A common feature of modern racial identitarianism is the idea of collective guilt: that you can be held accountable for another person’s crimes by virtue of being a descendent of theirs or sharing their colour of skin or because you have benefited, through some chain of causation, from their wrongdoing.
Thabiti Anyabwile wrote an article on the Gospel Coalition’s website contending that all white Americans or the members of what he calls “white society” are complicit in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Tim Keller himself seems to agree with this notion of collective racial guilt or something like it. In a sermon on racism, he cites three passages in the Bible that he contends support the notion of collective guilt. He refers to one passage in the book of Joshua in which a whole family is punished for the sins of one member of that family (Achan): “When it’s discovered [Achan’s wrongdoing], he’s not just punished, but his entire family is stoned to death.” Keller continues: “If you can do something bad, the fact that you can do it, what helped you become the kind of person who can do it, was to a great degree your family. Your family produced you directly or at least failed to keep you from becoming that. Actively or passively, your family participates in your guilt.” He also contends that “most people, most places” recognize this.
The Philosophical Case Against Collective Guilt
One big problem here is the thought that influences are guilty for the evil act itself. But we all have all sorts of influences upon us. It is part of our responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reject the negative influences. If someone tempts you to do something bad, are they responsible for your doing it? They are responsible for tempting you, but the responsibility for committing the act rests on the individual who did it. For example, say I sleep with another man’s wife. That man becomes enraged and kills his wife. Am I responsible for the murder of the wife? I am responsible for committing adultery. The responsibility for the murder rests solely on the individual who chose to commit the act. Causation does not necessarily track moral responsibility. Things I do may cause people to do immoral things, but that does not mean I am responsible for them doing immoral things. And let’s look the implications of saying otherwise. Do you believe that if someone’s adultery lead to murder in a case like this, that they truly share responsibility? Should they share the murder charge with the person who committed murder? Let’s be clear: that is the implication of saying that you are responsible for the acts of someone else.
Also, if you believe that causation is always the same as moral responsibility, then where does my responsibility end? No matter what I do, I set off a chain reaction of events going on indefinitely. How far along this chain am I responsible? What Keller and Anyabwile are saying is less reasonable than saying you are responsible for what someone does if you influenced them to do it in some way. They are saying that you are responsible for someone else’s crimes by virtue of sharing that person’s nationality or race.
There is an added difficulty of determining group membership. If responsibility is corporate, then what determines the collective? People can be grouped together based on many different shared characteristics. The question becomes then based on which shared characteristic will they be held responsible? This highlights the arbitrariness and injustice of corporate responsibility. It comes down to the fact that people are held responsible for someone else’s crimes because they share some common characteristic with them: their nationality, their skin colour, maybe shared interest or set of interests, maybe because they live in the same suburb? These characteristics are normally irrelevant to the actual wrongdoing in question. And even when they are relevant in some way, they cannot be a basis for holding someone responsible. For example, let’s say that everyone who committed a particular crime were of a particular race. Does that mean that everyone who shares that race are guilty? Obviously not. Yet this is exactly what Anyabwile and Keller, and other racial identitarians, are arguing.
It is clearly unjust to hold people responsible for anything other than their own crimes no matter how many cultures think it’s right to do otherwise. To say that the fact that most people or most places believe something is true, does not mean it is true. That is an informal logical fallacy known as an appeal to popularity. Keller insisted that if you find it offensive it is only because of your cultural location, but perhaps the things which make our culture averse to that are actually true and right, and which are also found in the Bible. Let’s also realize the implications of admitting that what Keller and Anyabwile says is true. If collective guilt is correct, we should, for example, haul the parents of school shooters to the courts along with their wayward offspring.
Keller’s Case for Collective Guilt
But let’s get to Keller’s biblical justification of collective guilt. Let’s look at the entire passage in Joshua 7: 16-25:
Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was chosen. The clans of Judah came forward, and the Zerahites were chosen. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was chosen. Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen.
Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.”
Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the Lord.
Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.”
Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them.
