solidarity in sin is very strong in the Old Testament, but it is not the exact problem brought up by the city. For no one in the city has really committed a completely individual sin. No one, really, has individually violated, by his own decision, God’s law or the order necessary to conserve life. But these men happen to be part of a body given entirely to revolt.
Ellul, Meaning of the City, 67
Sin and Society
In his classic book on political ethics, Reinhold Niebuhr articulates this same problem in more sociological terms. Man is incapable of being a genuinely moral individual in an immoral society:
The individual character of conscience does not preclude the determination of most moral judgements by the opinions of the group. Most individuals lack the intellectual penetration to form independent judgments and therefore accept the moral opinions of their society. Even when they do form their own judgements there is no certainty that their sense of obligation toward moral values, defined by their own mind, will be powerful enough to overcome the fear of social disapproval.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2013), 36
In the modern era the city and society are practically indistinguishable. Technology has seen to it that culture, once constrained to major metropolitan areas, now flows through the entirety of the land. This virtual “über-city” plays a major factor in the well-being of its individual residents. It also integrates them morally into the societal landscape. Anyone who has “enjoyed” a Superbowl halftime show in recent years is not without culpability, for example. Add to this the biblical illiteracy of our times, and we begin to realize that our moral attitudes are shaped far less by the Word of God than by the words of men.
According to Ellul, the city itself is under God’s curse. As the site of man’s most concentrated rebellion it must be. According to Niebuhr, individuals are not strong enough to resist the group. Society consumes them. Thus, individuals who are not themselves directly guilty of a specific sin nevertheless find themselves “drawn into sin” indirectly. The moral pollution of the city rubs off onto each of its members, to some degree or another. It is like walking through a smog-infested industrial center and involuntarily breathing in the fumes or finding one’s clothes stained with soot.
Sin and Punishment in the Bible
Coming back to divorce, one might argue that a sensitive parent should see the unjust suffering of their children as part of their own punishment. After all, it is the parents’ punishment. If this thought smacks against modern sensitivities, then it does so only because they are modern, not because they are biblical or theological. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 5:8-9, Jeffrey Tigay clarifies the warning attached to the second Commandment (a formula found 4 times in the Torah):
The warning implied by God’s passionate jealousy is explicated by a description of its intent: the punishment will not be limited to the idolater alone, but will last for generations. ‘Visiting the parents’ guilt’ means inflicting punishment for their guilt upon their descendants….This view of divine retribution as extending to descendants corresponds to the concept of family solidarity that was felt strongly in ancient societies, especially those with a tribal background.
Jeffrey Tigay, Deuteronomy in the “JPS Torah Commentary” (Philidelphia: JPS, 1996), 66
Tigay argues that the visiting of the guilt of the parents “upon the third and upon the fourth generations” is not metaphorical but corresponds to what one might actually witness in their own lifetime, i.e., one’s actual grandchildren or great-grandchildren suffering on account of their [the grandparents’] rebellion (Tigay, 66).
The fact of children or even grandchildren suffering from divorce should deter those entertaining marriage for the wrong reasons. Most definitely it should deter Christians from even considering divorce on less than biblically justified grounds. Of course, it is possible that this curse only applies to the act of idolatry. However, the empirical data suggests that the guilt of the fathers (and mothers) really is visited upon later generations. In short, sin migrates temporally.
In Ezra 9, the high priest, Ezra, takes on the punishment of those Israelites who have married foreign wives. Ezra did not marry a foreigner, but his confession is corporate:
My God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face toward You, my God, because our iniquities are higher than [our] heads and our guilt is as high as the heavens. Our guilt has been terrible from the days of our fathers until the present. Because of our iniquities we have been handed over, along with our kings and priests, to the surrounding kings, and to the sword, captivity, plundering, and open shame, as it is today.
Ezra 9:6ff (HCBS)
Here both corporate guilt and generational guilt are at play. Of course, as a priest, Ezra is performing expiation for the sins of the people, part of the Levitical code. It is important to note, however, that those who had taken foreign wives likely did so in ignorance of the law, i.e., a sin of omission. However, once they become aware of the law they repent and return to God and covenant (Ezra 10:1-4). Ezra tears his robes and pulls out his beard not only for the intentional sins of the fathers. He also atones for the inadvertent sins of the now ignorant community (see Baruch Levine, Leviticus in “JPS Torah Commentary” 18). Part of the punishment for the fathers’ past sins is the ignorance of the sons.
