Friday, February 09, 2007

original sin

Hi everyone,

So I don't think I've mentioned this on this blog before, but I've
been going to church in the campo a lot lately. This has given me a
reputation of being very religious. And in this way I am a contrast
to many other outsiders who come to visit in solidarity. There is an
NGO, a women's group, which has alienated both churches, and those
women who hold jobs in either church are not allowed to go to their
meetings. In one conversation, someone told me about some visiting
Cubans who encouraged people not to go to church and said that
religion was bad. Despite your political ideology, however, this is
not reality-based strategy.

People, and especially community leaders, spend a truly astonishing
amount of time in church and on church-related activities. In some
seasons of the year there are "visits", or prayer and song meetings,
in private homes every night of the week. But religion is anything
but the somber, serious, quiet event that my New England background
has led me to expect. Quiet is associated with sadness, not
reverence, and in Nicaragua people worship God by being joyful. Songs
are usually upbeat and often accompanied by clapping. Prayer is done
not by bowing the head solemnly but by looking ahead or up with both
palms to the sky. One hymn, accompanied by clapping, goes "In heaven
they hear what is sung on earth!" and "With lots of lot of happiness
and enjoyment, this is how we worship God". (En el cielo se oye, lo
que en la tierra se canta; Con mucho alegria y gozo, asi se alaba

In the community where I work, there are two religions: Catholic, and
Evangelical (Church of God). I have been alternating Sunday mornings
at each one. This has been a strategic move—I am now well-known among
church goers, so that even when I show up to do an interview in a
house where the people are unknown to me I am often recognized (Here
comes the tall white lady from church!). But listening to the sermons
has also sparked some meditations.

One of these has to do with the idea of original sin. In case you'd
like a refresher, the idea of original sin is that human mortal
existence is inherently sinful. This is traced back to Eve's sin of
eating the apple of knowledge in the garden of Eden, contrary to God's
instructions. Ever since that happened, people have been born into
sin, and in the Catholic version must be cleansed and forgiven by
church sacraments (baptism, confession and communion, marriage, last
rites). However, the condition of alive humans is that of constant
sin, and although sin must be fought against, nobody can avoid it. So
life is in perpetual tension, a constant dialectic, swinging between
sin, repentence, forgiveness, and more sin. In the Catholic church,
as part of the weekly service, people touch their breast bones and
say, "por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi pésima culpa" (because of my
fault, because of my fault, because of my terrible fault).

For many people who have become alienated from a Christian church,
this is a big part of the reason. Why is it my fault? What do I have
to repent for? I haven't done anything wrong. Being born into the
human condition, which I didn't have any choice in, shouldn't force me
to feel guilty.

What I've been thinking about, though, is that this is an
individualistic understanding of sin, and of responsibility. Is the
only unit that can be held accountable for something an individual
human being? This is certainly the way that most Westerners think
today, and it is the basis on which Western legal systems are built.
There is no provision for an act committed by a group of people apart
from the actions of any individual member of that group. You either
wielded the knife or you were an accomplice. Even corporations are
"legal people"— the root of the word "corporation" is in the Latin for

However, this causes plenty of paradoxes and problems, because in
reality people are not just individual agents, they are always members
of groups of various sizes, and those groups act. The whole of a
human group—whether it's a family, a stampeding crowd, the people who
send on an email forward, an ethnic group, or an audience—is more than
the sum of its parts. Let's take the extreme case of genocide. The
Nuremberg trials, where various Nazi officials were tried for the
crime of genocide after World War II, is a good illustration of the
complex problems posed by a purely individual understanding of crime.
Was a Nazi officer guilty of the crime of genocide? No, not as an
individual. He was a part of a human group, and that human group was
guilty of the crime. But the legal system didn't allow for putting a
human group on trial. So instead we had defenses arguing that an
individual officer was "just following orders", making him seem like a
particularly unintelligent robot. And we had prosecutions similarly
unrealistically inflating his freedom of action. Was the radio
broadcaster in Rwanda single-handedly responsible for the decimation
of the Hutus? Of course not. One Rush Limbaugh type cannot cause an
entire nation to rise up and slaughter another. But she was an
important part of the group which was responsible.