We are not told, in the passage, why his family was punished with him. Perhaps they were directly complicit. But it is unreasonable to simply assume you know why Achan’s family was judged with him when the text does not tell us why. Secondly, it is interesting that God does not tell Joshua to execute the person who is guilty of theft, only that those things which are “devoted to destruction” be destroyed. The things which are devoted to destruction is anything that belonged to the Canaanites. So God does not command that Achan, much less his family with him, be executed. Given that there is no command from God to do it we have no reason to think of it as normative in any way. Joshua may well have done something wrong in executing Achan and especially his family. Thirdly, it is always problematic to try to draw general moral principles from events in a narrative even if there were a command from God. Even if this was an example of collective guilt, the text does not tell us to make this into law, or into a general principle through which we are to understand moral responsibility. On the contrary, the Bible explicitly prohibits this way of thinking, as we will see. So, one cannot draw a general principle from one event in a narrative, especially when the reason for the collective nature of the punishment is not given.
Another passage that Keller looks at is Daniel 9, in which “Daniel confesses sins, repents for sins, says it’s his responsibility to repent for sins, that his ancestors did, that he didn’t do at all.” Let’s look at the relevant passage:
“I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: “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. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.””
Keller doesn’t tell us which part of Daniel 9 he is referring to, so I’m assuming it must be this section I’ve quoted above. Daniel uses “we” to refer to his entire nation, which seems to indicate that he is praying to God on behalf of Israel, as a representative of Israel, almost in a priestly role. If he is asking for forgiveness for Israel on their behalf that does not necessarily mean that he believes himself individually to be guilty and in need of forgiveness. You may respond: then why does he say “we” instead of “they.” It may be because he seems to be acting as a national representative in this prayer. A diplomat or ambassador for another nation would never refer to their own nation as “they”. He would always say “we”, even when what he says is not really applicable to himself. His personal life and preferences become irrelevant in his capacity as ambassador. Daniel wouldn’t want to dissociate himself from Israel. The fact that he says “we” may simply indicate that he is also an Israelite, rather than that he is also guilty of the sins he lists.
There is no explicit affirmation here of guilt by virtue of someone else’s crimes and it doesn’t clearly imply that either. It could imply what I have sketched above or it could imply guilt for someone else’s crimes. But there is no clear implication. It is not a direct consequence of what Daniel says because there are other plausible interpretations. The interpretation that I have sketched is more plausible given the emphasis in the rest of the Bible, which we will get to a little later.
The third passage that Keller cites is Romans 5. “He [Paul] says you are responsible and you are condemned for what your ancestors Adam and Eve did. Just by virtue of being in the entire human race you are responsible for things that you didn’t individually do. You are condemned for what they do. But then he turns around and says: but by connection with Jesus Christ, you can be saved, not because of what you have done, but by your connection to him by faith. The whole structure of the gospel is based on corporate responsibility. If you really want to go all the way down and say, “I’m only responsible for what I have done and only I have done” there is no gospel.” There are a few problems here. First of all, let’s look at the relevant passage in Romans 5:12-17:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—
To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.
It is true that one understanding of ancestral sin renders us responsible for what Adam did. But a close look at this passage, in fact the first verse of Romans 5:12-17, shows that this is not what is being taught.”Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—” Paul is explicit here that death came through sin because “all sinned.” Death didn’t come through sin merely because Adam sinned and nobody else did. Adam was the first domino or the first momentum of a snowball. He was a catalyst. Individualistic judgment is affirmed here because death came through sin because “all sinned.” In the same way, righteousness came into the world through Jesus Christ, but it is an individual response to Jesus that determines whether you will be saved or judged. Secondly, individualistic judgment is affirmed everywhere else in Paul’s writings. In Romans 2, we are told that “he will render each man according to his works.” ( Romans 2:6). This is a quote from the Old Testament (Psalm 62:12; Prov. 24:12). The judgment of God is primarily in terms of individual sin and individual repentance. You will not be saved if you do not repent individually for your own sin. No one can do that repenting for you.
