COLLECTIVE AND PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ EZEKIEL 18:1-10,13,30-32; MATTHEW 19:13-15 ]
Last month, President Duterte was reported to have called God “stupid” because he found the doctrine of Original Sin inexplicable and unacceptable. He purportedly said, “It’s something that your mother and father did, you were not part of it, then you have original sin. What kind of religion is that? I can’t accept it.” Indeed, the world also thinks this is such a silly doctrine and a good number of Catholics might also agree although they do not have the guts to utter their reservations as openly and bluntly as the President of the Philippines did.
Those who object to the doctrine of Original Sin do so only because they are ignorant about the real teaching of Original Sin. It is more than just the fact that our forefathers committed sin and we are now suffering on their account, or that God created us perfect and then tempted us to sin. In fact, the doctrine per se is not even found in the scriptures but only implicitly. Certainly, the doctrine of Original Sin does not lie in the story of Adam and Eve. It slowly developed in the Church’s understanding of how man had fallen into sin when God created us perfect. The doctrine of Original Sin was in fact given expression and clarity by St Augustine only in the 4th century.
The first reading from Ezekiel presents to us this dilemma that the Israelites faced, namely, the retribution that comes from collective sin and individual sin. Until this stage of theological reflection and development, Israel being a Covenanted Community, the People of God, saw themselves first as a community than as individuals. The head of the community represented the whole community, the king represented the nation, the tribal leader represented the tribe and the father represented the family. In ancient days, when a crime is committed by the leader, the whole group was punished and even killed. This over-emphasis on collective responsibility was what prompted later reflection in the bible as to the justice of such a position.
The Lord spoke through Ezekiel and was clear that ultimate responsibility belonged to the individual and not on the group or the leader. The Lord said, “Why do you keep repeating this proverb in the land of Israel: The fathers have eaten unripe grapes; and the children’s teeth are set on edge? The man who has sinned, he is the one who shall die. But if anyone has a son prone to violence and bloodshed, who commits one of these misdeeds, then this son shall certainly not live.” In these words, it is clear that we cannot push the guilt and blame to our forefathers or to society. In other words, the teaching of the bible and the Church does not subscribe to punishment of an individual for the sins of the community. Rather, each will be punished according to his or her sin.
We cannot therefore inherit the personal sins of others. How then is Original Sin passed on to us when we did not commit the sin of our first parents? In other words, we were not wrong and not guilty of any personal sin. So why are we being punished for something that we did not do? This is where we need to see the bigger picture. The reality is that human beings are not independent of each other but inter-dependent. We come from the same human race and therefore have a common origin. We did not come into this world by ourselves from nowhere but through our parents who give birth to us. Furthermore, whatever we do, we affect each other, for better or for worse. We are not just individuals but we are members of a community. We are social beings affecting each other in what we do.
Consequently, it cannot be helped that we are affected by not just our parents, but by our upbringing and the society we are in. No man is an island. This is where the question of original sin comes in. These are ways to express how the sins of the community have an effect on the individual, whether he likes it or not. Original Sin explains the origin of our human brokenness. It is because we share in the wounded nature of our first parents because of their personal sins. We do not inherit their personal sins but because of a shared nature, we suffer the wounded nature of our first parents. In other words, we are not being punished as such for the sins of our first parents, but we suffer the consequences of their sins because we are related to them by nature.
This wounded nature is theologically spelt out as the loss of control over our will, a darkened intellect, fear of pain and death. It is significant that the loss of the so-called preternatural gifts, namely, self-control, infused knowledge, freedom from pain and death could be classified broadly as sins affecting us physically and spiritually. Pain is associated with illness and suffering. Death is associated with the loss of life. Concupiscence and ignorance have to do with the spiritual repercussion of one who shares in the fallen nature of our first parents.
The truth about Original Sin can be explained biologically today in an existential manner. Most of us subscribe to the genome theory that how healthy we are is dependent not just on our lifestyle but also the genes we inherit from our parents. In fact, doctors would tell us that if we inherit a poor constitution, no matter how great and healthy a lifestyle we might adopt, it can only do that much. Of course, we can prolong our life but it is different if we inherit a strong constitution from our parents. This is true not just for physical health but also intellectual capacity and emotional stability. Whether we are intellectually bright is also dependent on our parents’ genes. Likewise, our mental and emotional health.
So just as we inherit the genes of our parents, so too the negative traits resulting from their sinful way of life will also influence the way we grow and our attitude towards life. If our parents are always quarreling, fighting, losing their temper, using harsh and vulgar words, we are likely to inherit their bad character. Parents who are divorced and unfaithful in their marriage will in some ways influence the upbringing of their children. They tend to be more dysfunctional, emotionally weak and confused, and insecure. Often, children unconsciously imbibe the values, good or bad, of their elders. What is true for the immediate family is even more true for the larger society. Our values and lifestyles are often shaped and formed by society. It is difficult to go against the trends of society. The world is so secularized today simply because governments encourage secularism and marginalize religions so that the latter is kept out of public space.
Original sin therefore speaks of the effects of the sins that come from nature, that is, biological, mental and spiritual relationship with our wounded parents, and the lifestyle of the community. This is the objective part of original sin which is beyond our control. However, we are not condemned because of the sins of our parents. It is only when we allow the effects of their sins to lead us to enact and repeat the personal sins of our parents that we become guilty, because we allow sins to be born in our lives.
But it takes two to sin or to do good, the individual and the community. In truth, there is much injustice in the judgement of individuals in the world. When a person sins or commits an offence, the law is hard on the individual. We apply the law objectively on them and pass judgement from the mere fact that the law was broken. But do we take into consideration why and how the offender was led into crime? Do we take into consideration the background, the upbringing, the traumas he or she went through when the person was young, how he or she was abused, the influence of society and the pressures that came from society? It is true that the individual is the one who committed the crime and should be personally responsible, but can society absolve itself from being the cause?
The irony is that society is the one promoting promiscuity, material pleasures, glory and fame, pushing people to strive for such things. We are like Satan, putting the forbidden fruit before our people. We tell them not to eat it or else they will be punished. The real “stupid God” is the World! We do not promote a moral society and good ethical values. We do not encourage people to be righteous and God-fearing. So, when the entertainment world – movies, television, internet, games, books and other recreation activities – encourage a materialistic, self-centered and sensual lifestyle, what can we expect but more sexual crimes, theft, murder and wars?
This explains why the Lord welcomes the little children. He said, “Let the little children alone, and do not stop them coming to me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Children are innocent and they are called to goodness and love. But as they grow up, they get taken advantage of. Many have been sexually, verbally and physically abused. We destroyed their lives. Others, because of our bad examples and conduct, learnt all the bad habits and values from us. If we want the world to be a better place, as parents and adults, we must walk the talk, love them, mold them into people of virtue and love and then we can exercise personal responsibility by making right choices in their lives.
Indeed, this is the way to save ourselves and the world. This is what the Lord is inviting us to. “Repent, renounce all your sins, avoid all occasions of sin! Repent and live!” Repent by renouncing the ways of the world. Live by walking the way of truth. By so doing, as individuals, we can change society rather than allow the world to change us.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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