Owning Isis: Collective Responsibility and Personal Guilt

Let’s begin with a simple question: Who killed Jesus?

(a) The Jews
(b) The Romans
(c) Pontius Pilate
(d) You

That’s right, the correct answer is “d”–you did, at least if you are a Christian. If you aren’t, then a, b, or c will do nicely.

Christian theology is based on the belief that Jesus came to take away the sins of the world. Sin (your sins, mate) put him on the cross. Despite the gory and rather explicit detail of the gospels about the crucifixion being the result of a trial and a queer combination of Roman law and mob justice, the Church has always taught that it was your sins, ultimately, that nailed him to the tree. Otherwise his life and death would have no meaning. At least no religious meaning.

Where does such an idea come from? The answer is, from the Jews, or rather from an ancient opinion that the sins of a single (corrupt) person corrupts a whole nation and can even be inherited for seven generations down the line. This is especially ugly when the crime is murder, or incest, or a variety of lesser transmissible offenses against the law, including blasphemy against God (usually not spoken but worshiping idols) and apostasy (מְשֻׁבָה).

The Christians got and then modeled their idea of original sin on the Jewish idea of transmissible contamination and collective guilt. Paul uses it is his letters, especially in Romans 5. But they solved the problem (which was cyclical within Jewish theology) by declaring the the death of Jesus was “once for all” and that baptism, which is essentially a kind of mystical, watery dying and rising again with Jesus, wipes away the stain of sin. No more use for goats and bloody sacrifices therefore. The Eucharist is much tidier and leads to a better result.

The belief in collective guilt and corporate forgiveness derives from the belief in collective responsibility: sin does not exist by itself but within social structures–communities. It is a state of being, and does not just refer to deeds done but thoughts thought and deeds left undone. This belief is where the idea of original sin (later) comes from. it is not what the individual does by himself (what the Church would call “actual sin) but what the individual is by virtue of being a son or daughter of Adam.

Fast forward from medieval discussions: Beginning in the 1990’s the Catholic church was rocked by the so-called pedophile priest scandal. Of course, it wasn’t a scandal at all. It was criminal activity aided and abetted in many cases by lax or indifferent bishops who felt that their primary responsibility was to their priests and not to the people. The “laity” were reminded persistently, as the stories spread, that the Church remained holy despite a few rotten apples. When it became clear that there were more than ten rotten apples in the ecclesiastical barrel, (3000 civil lawsuits in the United States alone) and that the problem was global not just American, the Church was unable to use the “holiness” argument to much effect.

That is because the Church knew that its defense against sin had to begin with the confession of sin, or to use Paul’s much-parodied line, “We are all sinners…all fall short–every one.” There had been occasions in the history of Catholicism (and other religions) where the “we are all pure–except them”-argument worked, but in the case of the priest scandal it did not work at all. Innocent children had been violated, some children as young as three raped. It crippled the argument further that these acts had not been committed by random Catholics or lay Catholic school teachers but by ordained men under vows to the Church (and to God) to represent Jesus Christ amongst the people.

In general, the Church was wise not to use the term “Unchristian” and “Un-Catholic” to excuse the behavior of its priests. At a civil-law level–where most of the action took place–it didn’t mollify the abused or the violated to know that they might be eligible for damages paid out by the diocese. What seemed to do the most good was when the Church, in the person of popes Benedict and Francis, acknowledged in classical mode the collective responsibility and guilt of the Church, and apologized to victims. Part of this acknowledgement moreover was to confess that it was specifically an environment within the church, its seminaries and parishes–even its theory of the priesthood–that had facilitated abuse. This papal penance effectively acknowledged that even though the abusers were a fraction of a fraction of priests, the problem needed to be owned and acknowledged as a Roman Catholic problem.

Flash forward again, this time to the last week in radical Islam

2015.01.08 (Baghdad, Iraq) – A Sunni suicide bomber wades into a Shiite mosque and slaughters at least eight worshipers.
2015.01.07 (Zhari, Afghanistan) – Taliban bombers kill two children gathering firewood.
2015.01.07 (Baghlan, Afghanistan) – Six road workers are machine-gunned point-blank by extremist gunmen.
2015.01.07 (Sanaa, Yemen) – A al-Qaeda suicide bus bomber scatters body parts and snuffs out thirty-seven lives at a college.
2015.01.06 (Nazimabad, Pakistan) – Two Shiite brothers are murdered in their shop by Sipah-e-Sahaba.
2015.01.06 (al-Jubba, Iraq) – A suicide attack on a mosque and the ensuing clash leave two dozen dead.

–And most famously, two trained gunmen enter the offices of the renowned French satire magazine Charlie Hebdou and kill twelve people, including all senior cartoonists, in an attempt to avenge insult to the Prophet Muhammad.

As Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in today’s Wall Street Journal, “This was not an attack by a mentally deranged, lone-wolf gunman. This was not an “un-Islamic” attack by a bunch of thugs–the perpetrators could be heard shouting that they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad. Nor was it spontaneous. It was planned to inflict maximum damage, during a staff meeting, with automatic weapons and a getaway plan. It was designed to sow terror, and in that it has worked.”

Islam, as I’ve argued here before, was never able to produce a coherent theological or “orthodox” tradition apart from its simple belief in the arkān al-Islām –the pillars of Islam. It did try, and once upon a time, in the storied Golden Age of Islam prior to the thirteenth century there were philosophers who offered a ray of light. Later on however that light was snuffed out by the likes of the imam Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī who taught (contra the much more learned Ibn Rushd) that philosophy and Islam had nothing to do with one another, and to the extent they did, the philosophers were heretics. The rigidity of that teaching deprived Islam of a Renaissance, a Reformation and an Enlightenment. Worse, it created a disconnect between Islam and modernity that still plagues a religion that–in some of its most visible manifestations–belongs to another time and place.

It also created an anomaly. In Islam there is a clear concept of believers and unbelievers, and a doctrine of a world community of believers whose job it is to spread the message of the religion of peace, by force if necessary. But just as there is no unifying theological tradition apart from rote-learned piety, prayers, and basic moral conventions, so there is no real notion of collective responsibility.

We see this now in the refusal of Islam to own ISIS, or religious extremism more broadly, as the Catholic Church had owned its crimes against the innocent. We see it in the cloying repetition of the word “Unislamic” as the ultimate–it seems sometimes the only–term of reprobation for the actions of radical Islamic killers, rapists, and torturers. The anomaly is that while Islam possesses the doctrine of a community of believers (أمة) which looks temptingly like the western belief in a global Christianity (“catholic” only means universal), the premises that undergird this thinking are drastically different, even conflictual.

Lacking a belief in collective sin and original sin, Islam is wedded to the belief that sin is an act that a righteous God will punish at judgement. Sin is not a state of being. It is individual, and can only be forgiven individually. On the one hand, there is a hierarchy of sin– idolatry, witchcraft, accusing chaste women of promiscuity, stealing from an orphan–but these actions do not approach the scholastic depth that medieval Christianity would provide for its description of sin and virtue. Islam has a long list of sins, but not a strong sense of sinning.

Partly this means that every sinner, to the extent he has a committed an offense against God, cannot be said to represent Islam. But practically this means as well that even when it is clear that there is a social, communal, and sizable problem within the faith–such as that now represented by the violence of Islamic radicals–a larger part of the ummah can simply disown it.

There is also this point, which may seem like theological nitpicking, but it a real question in Islamic teaching: Who is to say–who is to judge but God–whether actions that seem violent to the unbelievers and even to some Muslims are actually sin? The acquiescence of many Muslims in certain jihadist activities and their reluctance to speak out clearly comes from this “weak” sense of sin, that is trumped theologically by the belief that nothing happens–not even violence–contrary to the will of Allah.

7 thoughts on “Owning Isis: Collective Responsibility and Personal Guilt

  1. In this series we’ve been dancing around some core observations so far. Please go the next step: what, in your thinking, are the real possibilities for promoting or assisting in a renaissance for Islam? Can arguments work? It seems that all we might attempt to say is “boko haram” to those whom we might address.

    Is getting closer to and visibly reaffirming the words and actions of some moderate Islamic leaders in response to attacks likely to produce any effect? Can it produce the opposite, a sense that we correctly bow to the increasing demands to adapt our ways, because Islam is, in the end, the only truth?

  2. You surely can’t think we’ll talk them out of this?
    Remember part of this is power and conquest, for they see us – correctly – as both rich and weak.

    We have to kill our way out of this one.

  3. Pingback: Killing Heretics: Now and Then | TaborBlog

  4. The problem of collective guilt/sin is worrisome. Personally, I do not believe that we are born into a state of sin; however, we are taught sin/immorality by our society/family, particularly greed. The excuse for this can be anything, including religion. However, it is always worse amongst the most ignorant who deliberately keep themselves ignorant. They are afraid to educate themselves because they are afraid to lose something. They strike out at anything and everything because they are dying. I do not pity them. They disgust me. If they do not like the world, they should go to a monastery and leave the world behind.

  5. It is not a religious struggle, but a political, nationalist struggle. Religious motivation is used to powerfully augment nationalist fervour.

    Political, nationalist struggles have always been brutal, ruthless and amoral affairs. I can give endless examples of that but our bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are enough to make my point. It is interesting, that we, the western, democratic, liberal nations, have not assumed collective responsibility and guilt for those atrocities, which are surely the worst atrocities in the history of war.

  6. Most humans might be somehow deficient, prone to illness, and all eventually to death. But there was no historic Adam and Eve, and the notion that Jesus was the Second Person of the Trinity sent deliberately to “save” humans, from eternal torture after death, by being killed himself deliberately by a few humans, doesn’t make much sense to me – perhaps because, according to a Baptist neighbour, I may have been deliberately predestined to Hell.

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