You might argue that groups can't be held responsible, because you
can't throw an ethnic group in jail, for example. And there are
always innocent members of the group who would be also punished. But
I would answer that recognition of the problem is the first step.
Finding an appropriate way to hold a group responsible would be

In fact, there have been some steps taken towards effectively holding
groups responsible for their crimes. In South Africa after the end of
apartheid and in Guatemala in the years after the worst of the
genocide was over (and in other places), there were Truth and
Reconciliation commissions. In these, people who had been victims, or
family members of victims, told their stories in a public forum. I
believe there were ways that the truth-tellers' identities were
protected. I see this as a way of holding a group responsible for its
action—a public denunciation and humiliation. It is a punishment
similar to the old method of exposing an individual in the stocks with
a sign on them proclaiming their crime.

The idea of original sin tackles this issue of collective
responsibility. Why are we all born into sin? Because a member of
the group which is humans sinned once. (More misogynistic
interpretations hold women especially responsible, but that's a
distortion of the main point, for me.) God didn't throw just Eve and
Adam out of Eden, but say that Cain and Abel would be allowed back,
since after all they hadn't even been born when the apple was eaten.
We were all held responsible. And I, personally, don't see Eve as an
individual actor, either. Humans are curious, that's how we're put
together. If Eve hadn't eaten the apple, somebody else would have.
The serpent was only acting like the Rwandan radio broadcaster—Eve was
not just a robot following orders, but acting on behalf of all humans.

For a humanist like me, the idea of original sin can be meaningful in
the way it tackles collective responsibility. I am a white
Unitedstatesean born in the late 20th century, and the group of which
I am a member has a hell of a lot to answer for. Is this my
individual fault? Of course not. I did not invent the atomic bomb,
or drop it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I did not send Japanese and
Germans to detainment camps. I have never owned an SUV. I did not
use Agent Orange in Vietnam, or napalm in Korea. I did not come up
with the idea of the fast-food half-pound hamburger with super-sized
soda and french fries. I did not ignore global warming, although I
contribute to it every day (oxygen in, carbon dioxide out). I did not
squelch the hopes of the Guatemalan people in 1955. I have never
slashed-and-burned a rainforest, or directly given other people
incentives to do so. I did not fund the Contras, although my parents'
tax dollars did. I have never lynched a black person, or a gay
person, and it wasn't me who segregated schools or the inner cities.
I did not invade Haiti any of the times. I did not run the Exxon
Valdez aground. I did not support Pinochet, or Trujillo, or the
Somozas, or Duvalier, or Saddam Hussein. I didn't even vote for
George W. Bush, either time.

But the group of which I am a member is responsible. Por mi culpa,
por mi culpa, por mi pésima culpa.

What are the possible reactions of a person of conscience? She could
renounce citizenship, immerse herself in a totally different culture
and never come back, denying who she is and breaking ties with family
and friends (and thus making herself a part of the wrongs committed by
another group). She could retreat into individualism, telling
herself, "it's not MY fault" and trying to forget about it in order to
achieve peace of mind. Or she could buy in conditionally, agreeing to
be a member while working to promote change and improvement, or to at
least ameliorate things a little bit. In other words, she could
accept that she was born into sin, and that sin is inevitable, but
that she will nevertheless struggle against it and ask for

Life is lived in creative tension and dialectic, both for deists and
for humanists. The idea of original sin, of collective responsibility
and individual reaction to it, can help us to constructively work
through these struggles. What humanists don't have is a regular
ritual of absolution like the Catholic confession. Maybe we should
invent one!



Burns said...

As always your ruminations get me thinking and making parallels with other things I know about. For example:

1) In Germany, it is illegal to deny the existence of the holocaust. Is this a way of taking collective responsibility?

2) The military attempts to mold individuals into a unit. And yet they sometimes hold individuals responsible for killing Iraqis. There is no way to recognize group responsibility. Yes the individual did despicable act x, but in the context of being required to do despicable act a, b, and c and having been put in a location and a situation over which the individual has little choice (having once joined).

