“Where is your brother?”
The question hung in the air as the blood of the world’s first murder victim was still on the hands of the world’s first murderer. In response to God’s query, Cain deflected and tried to absolve himself of responsibility. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9, NIV).
In a way, we are still asking the same question: To what extent do I have to look out for the welfare of other people?
There are two apparently contradictory concepts in Scripture. On the one hand, there is the concept that we are not guilty for the sins of our parents. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of those who receive God’s righteousness and repent of their sins: “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child” (Ezekiel 18:20, NIV). On the other hand, there is the idea of corporate responsibility – the concept that we owe a debt of love to our fellow humans – woven throughout Scripture.
First, the Bible teaches that when we continue in our parents’ sins, to which we are naturally inclined, we also partake in their guilt (See, e.g., Exodus 20:5–6; Matthew 23:34–36). Second, the Bible teaches that we, as members of society, share a collective responsibility to love and care for our neighbors. We are repeatedly commanded in Scripture to love our neighbor as ourselves, with the Apostle Paul telling us that “all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Galatians 5:14, KJV). This debt of love to our neighbor includes the command to “defend the rights” of the oppressed and to seek justice for the mistreated. (See, e.g., Romans 13:8 and Proverbs 31:8–9.)
DAVID AND THE GIBEONITES – A CASE STUDY
There is a strange story found in 2 Samuel 21 that illustrates how seriously God considers the mistreatment of the oppressed and our collective responsibility to make sure they are treated right. “Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, ‘There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death’” (2 Samuel 21:1, ESV).
Notice what’s happening here:
- There was a famine in the land of Israel, and everyone in Israel was suffering as a result.
- David prays and God responds by telling David there is sin in the camp. Years earlier, Saul and his family had committed atrocities against the Gibeonites, an ethnic minority in the land of Israel.
- Centuries before that, Israel’s leaders had sworn to the Gibeonites that they would not be killed, and Saul had broken that oath.
- Saul is now gone, and David is the king. Whether David knew of Saul’s actions or not, he and all Israel are suffering nonetheless.
- Even though David had nothing to do with Saul’s sin, he understands it is his job to make restitution to the Gibeonites.
How does David respond to the situation? “And David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?’” (2 Samuel 21:3, ESV).
Notice how honestly and forthrightly King David confronted the issue. First, he “sought the Lord” to ascertain the cause of the famine. Once he discovered the answer, he didn’t tell the Gibeonites, “It’s not my fault; get over it.” Instead, he asked, “What can I do to make this right?”
This Bible story fits with the overall biblical narrative that we as human beings owe a debt of love to each other and that we ought to defend the oppressed. (See, e.g., Romans 13:8 and Proverbs 31:8–9.) This story also suggests that we have a collective responsibility to, as far as possible, rectify the wrongs of our society – even the wrongs committed by our ancestors that still affect those around us today.
JESUS AND CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY
None other than Jesus Himself taught us the truth of corporate responsibility when He told the Pharisees that by persecuting Him and His followers, they were actually participating in the sins of those who had killed the prophets centuries before.
Therefore, I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.Matthew 23:34–36, NIV
Strikingly, Jesus attributed the guilt of Zechariah’s murder, hundreds of years earlier, to the religious leaders of His day. In other words, it’s possible to participate in the guilt of our ancestors when we partake of the same spirit that motivated them, or commit, to a greater or lesser degree, the same sins that they committed. Which is what the Bible seems to be getting at when God describes Himself as “a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5–6, NIV).
In 1 Samuel 15, the prophet Samuel delivered a message to King Saul: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them’” (1 Samuel 15:2–3, NIV). Approximately 400 years had passed since the Amalekites had attacked the Israelites on their way out of Egypt. Nevertheless, Saul was commanded to destroy the descendants of these same Amalekites. Why was this? Simply put, the Amalekites of Saul’s day had the same attitudes and character qualities as did their ancestors centuries before. By participating in the same sins, they also participated in their ancestors’ guilt.
By divine direction the history of their cruelty toward Israel had been recorded, with the command, “Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget it.” Deuteronomy 25:19. For four hundred years, the execution of this sentence had been deferred; but the Amalekites had not turned from their sins. The Lord knew that this wicked people would, if it were possible, blot out His people and His worship from the earth. Now the time had come for the sentence, so long delayed, to be executed.Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 627–628, https://egwwritings.org.
Similarly, the end-time apostate religionists – represented by the imagery of the great city Babylon – are implicated in the demise of “all who have been slaughtered on the earth” (Revelation 18:24, NIV), even though they did not personally commit all the murders. Again, the Bible is telling us, we can be held responsible for the sins of others when we participate in those same sins through our attitudes, choices, and actions.
However, while the Bible teaches corporate responsibility, it also teaches that we are not responsible for the sins of our parents to the extent that we repudiate those sins and seek to rectify the injustices they committed. (See, e.g., Ezekiel 18:14–20; Matthew 23:37.) Timothy Keller explains how our own choices ultimately determine our eternal destiny:
There is an asymmetrical balance between individual and corporate responsibility. Deuteronomy 24:16 says that in ordinary human law, we must be held responsible and punished for our own sins, not those of our parents. We are indeed the product of our communities, but not wholly – we can resist their patterns. Ezekiel 18 is a case study of what can happen if we put too much emphasis on corporate responsibility – it leads to “fatalism and irresponsibility.” The reality of corporate sin does not swallow up individual moral responsibility, nor does individual responsibility disprove the reality of corporate evil. To deny (or largely deny) either is to adopt one of the secular views of justice rather than a biblical one.Timothy Keller, A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory, https://quarterly. gospelinlife.com/a-biblical-critique-of-secular-justice-and-critical-theory/.
