In Joel 3, God promises to punish Tyre and Zidon for selling Israelites into slavery. The penalty will be what is commonplace in the Bible: tit for tat. What goes around comes around. Essentially, God will hand over the Tyrians and the Zidonians to the Israelites, who in turn will sell them to the far away Sabeans. For Joel, what they did to others will soon be done to them.
Is this true justice? When God punishes Tyre and Zidon by selling their inhabitants into slavery, he is hurting whole cities because of the sins of a few merchants. There were inhabitants of Tyre and Zidon who were taken from their homes and removed to a far away country for something that they did not directly do. Is this fair?
Like a lot of people, I have a problem with the concept of collective guilt. But, interestingly, there are Christians today who believe in it. I once had an African-American friend who thought that his race was the center of the universe (or at least that was my impression). He viewed 9/11 as God’s punishment of America for its treatment of blacks. And he maintained that there was more divine wrath to come. As evidence for his belief in such retribution, he appealed to the presence of collective guilt in Scripture. After all, in Exodus, there were innocent Egyptians who suffered and died from God’s plagues on Egypt.
My biggest problem was his view that I as a white person was responsible for racism in America. He said that I should talk to my community (fellow white people) and tell them that blacks are mistreated, and, hopefully, that would generate a positive chain reaction. He also said that I as a white person benefit from the oppression of blacks, since blacks built this country. I had difficulties with his proposals for a variety of reasons (e.g., shyness, not wanting to preach certain liberal cliches that I did not believe, etc.).
By planting that seed in my mind, he ruined my viewing of The Ten Commandments one year (how dare he!). I watch The Ten Commandments every year during the Days of Unleavened Bread, and, ordinarily, it is quite a powerful experience. “That’s my God!” I shout. “Show those Egyptians who’s boss.” After my interactions with my friend, however, I wondered if I should identify more with the Egyptians than the downtrodden Israelites. So my viewing was not too euphoric that time around.
Are all people in some sense participants in their national culture, making them individually responsible for what their nation does? Was the average Tyrian or Zidonian somehow responsible for his nation’s slave trade, either because he did not fight it or benefited from it? Was the average Egyptian guilty for how Egypt treated the Israelites? Am I responsible for my country’s treatment of minorities?
Yes and no. For the “yes” side, going with the flow of one’s national culture is easy. The average Egyptian may not have been personally responsible for the oppression of the Israelites, but he probably saw his people as superior. There’s a strong possibility that he looked down on the Israelites and took the system of slavery for granted. One can identify with the dominant culture and disregard the suffering that it is causing.
At the same time, on the “no” side, there are passages in the Bible that contradict the concept of collective guilt. Abraham pleads to God on behalf of the righteous inhabitants of Sodom, and God answers his prayer by sparing Lot. Ezekiel 18 explicitly argues against collective guilt, for it states that God does not hold people accountable for sin when they individually try to do what is right. So there seems to be a voice in Scripture assuring me that I am not responsible for the sins of my nation. All I have to do is try to love God and my neighbor (regardless of race, color, and creed), and God will exempt me from his wrath on my country.
Both voices are important. The collective guilt message should influence me to ask to what extent I go with the flow of my nation’s culture. Yet, at the same time, I would go crazy if I felt personally responsible for every single national sin. I’d have difficulty relating to God if I thought that he hated me because of the way minorities are treated in America. So I also need the assurance that God values me and the good that I try to do, however small it may seem.