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Collective Responsibility

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God… (Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NIV)

I wrote recently about the collective accountability that is clear in the early books of the Bible. Though it’s uncomfortable to modern American sensibilities, God doesn’t shy away from holding Israel answerable as a community for their general faithfulness to him.

The blessings of Deuteronomy 28 are wondrous and impressive, the curses even more fearsome. God’s first covenant with his people was truly a choice between life and death (Deuteronomy 30:15). While the word “you” in chapters 28 and 30 appears to be singular, some translations have rendered it plural. It seems reasonable that these were promises to Israel collectively, since Moses was addressing the whole assembly of Israel (Deuteronomy 27:9), and some of the curses don’t make sense applying to individuals (such as “you and your king” being carried off into exile, 28:36).

In our Bible study, we wrestled with the difficulty of such direct consequences applied to a whole nation. It was so hard to get out of the individualistic mindset. “What if you’re doing everything you should, but your neighbor isn’t tithing? If your crop goes bad because of a drought, do you blame him?”

Moreover, Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Parents must not be put to death for the sins of their children, nor children for the sins of their parents. Those deserving to die must be put to death for their own crimes” (NLT). Doesn’t that contradict the very idea of collective accountability? On this question, we thought either this instruction was for people who carry out human justice, who wouldn’t have the insight of an all-knowing God, or perhaps specifically for the death penalty, again as carried out by humans.

Finally, how much does the “old covenant” even apply to us Christians, now that Jesus has made a new covenant (for example, Luke 22:20) by paying the penalty for our sins? We are no longer under the law (Romans 6:14).

I think collective accountability makes us nervous partly because it implies a collective responsibility. If my whole tribe, say, will be punished for our overall disobedience, then I am responsible to help my neighbor obey. In his incredible book Insider Outsider, black pastor Bryan Loritts explains how many American Christians, especially those who are white, dismiss structural injustice so that we don’t have to reckon with our “own complicit personal culpability.” We want to be held accountable only for our individual actions, perhaps thinking we’ll be better off.

But we have not been freed from our obligation to others. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” (James 1:27 NIV). “To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33 NIV, emphasis added).

We are collectively responsible for one another. How each of us expresses that responsibility toward our fellow human beings will look different, but let us not seek to get out of it. “When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,’ they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry” (Deuteronomy 29:19 NIV).

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