Our Cross to Bear

Conclusions on Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 7 of 7)

We as a society are busy pointing out crises. Some pending disasters merely threaten to destroy individuals, while others threaten communities or even our species. Yet, we often seem disinclined to take action. The reasons include disagreements about which crises are real, which ones are critical, and how to best approach them. We should be not only resolving present crises but discerning their source and how to prevent future ones.

In the preceding weeks’ meditations on the nature of collective guilt and shared human responsibility, a number of general principles are evident.


1. We Are All Part of the Problem

It is convenient to think that there are two kinds of people, good people and bad people, and that bad people are the problem. The truth is that human nature is a mixture of good and bad, and that each of us possesses deep struggles. To deny this is to risk ignorantly and proudly perpetuating injustice, whether through action or inaction. Those who are oblivious to the evil in themselves and proudly convinced of their own righteousness can be the most defiant. The problem is not just other people.


2. We May All Be Part of the Problem… But Some Are a Bigger Part Than Others

At the same time, an understanding of the collective guilt of humanity must not be simplistic. Each of us bears guilt for any variety of transgressions. We are all participants in humanity’s general failings. But for any given issue, some are guiltier than others. The claim of collective guilt should not downplay the gravity of the actions of willful perpetrators. There are concentric circles, with gradients of guilt radiating outward from those most directly guilty in the center.


3. We Must All Be Part of the Solution… But Some of Us Have More Work to Do Than Others

Those who work towards effective solutions are those who are aware of the nature of the problems, including the fullness of their scope. Those willing to do the work are often those whose hands are the cleanest. Nonetheless, because the burdens are burdens that we share, those who are less guilty should feel empowered to act, heedless of the slowness with which those who are guiltier seek to rectify their wrongs.


4. These Principles Define Many Social Problems Today

Racism, genocide, sexism, homophobia, and the exploitation of the environment are but a few problems to which these principles apply. There are surely others. Social problems by definition imply social—that is collective or communal—causes and solutions. In diagnosing problems and prescribing solutions, we should be attentive to the ways in which injustice can infect social systems and entire communities’ perspectives, hindering people’s abilities to see and seek paths to justice.


5. Shared Notions of Guilt and Responsibility Are Foundational in Many Religion and Cultures

These are not new ideas. While this series and its author have focused on Judaism and Christianity in the West, there are ample examples of non-individualistic approaches to guilt and responsibility elsewhere. Sometimes these are taken to unhealthy extremes, as in the case of honor killings. The point remains that the individualistic contemporary West is the anomaly, relative to the rest of the world and to its own religious roots.


6. Assigning Guilt Can Be Useful… Up to a Point

It matters who is guilty. We should focus on solutions and on moving forward; but sometimes this requires looking back. Thinking of guilt as more than an individual issue should not mean that we stop thinking of individual guilt altogether. If perpetrators remain unchanged and unconvinced of their wrongs, their past crimes foreshadow future ones. We are naïve if we ignore this.

At present, the criminal justice system in the U.S. is punishment-driven. It asks what punishment a particular crime deserves. It takes little interest in helping people who have made significant mistakes become people of greater virtue. What is worse, in practice, in many cases the system accomplishes the opposite.

A system focused on the greater good of society would focus on rehabilitation, helping the incarcerated become productive members of society, whether or not they deserve it. We need all the help we can get, ex-convicts’ future help included. Of course, there would need to be careful discernment of whose causes are, at present, truly lost; but there can be little doubt that the present system is financially unsustainable, morally flawed, frequently unjust, and often unhelpful.

In work toward reconciliation, there is often dialogue between the victims of a particular injustice, on the one hand, and individuals whose backgrounds are similar to those of the perpetrators, whether in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, socio-economic background, or any other way, on the other hand. This latter group identifies socially if not morally with the perpetrators.

It can be useful for them to say, in effect, “I’m sorry that people like me have hurt people like you. Even if I have been innocent of active injustice, I fear that my continued inaction and silence only make the problem worse, leaving past injustice unrectified and future injustice possible. I want to listen to and learn from you, and to do whatever is in my power to right past wrongs and prevent them in the future.” However, such accepting of guilt and responsibility should not overshadow the direct, active, individual guilt of the actual perpetrators themselves.


7. Individualism Blinds Us to These Truths

Individuals, organizations, communities, and societies are interwoven together. Too often we forget this. Indeed, too many cannot fathom collective guilt, communal responsibility, or the notion of the greater good because a pervasive culture of individualism reigns, at least in much of the West. The individual’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has become, in the minds of many, simply the right to be left alone. Implicit in many responses to injustice I have encountered is the message: “This is not my problem. I did not cause it. I do not understand why I should have to care.” If only it were that easy.


8. Individualism is Inadequate to Explain Social Problems and Their Solutions

An individual-only conception of guilt fails to account for the ways that entire social systems and cultures can and often have become corrupt. Those who possess privilege of one kind or another, who benefit from the status quo, with all its biases, are especially prone to be oblivious to just how skewed the system may be. Yet without a sense of our interconnectedness, the variety and scope of society’s problems make little sense.

Systemic problems call for systemic solutions. Unless people stand together to work toward solution, we will simply be left punishing individuals for past wrongs, rather than working to make society the kind of place where victims are less likely to be victimized and perpetrators are less likely to exist, either because they lack opportunities or because there are fewer of the kind of people who would find perpetuating injustice desirable.


9. Us-Versus-Them Mentalities Are Equally Inadequate and Problematic

In moving past individualism, one must take care to go far enough. The problem is not limited to just some people, to the exclusion of others. All of us share in the problems. All of us must share in the solutions. To deny this is to risk perpetuating other injustice, particularly in the cases of discrimination of one kind or another.


10. Incremental Solutions

To take in society’s problems with a sense of collective guilt and shared human responsibility can be overwhelming. One who is sensitive to such things must hone the ability to perceive the small steps that they and their friends and families can take toward justice.

The head of a private school in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, has been teaching her students to reflect on the implications of police violence against their neighbors across town in Ferguson. In a recent interview, she shared that she reminds them of the Jewish tradition that “it’s not up you to finish the task of repairing the world, but neither are you free to ignore it.”

In The Return of the King, Gandalf similarly encourages his friends, “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

That is still a heavy burden, but it is some consolation that we can focus on the problems that are within our reach, in our present time and place. We cannot fix it all; but we must try to fix some. As long as there are fallen humans living in a fallen world, our shared work will never be done.

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