Collective guilt

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A few thoughts on the topic of collective guilt/justice. I originally posted a version of this as a comment over at If I Might Interject‘s blog post “A Reflection on Justice and Collective Guilt“.

Exodus 34:7b [KJV] – … visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

God does not attribute the sin itself to the descendants of the sinner, but the effect of the sin does transmit to them in some way. A child that is sexually abused is left with permanent psychological scarring, and that may affect their children in various ways, the worst being that the abused grows up to become an abuser themselves. It may take several generations for that effect to be diluted out in time. If one culture abuses another culture, there is an inherited cultural memory of that, with suspicion or fear or hatred by the originally oppressed group’s descendants against the oppressing group’s descendants. It doesn’t mean I carry the moral guilt of my ancestors, but it does mean that I am left in a position where I need to work towards reconciliation and forgiveness that my ancestors never achieved. I’d go so far as to say I am obliged to do that, or that it is one of my responsibilities.

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There’s also the concept of original/ancestral sin, where we inherit something bad, some sort of guilt or consequence, as part of our heritage due to someone else’s past sins. While we don’t accumulate more original/ancestral sin with each additional sin our many ancestors committed, at least in a strict theological sense, the effects of sin can be transmitted from one generation to the next – we are born fallen creatures. As CCC 404 states, “Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand.” We inherit tendencies towards evil. We inherit attitudes – attitudes that a parent holds get taught to their children. These can be good or bad – a racist parent can transmit racist attitudes to their children simply by the way they are brought up; an abused child can grow up to be an abuser; a child with a suffering parent may grow up to be more caring of those who suffer and move into a career devoted to fixing such suffering.

Sin is a disease that we spend our lives either healing from or embracing to make us even more ill.

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