Thursday, August 11, 2005


A wonderful reflection from Boston Catholic Journal:

The Evil of Collective Sin

The faces of sin are many.

There is an aspect of sin of which we are sometimes not fully or even sufficiently aware. Most of us can grasp the existence of our individual sins, but there is also an inescapable sense of our complicity in sins that loom over us as a people, a society, a nation. It is essentially an intuitive realization of something beyond our individual culpability, a sense of collective sin --- of our guilt through our complicity in moral enormities, a complicity most often silent in nature. It might be summed up in three words: "Let it pass." Whatever the evil, whatever the injustice, whatever the oppression --- in whatever form it takes --- "let it pass."

Whenever evil is concealed under the euphemism of "correctness", or "tolerance" --- and we fail to raise our voice against it, to stamp it out as inimical to the good, to a Law greater than any men pass (and subsequently amend, discard, or abolish) in courts or seats of legislature ... However august, esteemed, and established its venue ... Whenever we fail to raise our voice, and simply "let it pass" --- we have entered into complicity with the outrage through our silence. We fear to condemn it, to reveal our abhorrence of it ... And in remaining silent, condone it.

This is nothing new to you. This is no great awakening. You have known it all along.

Unlike individual sin, from which we cannot exonerate ourselves, collective sin is a much more subtle --- but no less pernicious --- form of evil that easily lends itself to a multiplicity of plausible excuses. Because it is so subtle it is extremely pervasive. What is more, we come to believe that the more pervasive it is, the less evil it must be. It is essentially morality as distributive, or more simply, morals as mathematics.

We may recognize the evil, but believe that we can abstract ourselves from it and place the fault, the responsibility upon others. We distribute the blame, the guilt, until it becomes so suffuse that it is no longer morally tangible. That failing, any residual guilt can simply be ascribed to others, to the vast number --- of which you had hitherto been part. They become our scapegoat when the core meltdown of moral imperatives reaches critical mass and can no longer be ignored without catastrophic consequences to the individual and society at large.

Read the entire reflection here. It really makes a lot of good points. The most famous example of "collective sin" through silence is, no doubt, that of the German people during the rise of Hitler and the implementation of his "final solution." Many people nowadays look back on that horrible period and think, "How could they? How could they just let it happen, and not speak up, not object?"

We forget that we, too, have examples in our past of this kind of complicity. Many accepted slavery as an institution; perhaps an unfortunate one, but yet an unalterable social fact. Into the mid-20th century, systematic, institutionalized racism was often considered to be just "the way things are." And it's not like we, in 21st century America, have finally achieved moral superiority and have created the perfect society. We need to always be aware that our government can and does make unjust laws and sanction unjust actions. We need to know that simply because something has become socially "acceptable," doesn't mean that it is not profoundly wicked; and that, if we don't speak up about the crimes we see, our silence will make us accomplices.

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