Collective Guilt

The writer of this article remembers a correspondence he had with Cardinal Bea* when the issue** was still under discussion. He asked him not to forget what the Bible teaches about the sin and guilt not only of individual men, but of whole communities and nations, from the preaching of the prophets to the threatening words which Jesus spoke over Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matt. 11:20ff), from the tears he shed over the Holy City (Luke 19:41ff) to the last "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem" (Matthew 23 [:37-39]). Almost every page of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation knows of what we may call with a modern term "collective guilt"...The church can never do without the concept of a collective guilt. Otherwise, we would deny the original sin. How can Adam's sin, as even the Council of Trent teaches, be my own (unicuique poprium) sin if sin and guilt belong only to the individual?

From Ten Years After the Council, Some Thoughts for Ecumenical Discussion, in the Reformed Theological Review (Melbourne), 35:2, May-August 1976.

* Augustin Cardinal Bea (1881-1968), a prominent Roman Catholic Biblical scholar who contributed to the initial renewal of Catholic Biblical studies in the 1930s & '40s and later in his life an influential figure at Vatican II.

** Anti-semitism in the church generally and the lifting of the charge of deicide against the Jewish people by the Roman Catholic Church in the Vatican II document Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Sasse supports that lifting, but is concerned about the theological significance of one of the arguments used by the Council Fathers, viz. that the personal guilt of the Jewish leaders who pressed for the death of Christ cannot without distinction be transferred to their countrymen at the time or their descendants. It is worth noting here that Sasse was one of the first in the German church to speak out publicly against the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis not long after Hitler came to power in 1933. See the 'Bethel Confession', co-authored by Sasse and Bonhoeffer in the second half of 1933 (http://www.lutheranwiki.org/Bethel_Confession).

Note - While acknowledging the validity of Sasse's theological concern here, we might also wonder whether behind this concern with collective guilt there was not also the collective German experience in the aftermath of World War II. We cannot underestimate the moral impact the question of responsibility had on Germans who lived through the war.

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