Concepts of Collective Guilt

The Benefits and Limits (Communal Guilt Part 1 of 7)

We in the West often fail to think in terms of “we.” Individualism has defined the post-Enlightenment European experience and, perhaps to an even greater extent, the U.S. American experience. By “individualism” I mean a pervasive perspective of the world in which personal autonomy is the ultimate good; each individual can and should define for themselves what is right and even what is true, every woman for herself, every man for himself.

There is so little middle ground in American political life in large measure not merely because of seemingly irreconcilable positions but because of a shared commitment to individualism. The moral individualism on the Left stands in a perpetual stand-off with the socio-economic individualism of the Right.


The Pros and Cons of Individualism

Individualism has its benefits. Individualism is useful. It can motivate a person with a sense of empowerment and responsibility. Individualism feels good. I may be spurred forward with a sense that I can make a difference, and that there are some ways in which perhaps I am the only one who make a difference in a given situation. Individualism provides a sense of identity. I may have the feeling that I matter in and of myself, not because I am the part of any larger movement, community, or system. It is part of what defines American culture. “We the people” are defined by “I the individual.”

But there is a downside. Individualism can paralyze. If you are convinced that you are the only one who can make a difference in a given situation and you fail to succeed, or perhaps even fail to know how to begin, you may hold yourself back from present and future action. Individualism can blind. A person may overlook the way he or she is, in fact, connected to others. You are who you are not merely because of your own actions but, in large measure, because of the actions of others. Likewise, you have a profound effect on others and who they are becoming. There are no truly “self-made” men or women. Individualism misleads. Anyone who sees themselves as standing in utter isolation from others does not see themselves clearly.

There are alternatives. In particular, I hope to make the case here briefly for a sense of shared human responsibility, rooted in a nuanced sense of communal guilt. Over the coming weeks, I will explore the plausible veracity and usefulness of this position as applied to a variety of pressing issues.



Why collective guilt? I offer the following reflections as a sort of penance. The task of the historical theologian is to analyze voices from the past on their own terms, critiquing them when necessary, and retrieving useful ideas whenever possible. In my doctoral dissertation and ensuing monograph, Mothering the Fatherland, I analyzed a community of Protestant nuns in post-World War II Germany and their vision for repenting for the sins of their nation in the Holocaust. I argue that this mission was rooted not only in their reading of the Hebrew Bible, as the sisters themselves admit, but also in a collective understanding of national guilt with roots in German nationalism. After my initial submission to Oxford University Press was rejected for being “too hagiographical,” I recognized that my analysis had been too one-sided. I strengthened my approach by providing a substantial critique of the founding sisters’ position on national guilt. (You can my find full critique of Christian nationalism here.)

My analysis of the Evangelical (formerly Ecumenical) Sisterhood of Mary was focused and even-handed. My criticisms were concise and to-the-point. Yet I did little to present any ideas from the sisters in a way that might be useful in the present. In particular, I could have done more to apply elements from their vision of collective guilt, minus the trappings of nationalism, and apply them to some of humanity’s more pressing problems in the present. I seek to do so now.

After some initial methodological and terminological groundwork in this post and exploring collective guilt’s conceptual foundations in Judaism and Christianity in the next post, I will spend the remaining installments in this series dealing with specific issues in turn: race and racism, genocide, gender and sexism, and the environment, before making some general conclusions.


The Pros and Cons of Collective Guilt

Collective guilt is the idea that people can be guilty not merely as individuals but as communities. The benefits are numerous. The proponents of collective guilt recognize the limitations of individualism. The young must reckon with the legacies of preceding generations, both for good and for ill. The admission that “your people harmed my people” can open up doors for dialogue and even reconciliation. The perspective driving concepts of collective guilt can do justice to the interconnections between individuals and their respective communities. We are connected. We do define each other. These are fundamental truths of the human condition, more readily apparent with each passing year. In this way, a sense of collective guilt can provide a person with a sense of identity beyond themselves as an individual, defined by belonging to their particular nation, gender, class, race, or any other category to which they might attribute guilt.

For all the ways that concepts of collective guilt offer a corrective to individualism, they may over-correct. There are definite drawbacks, perhaps best summed up by Abbot Paolo in his question of the hermit Benjamin in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz: “Why do you take the burden of a people and its past upon yourself alone?” Whether real or perceived, the burden of guilt for an entire nation, race, gender, generation, is more than most individuals can bear. Perhaps most significantly, the groups implicated in collective guilt are often more narrowly defined than is helpful or true. The solution to any large-scale moral problem must involve all of humanity.


Guilt vs. Responsibility

The distinction between guilt and responsibility resolves some of this problem. Guilt concerns past transgressions, while responsibility concerns present and future action. Even if I reject the premise that I bear a share of the guilt for the past, I can accept my share of responsibility for addressing the ongoing results of the past.


Collective vs. Communal/Corporate vs. Shared

A further helpful distinction is that between the collective, the communal or corporate, and the shared. What is collective belongs to everyone in a given group. What is communal or corporate involves the group, but does not implicate all members equally. In large measure because “corporate responsibility” sounds like something involving corporations, language of “communal responsibility” is preferable. Still, such language is uncommon enough that speaking of guilt and responsibility being shared may be best, with the caveat that sharing is and often should be unevenly distributed.


Shared Human Responsibility

We must recognize that racism, genocide, sexism, and the ever-unfolding global environmental crisis are human problems, in which some of us bear more blame than others but in which all of us do have a stake. The problems are far bigger than any of us as individuals. So are the solutions.

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