Christianity has manifold resources for individuals who feel mired in sin who seek to repent and live a new life. But what about societies that are mired in sin, which as mass entities are unable to feel as individuals feel? And what about individuals within an unjust system who perpetuate it and benefit from the injustice, even though they did not create the system and by themselves are powerless to stop it? Is the language of sin and repentance effective for transforming societal sins? The works of Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, Jr. suggest to me that it is not effective to indict large groups of people for sins they may perpetuate, but did not engender.
In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr states that
Individuals are never as immoral as the social situation in which they are involved and which they symbolize. If opposition to a system leads to personal insults of its representatives, it is always felt as an unjust accusation…An impartial teacher of morals would be compelled to insist on the principle of personal responsibility for social guilt. But it is morally and politically wise for an opponent not to do so. (p. 248-49)
To support this assertion, he points to William Lloyd Garrison, whose fierce criticism of the evil of slaveowning merely “solidified the south in support of slavery” (p. 248).
Martin Luther King, Jr, seemed to follow Niebuhr’s advice (with both men drawing also on the work of Gandhi). In “Give Us the Ballot,” he stresses that “our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man…We must respond to every [court] decision with… an appreciation of the difficult adjustments that the court orders pose for them.” Rather than calling on white moderates to lament their role in a racist system, he prays for them to have the courage to be strong leaders. The distinction is perhaps subtle, because strong leadership is the ultimate goal of repentance. The difference is that King focused on rallying to the correct way rather than criticizing the incorrect way.
The priests in Nehemiah 8 also take this strategy in orchestrating mass repentance:
“This day is holy to the Lord your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching. He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks…Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.”’
In Nehemiah, discovering the right way to live was not cause for contrition, but for celebration and action.
Fomenting transformation on a wide scale means calling people to their highest values, rather than excoriating their sins. Excoriating sins tends to alienate folk, and alienation does not create political will. Movements that build political will are not humble and contrite; they are strong because they are joyous. They are, in Heschel’s words, “spiritually audacious and morally grandiose.”
An expanded version of this post will be on http://www.stateofformation.org in the near future.