America prizes individualism. Deep in the DNA of the country is the belief that the individual matters more than the state. America defends the proposition that the individual—with his or her freedoms, gifts, and resources—ought to be judged as an individual, by their own merits, without regard to the sins and faults of others.
There’s a logic to the notion. One individual cannot legitimately be held responsible for the actions of others as if the other’s actions were their own. If my next-door neighbor mistreats small animals, I should not be charged with animal cruelty as if I had done it. By any sane standard that is an injustice.
But individualism won’t suffice as a full accounting for the injustices of the world. There are times when simply claiming “I did not do that myself” does not exonerate us. If my next-door neighbor mistreats small animals and I witness it but do nothing, I am culpable as a bystander to that injustice. I did not commit it, but I am complicit in my inaction and silence.
At least that’s the way God thinks about things. Consider Isaiah 1:
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
God addresses the entire people. He rejects their worship. He counts their offerings as vain and expresses holy intolerance for their assemblies. The God they worship actually refuses to listen to them and hides his eyes from them. Nothing could be more tragic than worshiping God while he closes himself off from you! Nothing could be more sobering that recognizing the God of Isaiah 1 is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
But why does God reject their worship?
They had become an unfaithful city where bribes were sought and justice denied (v. 23). The language of the chapter makes it clear that moral corruption was the general character of the society. The whole thing was shot through with the sin of injustice and the people as a whole were being called to account.
Now, stop and ask yourself: Was every single individual guilty of these things? Did every individual actively commit these treasons against God?
Almost certainly not. Surely there were even some who were innocent of these things. We could confidently conclude that at least Isaiah was not guilty of these transgressions.
And yet, every person, including Isaiah (see chap. 6), needed to “wash themselves” and “make themselves clean.” They needed atonement. They needed to “remove the evil of their deeds from before God’s eyes” and “seek justice, correct oppression.” How might it be the case that individuals not directly guilty of its society’s sins are nevertheless being held accountable for them?
Well, seeking justice and correcting oppression are positive duties for the people of God. Leaving these duties undone makes us complicit in the sins of our society. Claiming personal innocence in directly committing a sin will not absolve us of failing to actually oppose wrongdoers or positively establish justice. Refusing to speak up for the voiceless (Prov. 31:8-9) is a sin. Bystanders get no pass. Not in God’s sight. We must positively do our part in our spheres to seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
So, yes, every person who failed in their sphere to oppose slavery or Jim Crow segregation or the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, and every person who fails in their sphere to oppose abortion or sex trafficking in their cities and countries today, bears some guilt for those societal sins. They need not have committed the sins themselves; their guilt comes from failing to actively denounce and oppose these injustices or from accepting benefits from the society that produced the injustices and sins.
So, yeah, if a person enjoyed the benefits of 1950s-’60s Jim Crow America and did nothing to correct the injustice of that society, they are guilty of the sins of that society. They may not have made the ropes that lynched the neighbor, but carrying on as if a lynching or an assassination had not happened is a guilt all its own. Theologically impeccable individuals are not the result of personal innocence and social by-standing. That kind of impeccable individual is a myth conjured to help some avoid hard truths that implicate them.
But there’s good news for those who can admit these things. The same God who rejects vain worship delights to make us clean. He says to us in Isaiah 1:18:
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.”
When we accept God’s invitation to reason together with him, it’s unreasonable to tell him we don’t need to be washed because we haven’t participated in a sin characteristic of our society or church. It’s unreasonable to claim we are entirely innocent of the characteristic sins of our society if we have not actively sought to establish justice. The reasonable person—according to God—will admit they’re standing there drenched in scarlet guilt needing to be washed and made white as snow.
Gospel people understand this. Biblical people understand this. More than understand this, they rejoice in it, because they know there’s a way to be clean before God, the way of the cross. Yet the cross avails us little if we cannot admit our guilt, including our guilt for positive duties left undone, sins of omission, like failing to seek justice and correct oppression. There’s a better than even chance that if we can’t admit these things about our parents’ or grandparents’ generation we will have a hard time admitting it about our own.