This strikes me as the biggest problem with libertarianism. There are problems/issues that can only be addresses as a group/society/culture.

Joe said...

Burns, I think you hit the nail on the head with your second point. I think within a given set of group acts, an individual within that group should only be held to account to the level that they could actually influence the outcome. While they could be held responsible, in the context of a group prosecution, for its full weight, or even an equal share with every other perpetrator, this is almost certain to be unfair.

To use Carrie's Nazi example, Himmler had significant orders of influence regarding the "conduct" of the Nazi war machine over a citizen in Nazi-occupied Denmark that had to exist within that system. It would be unfair to group them both as "complicit to criminal Nazi aims" and either penalize the Dutchman too severely or Himmler not enough.

I suspect a lawyer and statistician (two very cold ones for that matter) could sit down and devise a formula where the responsibility for a group's crimes was the sum of all points on a curve of individual responsibility based on influence. This strikes me as a model of fairness more than group reprisals, of which history is full, most much less well-handled than the Truth and Reconciliation commissions (e.g. Mugabe's "Land Reform" and the Jewish Diaspora).

This leads me to suspect that the non-existence of Western law that can effectively prosecute a group is due, not to the West's individualism, but rather because the rule of law itself exists to ensure fairness and is therefore incompatible with group concerns -- at least punitive ones.

Jeff said...

Hi Carrie,

1. "By my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault" is a phrase with which I am familiar, having spoken it in a Lutheran church. It is used in the service of the Prayer at the Close of the Day (Compline):

I confess to God Almighty, before the whole company of heaven, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned in thought, word and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault; wherefore I pray God Almighty to have mercy on me, forgive me all my sins, and bring me to everlasting life. Amen.

2. I agree that the first step is to recognize that there is a problem. But I don't think the second step is to "find a way to hold the group accountable." Before you can do that, you first need to agree (a) that the problem is worth solving and (b) there is a solution to be found. Only then will you attempt to work for it.

This in many ways mirrors the first three steps in practice of Alcoholics Anonymous (and other groups based on the 12-steps of A.A.):

1. Admitted that we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.

That is, there is a problem.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This is the realization that there is solution. The assumption here is that the solution offered by the Higher Power is the right one. We certainly know that the solutions that we tried on our own (drinking) never worked.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

I have a sister in a recovery program. I have been reading about the 12 steps of A.A. and find that they are really interesting to study.


Carrie said...

About group responsibility, etc., I´d say to you, Dad (um, I mean Burns? what´s the right blogging protocol?), that definitely the illegal-to-deny-the-holocaust law is a way of taking group responsibility. I think that groups act, most of all, in exactly that sort of symbolic level of reality. And when I call it symbolic, I don´t want to say it´s any less real than material levels. Some of the most valuable property in the world today, and some of the most fiercely protected, is symbolic: brand names and trade marks.
Joe: you´re definitely right that some people have way more influence over outcomes than others. And I wouldn´t ever want to make the argument that Himmler shouldn´t be punished as an individual. But I think the calculus-of-responsibility idea is a little reductionist... it reduces a group fault to something that any given individual person could have X percent of. I think any really effective punishment for a group would not impact all the individual members of a group directly... because that would be missing the group itself. Hence the Truth and Reconciliation commissions... they are acting exclusively in the symbolic realm, where groups have their most potent reality. Make group punishments be symbolic--but none the less real.
I would like to point out, too, that money is one of the most potent symbols that we have available to work with. (Money symbolizes value). So there could be financial penalties, for example, with great care taken to avoid those that penalize the least responsible people the most. (for example, the poorest people in North Korea are the ones who suffer the most from the economic sanctions... you can believe that the government officials are not suffering hunger! So this is a counter-productive economic strategy. However, a strategy that, for example, restricts the import of really expensive luxury goods would probably have no effect on poor folks but penalize the rich and powerful... IF it could be ever enforced and smuggling pretty much eliminated.)
Jeff: Thanks for your thoughts, that´s an interesting, if not 100% equivalent, parallel. Especially thanks for the translation of that "mi culpa" phrase... I knew my translation sounded awkward.