The biblical view of sin is somewhat different from the Enlightenment view of sin as a strictly individual transgression of a moral law (although it is that as well). Sin is more like a virus that affects us all. It has a corporate nature to it and even migrates generationally like a genetic defect. When excised from a cultural organism, even (relatively) innocent members feel the effects of the divine surgery.
Social Sins and The Dull Knife of Critical Race Theory
If there is one aspect of the human condition that advocates of Critical Race Theory have honed in on and exploited, it is this one. Whether critical race theorists have done this with biblical awareness or whether they have blindly stumbled over this true feature of the human condition is hard to know. Nevertheless they have focused in laser-like fashion on this reality of corporate guilt. At the same time they have also isolated that guilt to one particular group within the broader culture. The corralary to this is making another group, usually their own, a class of pure victims.
Marx and his successors were ultimately the ones who conceived and cultivated this modern approach to the human condition. It is the secular, materialistic and political “solution” to a spiritual problem they didn’t believe in. Charles Taylor comments on this Marxian response to the problem of human evil,
Then there is the victim scenario. This can colonize the Left. All evil is projected onto the others; they are the victimizers; we [the Left] are pure victim….The victim scenario…a kind of deviant, secularized Christianity, achieves total innocence, at the cost of projecting total evil on the other. This can justify Bolshevik-type ruthlessness, as well as titanic action. We can see how this carries out both processes, which distance us from evil: we [the Left] are part of the solution, and we are utterly other than those who inflict harm. We have no part with them.
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2007), 684
Taylor penned these words almost a decade before Black Lives Matter and nearly 15 years before the murder of George Floyd and calls to “defund the police.” However, human nature doesn’t change, regardless of how loudly Progressives may scream about how it has to. While the total demonization of “the other” can come from any side, that the usual suspects today are “whites, Uncle Toms, or police” is well attested.
Critical Race theorists play off of the reality of corporate and generational guilt. Unfortunately, however, that is about all they can do. Then again, that is all Satan can do. Satan always points out real problems with humanity, only to offer empty promises on how to solve them.
Critical race theorists have no answer to what is ultimately a spiritual problem. Since Critical Race Theory, like all Critical Theories is purely political it cannot operate in the realm of the religious. There is no appeal to the God who is Lord of the city and Sovereign over society, because for the critical theorist man must be his own highest authority. To adopt any critical theory as a solution to social sins is to do surgery with a dull knife–an incredibly dull one at that. And we know the recent history of man trying to fix himself, a history that ends in greater injustices than those it set out to rectify.
The Gospel Response to Social Sin
At the same time traditional Christians must realize that the wrath of God is a serious thing. That the “innocent” suffer on account of the guilt of the fathers is fact. That there is only one truly innocent Person is also fact. Thus, to think we are not suffering today (or that we shouldn’t) for the evils of slavery and racism in the past is naive. And, of course, we are all culpable for our own sins.
Our answer cannot be the same as the godless culture in which we live. As creatures responsible for our own sins and suffering the consequences of past generations, we must have a Gospel answer to this spiritual illness. On the one hand, we reject the identity falsely attributed to us (racist, Uncle Tom, homophobe, etc.) by the social elites. But neither can we fall into the spiritual trap of seeing ourselves as pure victim. That is the devil’s game and we must refuse to play it. For there is only One Who is pure victim. Instead we must take responsibility for our own sins and do so by turning back to God. Just as the Israelites did in Ezra chapter 10. For there is only One Who is Good and to offend against Him is to offend against infinite Goodness.
Finally, we must acknowledge God’s justice as meted out in history. We can assume the Babylonian army hauled off many faithful Jerusalemites along with the idolatrous ones. Men, women and families who did not participate directly in Israel’s apostasy, were nevertheless dragged East in chains. This divine justice, however, did not mean that the Babylonians were themselves righteous. They were merely tools and their own retribution was still to come. For those of us living as exiles in this land, therefore, we must keep our eyes on Christ. For only in Christ can we see God working in the midst of suffering, just or unjust. And only in Christ can we find our ultimate rescue from sin and our escape from the corruption of the city.
Photo: Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, “Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons