Shame and/or guilt? Collective and/or individual?

Judy Wu Dominick writes about guilt and shame here.  Her thoughts can be summarised as follows

–          Our culture is “individualistic and therapeutic” this also means that we think in terms of individual guilt and innocence

–          The Bible has a greater sense of collective identity meaning there is shame even when we are not personally guilty (e.g. Ezra 9:5–15; Daniel 9:1–19)

–          Western society has some awareness of communal shame at family level but we are quick to counter it by protesting personal innocence whereas the bible has the sense of full identity with the guilt/shame

–          We try to defend the honour of our group without accepting the shame

–          Communal shame does not have to be about fear but can lead to restoration.

I want to throw in a few more ideas and challenges

  1. It is sometimes assumed that Reformed theology is at fault – the idea that I receive individual justification.  It is my belief that actually good Reformed Theology is deeply helpful here.  Over individualism means we struggle with Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  Why are we complicit with Adam? Why are we under his penalty?  Societies with a better understanding of collective responsibility are likely to grasp the idea that one person acts for and represents the people. It works both ways. I can’t on the one hand deny my sin in Adam and on the other hand claim my righteousness in Christ. The substitution of penalty and imputation of righteousness are firmly rooted in faith Union. I am in Christ, I died with him and am raised with him.
  2. Collective identity and responsibility does not and should not take away from individual identity and responsibility, we are individually in Christ, members of the church, making up the whole.
  3. Collective responsibility must depend upon a genuine collective identity together. What are the ties that bind us together? You cannot expect people to share collective shame when they do not consider themselves part of a collective body. This means that if groupings are artificial constructs then shared honour or shame is likely to be artificial too.
  4. Dominick helpfully picks up on the way that people like Daniel identity fully in the shame/guilt of the whole nation of Israel.  However, we can only fully grasp this when we think in terms of Covenant. The reason Daniel shares in the guilt/shame of his people and hopes to share in their restoration is because of who God’s Covenant is with. This helps us to think Biblically about where our identity is with.  The guilt/shame we share outside of Christ is that of Adam’s race in its rebellion to God.  The collective restoration we have is that of God’s people in the new/second Adam.  It is not about the restoration of a particular community or nation (though there may be lessons by implication).
  5. The collective shame of Israel was not a mere subjective feeling but the objective reality of bearing the Covenant Breakers curse. This is seen in the desolation of Jerusalem and the exile of the people into slavery.  In other words, it is a feature of the penalty of death.  This means there is an objective restoration in the return from exile, rebuilding of the city walls and renewal of Temple worship. Our shame is objective.  We are under the penalty of death, spiritually dead in this life, physical death to come and after that the death of Hell.  Objectively we are given spiritual life in Christ as we are reconciled to him. We know that physical death is not the end but we will be with Christ and we look forward to resurrection and life in the New Creation.

I hope this stimulates more thought and discussion. Get in touch via our feedback and comments page with your thoughts.