Who is to Blame?

The Distinction Between the Moral Spheres of the Individual and Society

One of the many thorny issues that one encounters when engaging in Christian apologetics is the issue of warfare in the ancient world, specifically as it relates to the Israelite conquest of Canaan. In fact, it is one of those great objections that atheists love to hurl, and it is one that many Christians seem to stumble over.

Probably one of the greatest efforts in responding to this attack is Paul Copan’s work, Is God a Moral Monster? In the book he demonstrates that many of the times where what is mistakenly referred to as genocide, is often hyperbolic language of totality, Copan and a co-author discuss that in this brief paper, but we have to consider that sometimes, such statements are, in fact, facts. Sometimes they killed everybody: men, women, and children. One of the best examples where this seems evident is in 1 Samuel 15 where God, through the prophet Samuel, orders Saul to exterminate the Amalekites because of the Amalekites previous attempt to exterminate them, a point that somehow gets overlooked. The Jewish Encyclopedia has an interesting article that goes into some depth on these people.

Now, quite often, atheists often anachronistically cast back modern standards of warfare to the ancient world in an attempt to judge those tactics. We must always keep in mind that such standards are the result of a decidedly Christian philosophy as well as the work on just war theory, all of which has been developed over thousands of years. These are not only unfair accusations, they’re irrational. And if atheists want to paint themselves with the brush of rationality then they need to demonstrate a clear ability to think rationally.

It is very easy for us, in our place in history, to forget that the ancient world didn’t often have the luxury or the inclination to think about ideas of non-combatants, and that sometimes the goal was extermination. I mean, we have to keep in mind that there are certain people in society today who actually believe that because I believe what I believe about human sexuality that I should be exterminated, that they are actually attempting to incite genocide against me and those like me who hold similar beliefs, while all I want to do is have a public discussion about the subject and let the reasons be judged.

One of the biggest obstacles, even for Christians, especially for those who are non-Reformed, is the biblical concept of federalism. As this article concludes,

Federalism is a divinely appointed scheme for dealing with mankind. It is unpopular today because of the influence of the democratic ideal and the belief that every individual has a right to make up his mind for himself, and be either rewarded for his own merit or punished for his own error, and no one else’s. A society holding this ideal finds it difficult to accept the substitutionary atonement of Christ as well as the condemnation of humanity on account of Adam’s sin. But whether society accepts federalism, the Bible teaches it; and in the end, that is all that really matters.

While every man, as an individual, must be reconciled to God, people and groups of people, stand or fall before God together. 

One of the first instances we see of this federal, or corporate, judgement is in Genesis 15, where God is covenanting with Abram. In that passage, God promises to judge the Egypt for their treatment of Abram’s descendants. While there may have been Egyptians who were kind and supportive of the Israelites, the entire nation was judged as a whole. Now that doesn’t seem, superficially, to be fair but we have to ask if we are thinking clearly when it comes to that. Even those who argue for individual responsibility argue that the individual has a measure of responsibility to improve society. Indeed, it seems to be a failure of wanting to accept responsibility for one’s place in society, and their accompanying responsibility to the society in which they live, that seems to be the problem. This is because most Western people live in a guilt culture, which is based more on moral and ethical expectations, rather than a shame culture (the biblical culture) which is focused on varying levels of honor. For example, in the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, the difference in the west is noted,

[The] sense of what is right and what is wrong is expected to be internal, within the heart and mind of each person, and people are expected to choose right behavior on the basis of the conscience. Rules and laws are established to guide people in the right path. But ultimately the goal is that people will internalize the code of conduct so that it becomes not a matter of external influence but of internal guidance. (p. 114)

Contrast this with the east, where the authors note,

Things work differently in shame cultures. In shame cultures, people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It is not a matter of guilt, nor an inner voice of direction, but outer pressures and opinions that direct a person to behave a certain way. Rules and laws are less a deterrent for bad behavior than the risk of bringing shame on oneself or one’s family. (p. 116)

This is one reason why people have problems dealing with passages like Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which I’ve dealt with here. But these are questions with regards to individuals. The problem comes when we start scaling up, morally and ethically speaking. 

Marion Smiley notes in her Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the issue of cultural responsibility that,

[Notions] of collective responsibility are controversial. The traditional, backward looking, notion does not sit well with those who are skeptical about the ability of collective entities to will and to act as collective entities. The forward looking notion is less controversial than its backward looking counterpart is with respect to its metaphysical foundations. But it does raise questions about how—on the basis of what norms and principles—we can ascribe such responsibility in practice.

There is a great deal of discomfort that seems to selectively come when we start judging groups, although this occurs hypocritically. Americans are quick to blame politicians for any number of problems, but fail to blame themselves for electing these politicians and keeping them in office. There are constant calls for the imposition of “term limits,” when there are elections that occur every few years where these can be replaced. At almost every level, there is a failure to look past one’s own nose to recognize exactly where problems exist. People are quick to blame others for their situation while not recognizing that they are themselves often the problem and that societal ills are merely the manifestation of their own failings as an individual, something Smiley seems to grasp, when she writes,

Almost all of those now writing about collective responsibility agree that collective responsibility would make sense if it were merely an aggregative phenomenon. But they disagree markedly about whether collective responsibility makes sense as a non-distributive phenomenon, i.e., as a phenomenon that transcends the contributions of particular group members. In this context, as in many others, skeptics set the agenda. Two claims become crucial. The first is that groups, unlike individuals, cannot form intentions and hence cannot be understood to act or to cause harm qua groups. The second is that groups, as distinct from their individual members, cannot be understood as morally blameworthy in the sense required by moral responsibility.


Who is to blame? The society or specific individuals in society? These are the questions that trouble us. 

