Corporate Sin, Corporate Repentance

I have finished the survey of atonement theories.  I will publish one final post tomorrow (Tuesday) or Wednesday, summarizing the survey and making several pastoral recommendations.

Until then, on to something new.

Daniel 9 is an amazing text. The chapter centers on Daniel’s prayer of repentance. What strikes me is how he repents for sin that he himself did not personally commit; they were his fathers’ sins, Israel’s sins. But Daniel sees himself as responsible for them to some degree. He is grieved by them & repents of them.

Daniel 9:4-6 (NET): “O Lord, … we have sinned! We have done what is wrong and wicked; we have rebelled by turning away from your commandments and standards. We have not paid attention to your servants the prophets, who spoke by your authority to our kings, our leaders, and our ancestors, and to all the inhabitants of the land as well.

9:8-11 O LORD, we have been humiliated—our kings, our leaders, and our ancestors—because we have sinned against you. Yet the Lord our God is compassionate and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him. We have not obeyed the LORD our God by living according to his laws that he set before us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has broken your law and turned away by not obeying you. Therefore you have poured out on us the judgment solemnly threatened in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against you.”

Daniel’s sense of responsibility is explicit. He doesn’t pray, “They did it, I didn’t take part in it. Why are you punishing me?” HE COULD’VE PRAYED THAT. He didn’t participate in Israel’s sin. He was a righteous man, his character & record were impeccable.

But because he was an Israelite, part of that family / society / system, he knew that he bore some responsibility for that sin.

We see this several times in the Bible: Achan’s sin (Josh 7), David’s census (2 Sam 24), and the law regarding unsolved homicides in the open country (Deut 21.1ff) are the most famous examples. In these cases, an individual sins, and guilt for the sin spills out past the individual who actually committed the act & effects the community, sometimes the whole nation.

  • 2 Samuel 24:1 (NET): “The Lord’s anger again raged against Israel.”
  • Joshua 7:1 (NET): “The Israelites disobeyed the command about the city’s riches.”
  • Joshua 7:10–11 (NET): The Lord responded to Joshua, “Get up! Why are you lying there face down? 7:11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenantal commandment!”
  • Deuteronomy 21.3-4 (NIV): Then the elders of the town nearest the body shall take a heifer that has never been worked and has never worn a yoke and lead it down to a valley …
  • This is the background to Adam/Christ in Rom 5.12-21, btw.

In these cases of corporate responsibility, we find differing levels of responsibility. The people who actually commit the sin are (or would be) punished the most harshly. The people whose involvement is more remote have some responsibility still, but they aren’t punished as harshly & don’t bear the same guilt.  A kind of “guilt by association.”

The point I want to establish here is that, when a sin is serious enough & participation is widespread, the responsibility for the sin is not limited to the people who individually committed the sin. Their families, their heirs, & the society that follows after them should follow Daniel 9, and practice repentance and seek restoration.

So what of Americans & slavery & our systems that still treat white people better than non-white?

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