In other words, both individual responsibility and corporate responsibility are biblical truths that should inform how we do justice as we live our lives today.
CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY TODAY
How can this apply to us today? One example would be the problem of racism in America.
Just over a century ago, in the dreadful wake of American slavery, and over thirty years after the Civil War had ended, Ellen White, prolific writer and co-founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, applied the biblical principle of corporate responsibility to the American nation, writing, “The neglect of the colored race by the American nation is charged against them.” (Ellen G. White, The Southern Work, p. 44, https://egwwritings.org).
The American nation owes a debt of love to the colored race, and God has ordained that they should make restitution for the wrong they have done them in the past. Those who have taken no active part in enforcing slavery upon the colored people are not relieved from the responsibility of making special efforts to remove, as far as possible, the sure result of their enslavement.Ellen G. White, “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” The Review and Herald, (January 21, 1896), par. 1, https://egwwritings.org.
During the same era in American history, White also indicted the church, writing that “the people who have been more favorably situated, who have had light and liberty, who have had an opportunity to know God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, are responsible for the moral darkness that enshrouds their colored brethren.” (Ellen G. White, The Southern Work, pp. 31–32). She later wrote that the “degraded condition [of American Blacks during the post-reconstruction era] is our condemnation. The Christian world are guilty because they have failed to help the very ones who most need help.” Ibid., p. 35.
It’s safe to argue that the “debt of love” White wrote about in 1896 is still outstanding. Has America ever made “restitution” (a term used by Ellen White) to the slaves or their ancestors for the horrors of slavery? No.[i] In fact, far from “making special efforts to remove, as far as possible, the sure result of their enslavement,” most of America doubled down after the end of the Civil War. White supremacy and racism against Blacks became entrenched in many parts of American culture. Jim Crow laws were created and enforced with swift and lethal brutality. Black Americans were lynched for simply looking a white person in the eye or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even northern Yankees didn’t want Blacks moving into their cities, and riots ensued. Historians sympathetic to the former Confederacy revised history to create the narrative of the “lost cause,” making heroes out of the Confederate leaders and ideology. To this day, many Americans continue to idolize the Confederacy and what it stood for.
What happens to a debt that hasn’t been paid or a sin that hasn’t been atoned for? Does it just magically disappear? Not according to the Bible. The injustices done and the atrocities committed have not been forgotten by God. God is “compassionate and gracious…slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” Yet when sin is unconfessed and unforsaken, and when the children perpetuate the sins of the parents, God declares that “he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–7, NIV).
When the leaders of Egypt refused to free the enslaved Israelites, God’s judgments came upon all Egypt. The temporarily chastened Egyptians made grudging monetary restitution to the Israelites in the form of jewels, gold, and silver (Exodus 12:33–36). Other judgments fell upon the Egyptians responsible for enslaving the Israelites, as their firstborn sons died, and Pharaoh and his military forces were drowned in the Red Sea (Exodus 12:29; 14:26–28). Individual Egyptians, however, had a choice to renounce the ways of the oppressive empire, be covered with the blood of the lamb, and escape the land of slavery with the liberated Israelites (Exodus 12:38).
Millions of Black Americans alive today are direct descendants of enslaved people. Millions of Black Americans living today were alive during the era of Jim Crow, which officially ended only a few short decades ago when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Some of the perpetrators of the racial violence of the Civil Rights era are still alive today. The effects of that mammoth system of slavery and the subsequent state-sanctioned discrimination and violence are still being felt in America today – socially, economically, and otherwise. Even if, in the words of White, we have taken “no active part in enforcing slavery,” we “are not relieved from the responsibility of making special efforts to remove, as far as possible, the sure result” of that abominable system of oppression.
King David made restitution to the Gibeonites for the actions of King Saul, even though he had nothing to do with what Saul had done. Once David made things right, the famine in the land, from which all Israel suffered, ceased. Should we not be at least as forthright and proactive as was King David in seeking to bring about justice and reconciliation in our world today?
Where do we begin? The prophet Daniel gives us a starting point. Daniel confessed the sins of his people as though they were his own sins.
Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws…Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant…We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! (Daniel 9:4–5, 17–19, NIV). God is full of mercy and compassion for us. It was Jesus who showed us the fullest extent of that mercy with His arms stretched out on the Roman cross beam. As the soldiers pounded the spikes through his wrists and feet, He prayed for His Father to forgive His persecutors. His prayer encompassed the entire human family – to all who will confess their sin and receive the mercy and forgiveness He offers.
And when received, that mercy compels us to care for humanity.
By Stephen Allred
(Adapted from the book Do Justice: The Case for Biblical Social Justice by Stephen Allred)
[i] Some may argue that the patchwork of laws and private efforts promoting diversity in education and employment (also known as “affirmative action”), the erstwhile protection of voting rights, and federal and state anti-discrimination laws, are a form of “restitution.” No doubt these are significant steps toward making past wrongs right. However, these efforts are not enough, as they are not commensurate to the harm Black Americans have suffered. Additionally, these modest efforts to rectify the past been resisted at nearly every step by a significant segment of the American electorate. The lack of a consistent, uniform federal policy regarding affirmative action has led to these inconsistent results. Recent Supreme Court decisions have neutered the Voting Rights Act’s protections for people of color, and also threaten affirmative action in education.