Unoriginal Sin

The Conceptual Foundations of Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 2 of 7)

Non-individualistic understandings of guilt are fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity. This is part of what makes both religions as counter-cultural today as they ever have been. Yet often the worldviews of particular Jewish and Christian individuals are more defined by their respective cultures than by the religions they profess to embrace. For many, it is not evident that we should be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.


The Original Sin

The idea of original sin is this: Adam and Eve committed the first (the original) sin. They were free to not sin. We as their descendants have inherited the sinful state that they created. We are stained by original sin, so much so that one might give that now-inevitable tendency the label “original sin” (see also “concupiscence,” “fallenness,” “total depravity”).

Are all at fault for the Fall? Would everyone, given free will, have chosen to eat the fruit and betray God? If we would, then our will is not truly free, so the logic runs. Alternatively, if some would not, then it is not fair to blame all for the Fall.

This is a false dilemma. We are not all guilty for Adam and Eve’s specific act, the only human sin that has ever been truly original; but all humans become guilty through the results of that act. Our sins are unoriginal variations on it, lesser echoes of its selfish and irresponsible desire.

While its roots lie in the Hebrew Bible, original sin is a concept rooted more squarely in traditional Christian theology than in Jewish thought. Yet there are other examples of groups taking on culpability in the Hebrew Bible.

We should guard against the reductionist notion that the Hebrew Bible represents the sum total of Jewish thought on any matter. Such a notion is at least as false about Judaism as a comparable assertion about Christianity and the New Testament, given the wide diversity of opinion inherent in Jewish discourse. Nonetheless, it is worth noting the central place of communal guilt in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible.


Guilty Cities, Nations, and Generations

In the Hebrew Bible, cities can be guilty before God. The prophet Jonah calls the people of the city of Nineveh to repent. Should they fail to do so, God would destroy the whole city. The people repent and God allows them to survive (Jon. 3:1-5, 10).

Nations can be guilty before God. In the Exodus, God judged the nation of Egypt and poured out God’s wrath against them, even as God freed the people of Israel. God waited for the sins of the Canaanites to be complete before leading in the people of Israel in conquest (Gen. 15: 16).

Generations can also be guilty before God. The generation of Israelite adults whom God freed from Egypt grumbled consistently against God in the desert. As a result, God condemned them to wander for forty years and die out before God would lead their children into the Promised Land (Num. 14:28-29).

That a nation, a generation, or a city can be guilty before God is one of the fundamental assumptions giving coherence to the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, defining in many cases why God does what God does. Whether and to what extent one might use a similar approach today is the primary task of the remaining posts in this series.


What is Sin and What is Guilt?

Many of my students assume that the Bible defines sin as “doing what God says not to do,” as if God were some arbitrary parent. There is nothing arbitrary about what defines sin. Something is a sin because it is toxic. Some actions and attitudes damage ourselves, others, our relationships with others, and/or our relationship with God. That is what makes sin sinful. Sin mars the goodness God has created, whether in us or in the world around us.

“The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children” in large measure because the ways we are damaged by others also set an example for us as plausible behavior (Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18). For example, the children of alcoholics are in danger of becoming alcoholics themselves due to both nature (genetic predisposition) and nurture (behavior modeled for them).

In light of this, it may be most helpful to think of virtue in many cases as being the commitment to break the toxic cycles of infection, whether within a nation or between generations. Many forms of guilt, by contrast, represent the failure to break or even to attempt to break such cycles.

It is not enough for someone to claim that they did not start the shedding of blood. Neither is it enough to claim that one is innocent merely for having opted out of ongoing bloodshed. If one is not actively participating in the promotion of peace and the healing of wounds, both among friends and would-be enemies, one cannot say “my hands are clean.”

Guilt is not so much about shame and blame. The guilty are part of the problem, the problem here being human f’ed-up-ed-ness, for lack of a more concise technical term. We are all part of the problem. Only those among us who recognize the ways in which we are all implicated stand any hope of working toward solutions.

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