The relationship of justification that we have with Jesus cannot be explained through corporate responsibility. Jesus doesn’t save us because we share some characteristic with him, or because he is part of some defined group that we are also a part of, so I’m not sure how Keller sees this relationship in terms of corporate responsibility. Jesus doesn’t take on our guilt because he has to or because he is guilty by virtue of being human, but because he chooses to do so. Also, Keller’s argument doesn’t make sense because it would imply that if someone in my community repents and turns to Jesus then I would be justified through them, because they repented I “share” in that through corporate responsibility. But the Bible clearly affirms the need for each individual to repent of their sin and turn to Jesus. The only way in which Christian salvation can be understood as indicative of corporate responsibility is the fact that Jesus takes our sins upon himself so that we will no longer face the punishment. But the gospel recognizes that it is actually our responsibility and that Jesus taking it on himself is mercy, not justice. That is to say, Jesus doesn’t become responsible because it is the just thing but because it is the merciful thing. If only justice were determining who is responsible we would be responsible, not Jesus. So, the strength of the gospel lies in the recognition that it is actually us to blame. He takes the punishment for our sin not because he is morally obligated to do so because of corporate responsibility, but because he chooses to for our sakes. If you don’t affirm individual responsibility therefore, the gospel doesn’t make sense, because that would imply that Jesus really is responsible for our sins, which would mean that his death wasn’t anything to be celebrated. It wouldn’t be possible for us to be saved vicariously through his sacrifice, because Jesus then simply got his due because he really is responsible, a due that we would have to pay too, because we’re responsible too. If the responsibility is on the entire group, then the whole group needs to be punished. A sacrifice of atonement relies on an individualistic concept of responsibility, because it recognizes that the individual is guilty and that the other individual (the sacrifice) is innocent.
Moreover, ironically, if Keller’s corporate understanding of Adam’s sin is true then Jesus would be guilty merely by virtue of being a member of the human race, and therefore he would be sinful. Once again, this would imply that he simply got his due by being executed, and that the same fate would await us. So on the contrary, the gospel requires a strong repudiation of corporate responsibility, because we need to believe that Jesus was a human being, that he grew up in a sinful community, surrounded by sinful people, and that yet he was still morally perfect and not responsible in any way for the sins of his community. If corporate responsibility is true, then he would be responsible for the sins of his community. To believe that Jesus was morally perfect requires an individualistic concept of responsibility that is absolute.
The Biblical Case Against Collective Guilt
Keller doesn’t consider the weight of the Biblical emphasis in favour of individualistic responsibility. In the Old Testament law, individuals are responsible only for their own crimes. As far as I am aware, there is no law which holds members of someone’s family or anybody else for that matter, responsible for another person’s crimes, or where descendants are responsible for the crimes of their ancestors. As we have seen, none of Keller’s passages explicitly teach collective guilt and they don’t really implicitly do so either. But we do have passages in the Bible which explicitly prohibit us from thinking in terms of collective guilt, and which teach individual responsibility. We find this principle made explicit in, for example, Ezekiel 18:20:
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
This is also explicit in 2 Kings 14:5:
After the kingdom was firmly in his grasp, he executed the officials who had murdered his father the king. Yet he did not put the children of the assassins to death, in accordance with what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses where the Lord commanded: “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.”
The passage quoted in 2 Kings and Ezekiel 18:20 is Deuteronomy 24:16. So what Keller says in his sermon directly contradicts the passage in Deuteronomy which is reemphasized twice in the Bible, because he specifically refers to the fact that the family of the person should be thought of as responsible for or complicit in the crimes of that person. This is very significant, because if any sort of corporate moral responsibility makes sense, it is parental responsibility for the children. Parents are actually responsible for their children in many ways, so it may seem natural to suppose that the parents are partly morally responsible for the wrongdoing of the children. This makes far more sense than any other corporate responsibility based on any other characteristic. And yet the Bible rejects even this form of corporate responsibility. So, the Bible strongly rejects corporate responsibility, at least in terms of how we are to think of responsibility.