Indeed there is a notion that society has a certain moral responsibility. But who defines what that is?

There is also a notion that individuals have moral responsibility. But who defines what that is?

How responsible is a society, as an entity, responsible for the parts that make it up?


There is almost an unanimous agreement that Germany, as a nation (one unit of corporation), and Germans, as a people (another unit of corporation), were responsible for the Holocaust. Western powers went to war to stop them. There is similar agreement when it comes to the issue of slavery in the United States that the Southern states bear one level of responsibility, and the Southerners themselves another, even though slavery was legal in the whole of the United States at the time. Both instance see specific punishments inflicted on different levels by different groups.

While there were Germans who did not feel responsible for the actions and attitudes of their fellow Germans, they were nonetheless held responsible—even though some actually fought against their government. Similarly there were those in the South who did the same. It is difficult often to separate the part from the whole, but it’s okay when we have that problem.

The problem is that we have a problem when God judges a people as whole and brings his wrath down on them. Here’s a few things that I notice when we approach this issue, in no particular order of importance.

  1. The conflation of God’s judgment on a particular people with the implication of equal condemnation of all members of that people and their similar eternal destination. Honestly, the Bible is silent on the issue of children, especially those who die—regardless of circumstance—before they can have, what we perceive to be, moral culpability. While death is the common lot of all men ( eg Hebrews 9) it is only then that a person is judged. There is no logical connection between the actions that God employs to bring about a person’s death (one kind of judgment) and their final judgment (another kind of judgment). 
  2. The ignoring of context—that is the place that a particular command falls in the timeline—over a particular command. If we take the incidents in 1 Samuel 15 as our example there seems to be an ignoring of previous incidents between those identified as Amalekites with their actions towards Israel in prior times. Amalek had tried to wipe them out as Israel was moving toward the mountain of God. We scoff at these as matters of distant history, but in a shame culture, like the Ancient Near East, such slights are always present in the community memory.
  3. The intentional conflation of identity with action causing one to ignore everything else that is said. V3 of 1 Samuel 15 is one that we should note, “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have.” When a people is singled out by name we often fail to note everything that is going on. The preceding verse gives God’s reasoning for his command: Amalek’s attack, and continuing harassment of Israel. The assumption, given the often leveled accusation is the Amalekites were targeted because of who they were, if this were the case then the term genocide might have definite application. However, the Amalekites were not targeted because of who they were, even though there is a specific identification of them as a people-group. Rather, what they have been doing is given as the reason for their targeting.
  4. The one leveling the accusation fails to provide any coherent justification for what is wrong with the action itself. The Christian innately recognizes—just as an Israelite would have—that he is in no position, as the creature, to judge God’s judgments and commands. However, the atheist leveling these charges reveals an inconsistency and an incoherency in his or her worldview. If the atheist presuppositionally proclaims that there is no objective morality, that morals are subjective, that societies determine what is or is not moral—regardless of such justification—then Israel, as a society, did nothing immoral because their society approved of such behaviors. If one appeals to the “well-being of society”, then Israel’s well-being as a society depended on the destruction of Amalekite society, so there was nothing wrong with what was done. If empathy is what is being appealed to, then Israel’s empathy for its fellow tribesmen who were being harassed by the Amalekites provides sufficient justification. Quite simply the atheist has no basis to appeal to in order to justify their conclusion because every intersection provides a coherent justification for the action. 

At any point in the conversation there are multiple answers to the objection. What the Christian must stand on is the conviction that apart from the revelation of God there is no basis for calling anything “evil”. 

So, this brings us back to the question that we have milked out of the conversation: is it the individual who is at fault, or is it the society that is at fault?

I’m going to split the horns of the dilemma and say both. 

Societies, since they are composed of individuals, are the product of what individuals believe and how they agree to act. Individuals, upon their entrance into society, implicitly agree to certain facts and expectations whether or not they make these explicit. The more homogeneous a culture the more implicit those expectations are and the more heterogeneous a culture the more explicit they are. 

If we take two societies that are in the throws of a cultural and societal revolution for example: the United States and the United Kingdom. Both, at one time, had largely homogeneous cultures. There were certain understandings and expectations that they had in common and the culture was relatively locked and stable because they had common underpinnings. If we take the 2011 statistics of British population for example, things in Britain are changing. And depending upon where those concentrations are centered defines the level of change. The politically left-leaning want to overly simplify the cause of the issue to a matter of skin color. The politically right-leaning recognize that there is an ideology at work, and that people are using skin color as a mask for it. Similar issues are taking place in the United States, with the exact same tactics being employed. The point of this example is to demonstrate that one side, the political left, is often using corporate responsibility to make assertions, while the political right is making largely individualistic claims. Point being, both are right and both are wrong.

population statistics

Source:Wikipedia

Well, this has certainly been a rambling post, let me see if I can tie it all together as I close. The problem is failing to see a society as having a level of moral responsibility while, and often at the same time, either downplaying or overplaying the moral responsibility of the individual. The morals of society often reflect the culture and culture begins at the level of the individual. It’s a feedback loop. God, in his infinite wisdom, made this creature called man and gave him everything that he needed. Man rejected God and his gifts. As a result, man, as he coalesces into communities, spreads his depravity to another. Like a virus it spreads through an organism until it becomes a cancer. The flood was an all-out strike on the wickedness of man. As time progressed, and God allowed man to go farther and do more, the evil that men want to do becomes more refined, more a part of a culture, these cancers must be dealt with before they can do too much damage, so there are surgical strikes until a treatment can be introduced that inoculate man against evil and inspire him to do that which is good. These instances used to be historically isolated into tiny groups, then as nations grew and consolidated with other nations and the ages of the empires came upon the earth, then something had to change, men had to be changed. That is why Christ came.

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