Corporate Responsibility and Justice

This post is a follow-up on “Scapegoating, Othering, & Justice” (13 October), and is itself a rethink of a post from late summer (“Musing on Corporate Guilt, pt 1,” from 2 August.)

For decades, it’s been a truism in biblical studies and theology that modern Western thought is more individualistic than the ancient near eastern milieu of the biblical writers. We prize and prioritize individual actualization and freedom in ways that they did not.

An example from a previous post (“Scapegoating …”): their understanding of justice was more communal than ours.  When we think of justice, we think of what an individual deserves because of his/her actions.  They defined justice less in terms of what individuals deserved and more in terms of what was good for the community, “the common good.”  To quote a certain pointy-eared sage, “The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few.  Or the one.”

In theological circles, one of the ways of understanding this priority on community over individual is commonly called “corporate personality,” or corporate responsibility.  The basic idea is that in the biblical world, actions were sometimes so significant that the resulting reward or punishment didn’t just redound to the person who performed the action, it extended to everyone associated with that person. (Envision a situation where an entire family is punished legally, sometimes very harshly, for the actions of an individual member.)

This significance of the action can be attached because of the person who performs the action or because of the nature of the action, or both.

Examples from the Bible:

1. In Joshua 7, Achan keeps some of the treasure of Jericho for himself, even though God had commanded that all the treasure be devoted to him.  But notice: “the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan … took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.” (Josh 7.1)

What happens as a result?  Israel is defeated in their next battle; this is part of God punishing Israel for Achan’s sin.  Then, when Achan’s sin is found out, he and his family are put to death, and so Israel was cleansed.

I don’t bring up this story to try to justify God’s actions; don’t let the shocking notes of the story overshadow the theological point.  The entire nation was to some measure held culpable for Achan’s disobedience.  The punishments for Achan and for the nation were similar in character but different in degree.

Why is Achan’s action so significant that the entire nation pays for it? Clearly, the significance derives from the nature of the action–direct rebellion against a command of God during an epoch-making event (Israel’s first victory in taking the land God promised Abraham hundreds of years before), since Achan is otherwise unknown, and seems to have no other personal significance.

2. Likewise, David sins against God by taking a census of his military men (2 Sam 24; 1 Chron 21); apparently, this = David trusting in his military might rather than trusting in God.

This causes God to punish the nation with a  plague that causes many deaths.  Again, I’m not justifying or explaining God’s actions.  I just want you to notice that one person’s action can result in consequences for people who are part of that person’s group.

This time, the action’s monumental significance seems to derive more from the person who commits the action–King David.  Other kings acted in ways that showed that they trusted in their armies instead of trusting in God, but only Israel’s greatest king is singled out in this way.

3. In Deut 21, the law prescribes what should happen when a murder victim is discovered in the open country and the guilty party cannot be determined.  The nearest town bears the guilt of the crime until they offer sacrifices to remove it.

This passage clearly shows the different levels of consequence as responsibility is extended.  If the murderer could be found, that person’s life would be forfeit.  But the people who bear guilt by extension don’t face the same punishment as if they’d committed the murder.  Yet they still bear some responsibility; they must make sacrifices to remove the guilt.

4. Those are all negative examples.  Here’s the great positive example from the New Testament.

In Romans 5, Paul describes all humanity as being “in Adam,” i.e., under the effects of Adam’s sin.  But Jesus, by his faithfulness, opens the way for people to receive the reward of his obedience instead of the punishment brought by Adam’s disobedience.

We were a part of Adam’s rebellion against God, even before our individual sin.  We are in our natures broken (“in this way death came to all people … even over those who did not sin by breaking a command”), so that we tend toward sin, selfishness, and wandering away from God.

But Jesus, in the ultimate epoch-making event, went to the cross.  God in Christ sacrificed himself, taking the punishment for his creation’s sin and rebellion, so that we who were in Adam can now be in Christ, and receive the rewards that being in Christ brings.

So the principle:

  • Some actions are so monumental that they not only bring punishment or reward to the person performing the action.  The effects effects of those actions extend to everyone who belongs to that person’s family / group / tribe / nation / race.
  • The consequences for these monumental actions can vary in degree between the person who originally acted and those involved by extension.
Consider with me now the implications of this theological theme in two areas. 

  • First, what are the implications for the Christian’s response to race relations in 21st century America?
  • Second, what are the implications for our understanding of Jesus’ death, especially the much debated idea of it being substitutionary?

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