Collective Guilt: A Theological Reflection

April 1st, 2012 9:46 am

Participants of the Guilty or Not Guitly? conference have been asked to reflect on lectures and their experiences in Bratislava. This is one account from James Jackson from the UK. 

On Thursday afternoon we were treated to an extremely challenging lecture on ‘Moral Collective Responsibility for Mass Crime’ by N. Dimitrijevic. I think it would be a mistake to separate his thesis from his personal context. Dimitrijevic writes as a Serb living within the aftermath of Serbian crimes of mass violence against Croats and Bosnians. His own personal sense of disgust and despair at the genocidal crimes of his countrymen was palpable and he was explicit about this as the cause of his current research in this area.

The speaker defined ‘mass crimes’ over and against ‘regime crimes’ with the former being committed in the name of the people by agents of the regime and the latter being simply committed for the means of the continuation of the regime. This difference is dependent not on the actions, but on the symbolic motivations behind the actions. This merits a moment to reflect upon. This was perhaps the first example of conflict between the worldview of Dimitrijevic and the dominant utilitarian individualist Weltanschauung, where the action itself is significant and the symbolic justification behind the action is irrelevant; we usually focus on the crime itself and not the justification of the crime.

Dimitrijevic’s most controversial suggestion, the idea that all Serbs or Germans share in a collective guilt because of the crimes of their countrymen, came from this symbolic conception of guilt. Demitrijevic advocated his own practice of unilaterally apologising to Serbs or Croats when he meets them, and you could extrapolate this thesis to a recommendation that all Germans should apologise to Jews whenever they meet them.

It would not be fair to ignore the many critical questions asked by participants of the WSCF Conference – this idea of collective guilt is for most people counter-intuitive; our modern paradigm is one where we are responsible for only our own actions. Indeed, there is something of an irony to this theory of collective guilt for mass crimes, as often mass crimes have themselves been justified in reference to collective guilt: for example, the Jews were seen as collectively guilty for the surrender of Germany at Versailles in 1918.

What I would like to suggest, however, is that the model put forward by Dimitrijevic fits more closely with the kind of pre-individualist worldview expressed in the Holy Scriptures, and that there are some theological implications to his thesis which his self-identification as an atheist prevented him from seeing. A justification of this is the doctrine of the fall, or original sin. Because of the actions of Adam and Eve, we, as humans, pay the price of living in a fallen world and, some would argue, in a fallen state of being. Similarly, God promises that children pay for the crimes of their ancestors “even unto the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 20:5)

Dimitrijevic describes his stance of apology to victims of Serbian mass crimes as an “unconditional duty.” This is in itself a very Christian conception of ethics. We are called by Christ to turn the other cheek not because it will make ourselves or others happy as consequentialists might argue, or that it will make us virtuous in the Aristotelian sense, but because we owe an unconditional duty to follow the Divine Commandments.

In my later discussion with him, Dimitrijevic shared with me that often atheistic critics will denounce his ethics of unconditionally asking for forgiveness as “too Christian.” I would suggest that it is indeed a manifestation of the great commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Dimitrijevic gave examples of instances when people heard his apology and responded that their faith in humanity, or the moral rightness of Serbians, had been restored. These people, who have suffered both physically and psychologically, have had their personal sense of trust restored by something as simple as an apology.

In his recent philosophical reflection “On Evil” Terry Eagleton writes that evil can sometimes “infect entire societies.” This conception of evil is similar to Dimitrijevic’s idea of mass guilt or culpability. What both thinkers miss, however, is that they imply the existence of an extra-personal reality which can affect the individual without his or her direct culpability.

In classical Christian thought this supra-personal reality has been described as the demonic, a category which has fallen out of intellectual fashion since the Enlightenment. However, liberal secular society lacks an appropriate category for describing the mass crimes of the 20th Century; the numerous genocides, persecutions and atrocities. Even this year the crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony were brought to international consciousness by Christian organisation Invisible Children. One reason that secular society reacts with such revulsion to these crimes, and yet also acts mystified by their common recurrence, is because they do not have conceptual categories to explain these actions. The concept of the demonic is manifestly still relevant and should be reclaimed by Christians in the wake of the modern resurgence of evil, and this fits with Dimitrijevic’s concept of collective guilt; this collective guilt can, however, be assuaged by forgiveness.

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