SINS OF THE FATHER
It is undeniable that throughout history, numerous groups of people have been unfairly marginalised, oppressed and discriminated against for unjust reasons. However, living now in a complex, post-colonial society, the immoral ideologies which purported such injustices in the past, are for the most part no longer prevalent in developed countries. Yet the harmful effects and negative consequences of systematised discrimination in the past, can still be observed in the present day. Thus, the question is then posed: who is to be held responsible for the injustices which people have faced both in the past and in the present day?
With an increasing emphasis on social justice and reparation in developed countries, one proposed answer to this enigma, is that the children of the oppressive ancestors are to be held morally accountable for these crimes; this conclusion often motivating altruism through guilt rather than genuine concern.
But, is this notion of ‘Original Sin’, a healthy and sustainable approach to justice, and does such an ideology align with Biblical teachings of moral accountability? In answering these questions, we can answer the difficult question of where the blame and moral responsibility for past crimes lies.
WHERE DOES THE BLAME LIE?
The concept of moral accountability is prevalent throughout Scripture. In the opening pages of Genesis, we see Adam and Eve trying to shift the blame of their moral failure (Genesis 3:12,13), King Saul attempting to justify direct disobedience to God (1 Samuel 15:20-23), and eventually a corrupt and unjust systematized society based on faulty premises of responsibility (Ezekiel 18:1-3; John 9:2). So then, what is the proper Biblical consensus regarding moral accountability, and how can we determine where the responsibility for historical injustice lies?
In Ezekiel 18, God provides a rebuke regarding an Israelite proverb which stated that a son was to be held morally accountable to the sins of his father (Ezekiel 18:1-3). In response, God replied:
19 “Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. 20 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. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
God clearly portrays His ruling on the case of moral accountability, emphasising not an ‘Original Sin’ model, but rather a model of individual responsibility, in which each person is judged upon their own actions, and no one else’s. The actions and choices we make for ourselves, are the only such we can be held responsible for.
As well as providing a righteous process of justice, this model also prioritises individual identity as opposed to assigning people to monolithic groups and holding the individual responsible for the actions of the group. Instead, God emphasises the importance of personal identity, beliefs, values and freedom of choice.
As such, applying this Biblical principle to our modern social context, one can create a balanced approach to justice and moral accountability, which recognises that although no one is held responsible for the actions of their ancestors, decades, centuries and millennia ago, that every person is responsible for the choices they make today.
STARTING THE FIRE
Understanding this principle, we cannot then disregard the personal responsibility of seeking to undo the mistakes of our ancestors. It may seem unfair that children are burdened with correcting the mistakes of their ancestors, but it is the unfortunate reality of the world we live in, in which little in life is fair.
The lyrics of Billy Joel are incredibly poignant:
We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire. No we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.
-‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ Billy Joel, 1989
Though true we did not create the complex, unjust and ‘burning’ world we are born into, we are tasked to do what we can to make reparation, to uphold justice and to heal wounds inflicted throughout history. This emphasis on helping the needy, impoverished and oppressed is even mandated within Scripture:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Therefore, though we cannot be held accountable for the sins of our ancestors, we will be held responsible for how we choose to restore order, justice and peace in our society today.
So then, where does the blame lie for past sins? It lies upon those who committed the sins, not their children. No ‘Original Sin’ is passed down through generations, and altruism should not be motivated be an unwarranted sense of guilt. Instead we should understand that we will be held morally accountable for what we do today. We’ve been given a fire to douse, but rest assured we have not inherited the sins of our fathers.
By Christopher Petersen
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