People who are unwilling to see their own guilt continually engage in the blame game. The game gets especially complicated and ever more sophisticated as problems become intractable. Who can we blame for the recurrent cycles of racism in our country? Who can we blame for the epidemics of substance abuse and suicide? Who owns the blame for unemployment and poverty?
The victims of these recurrent problems obviously deny their responsibility but they can hardly be excused since everyone claims the status of victim. African-Americans, for instance, may seem the obvious victims of persistent racism until Asian-, Native-, Caribbean-, and Micronesian-Americans voluntarily join the group. When descendants of European settlers take up the cry, no one is left to shoulder the blame.
A judge might want to sort out these competing claims, showing mercy to the worthy and justice to the unworthy; but a sympathetic listener realizes there is no one to blame.
The traditional answer -- which has been dismissed by many -- is Original Sin. We have all sinned; no one is innocent.
Some people react to the doctrine, claiming that children are born innocent. I wonder how far they would extend that innocence. For instance, if a child inherits an enormous plantation with thousands of slaves is he not responsible for righting that grave injustice? Failing to do so, is he guilty?
Or, in another instance, if the child was born after the slave empire had been dismantled but he still enjoys the extravagant lifestyle which was borne on the backs of those slaves, can he claim ownership and no responsibility for all his wealth? Does he owe nothing to the descendants of his ancestor's victims?
If he is born innocent, utterly free of Original Sin, it seems he should not only enjoy his inheritance but defend it against hostile claims.
Someone might ask, "Is guilt a responsibility for past sins?" I would reply, "If guilt is not a responsibility, a duty to atone for past misdeeds, it is only a fiction; it doesn't exist." For that matter, neither does injustice or suffering. Such words mean nothing. And there is no god to hear the cry of the poor.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis trace the history and tradition of sin from Adam to Cain to Noah to the city of Babel. It is passed from one generation to the next, along with the lessons of how to tie one's shoes and speak one's mind. Only with Abraham does grace enter the story and a new history of atonement.
Our Jewish ancestors remembered their bondage in Egypt and thanked God for their freedom. They also relinquished their victim status and acknowledged their heritage as the descendants of ungrateful ancestors.
We have sinned, we and our fathers; we have committed crimes; we have done wrong. Our fathers in Egypt considered not your wonders. (Psalm 106)
Embracing our guilt as the Lord embraced his cross won't make an overnight difference in the world but it immediately sets us free to pursue justice.