In the New Testament, as we’ve already covered, it is emphasized that God will render “each man according to his works.” In the various parables of Jesus, judgment is always pronounced upon individuals for their individual actions. Another interesting passage which emphasizes that the individual is the “unit” of God’s judgment is Genesis 18:22
Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. And Abraham came near and said, “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
So the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.”
Then Abraham answered and said, “Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?”
So He said, “If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it.”
And he spoke to Him yet again and said, “Suppose there should be forty found there?”
So He said, “I will not do it for the sake of forty.”
Then he said, “Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Suppose thirty should be found there?”
So He said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
And he said, “Indeed now, I have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: Suppose twenty should be found there?”
So He said, “I will not destroy it for the sake of twenty.”
Then he said, “Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but once more: Suppose ten should be found there?”
And He said, “I will not destroy it for the sake of ten.” So the Lord went His way as soon as He had finished speaking with Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
What is great about this passage is that it makes the point that God will not hold the righteous who live within that community responsible for the the wicked things those around them do.
There is some sense of collective guilt in Joshua 7, but not in the judgment of Achan and his family. It shows in what God says beforehand in Joshua 7:10:
The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.
So in this case, God does not help the whole of Israel to stand against their enemies because of what one person in Israel did. So how should we interpret this in light of the verses that contradict collective guilt? It is possible that a lot of people saw Achan lug his loot to his tent, but didn’t do anything about it. Another thing to note here is the nature of the covenant God made with Israel. He did not make a covenant with a specific individual but with the whole nation. Secondly, it is possible for God to judge a nation without necessarily judging every person in the nation. This becomes clear in Romans 9, where Paul argues that the election of Israel does not imply that every single Israelite is elect by physical descent (Romans 9:6). Similarly, it is true that if God declares judgment against a city or a nation, this does not imply that every single individual in those nations or cities are guilty. This can be shown in God’s judgment of Jericho and the salvation of Rahab. God pronounced judgment on the nations which Israel would be driving out, including Jericho. But this did not imply that every single person in those cities would be punished. Rahab was one of the inhabitants of Jericho, but was saved.
But however we explain God’s actions here, in terms of the weight of the Biblical emphasis, God commands us not to regard people as responsible for the crimes of those who are related to them in some way. Also, the primary way that God judges is individualistically, especially in the New Testament. You will be saved or condemned based upon your individual response to the gospel. Even when God pronounces judgment on an entire nation, he retains a notion of individualistic responsibility. This can be seen in God’s treatment of Rahab. This can also be seen in the remnant of righteous people in the midst of a wicked Israel who God chooses to carry on the nation’s calling (Isaiah 10:20). This is also apparent in 1 Kings 19:18: “I have reserved for myself 7,000 who have not knelt to worship Baal.” It is also apparent in Abraham’s appeal to God for the sake of Sodom in Genesis, as we saw. If corporate responsibility is true, then no one in Israel should be considered righteous if idolatry flourishes there. Justice is conceived of individualistically throughout the Bible. Also, even if the Bible can be used to support some notion of collective responsibility, it cannot be used to support the skin colour-based notion of collective guilt that seems to be defended by Anyabwile and Keller.
To hold people responsible for someone else’s crimes because they share the race, nationality, or lineage of that person is unjust. This type of thinking is the basis for racial tribalism and multi-generational blood feuds. Also, being poor or disadvantaged doesn’t justify wrongdoing, or doesn’t justify holding a set of beliefs that would be recognized as wrong in any other context. God defends the poor and disadvantaged but the Bible never regards them as being less responsible for themselves and their actions as a result of their poverty. The poor and disadvantaged will be held responsible by God for all their wrongdoing including the wrongdoing they believe is justified as a result of their poverty. Racial tribalism doesn’t become morally acceptable because those who engage in it are an oppressed minority. When we become Christians we recognize that all group memberships are not significant and only our identity in Christ is important (Galatians 3:28) Racial identitarianism should not be tolerated in Christian communities.