Moral Culpability and the Blameworthiness of the Christian Church
What is posted below is sort of a joining thread that runs through a few discussions that I've had explicitly on anti-semitism over the last four years, and several more that I have had on the failures of theories of group identity and morals in Christian theology. Hopefully this ties those two problems together nicely, as I think that the two are deeply connected.
I've been engaging with a few Christian friends about the illocutionary force of a post-Holocaust Christianity. The reality is that the condition of Jewish persons in Hitler's Germany was dictated in enormous part by the positions of the greater Christian Church in Europe, both Catholic and protestant. I've outlined the historical overview elsewhere. The point is not seriously disputed.
The question I want to raise is the moral culpability of the contemporary Church and that it should hold itself accountable for the instantiation of anti-semitism throughout Europe and United States during the period [up-and-through today, for that matter, as it still plays a role, though less exclusively]. The question that I've raised to Christian friends, and they give the answers I expect, is how one can take the moral authority of contemporary Church leaders and theologians seriously when the lineage that they explicitly identify with is actively complicit in the dehumanization and oppression of an entire ethnic groups.
Their point, which I think is well taken, is that a group cannot be held totally accountable for the behavior of its individual members. There is a sense in which I believe this a credible sentiment; there is a sense in which I don't.
The first sense is the one in which each individual action is meant to be seen as clearly distinct from group identity. That is to say, just because Brian stole a Snickers bar and goes to NYU does not mean that the whole body of persons at NYU is responsible for Brian's moral failure. The sense in which his failure is independent of his membership of the group, where he has to take ownership alone, is well established.
The second sense requires some explanation of the general moral theory of accountability of groups, because that's the only way to make sense of it.
I used to grant a sort of ethical particularism [that stemmed from my general libertarianism] where the moral value of the acts of an individual person were laid on the shoulders of that person alone, and only ever on a single actor, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes the moral acts of a particular person are not sensibly spoken of in their entirety without the recognition of moral complicity by a group. The example that jumps immediately to mind is the Nazis, but since we're lingering on anti-semitism for the bulk of this post, let us look somewhere else for a moment.
In the mass murders perpetrated by communist regimes throughout Asia during the 20th century, the sorts of crimes were not sensibly spoken of as perpetrated by individuals, despite the fact that there was a series of acts carried out by a group of individuals. Someone issues the command to an officer, the officer instructs the soldier to fire on the civilian, and any number of steps before, after, and in between. The reality is, though, that because the moral reprehensibility of the act is only established with the fulfillment of the necessary condition of each particular act, the culpability of the group as a moral body, an actor itself, is established. [Moreover, it is important the group self-identifies as such, as is the case with both communist revolutionaries and anti-semitic Christians.]
Now, this becomes much more complicated in the case of anti-semitism in Europe, because any particular case of anti-semitism is not a clear case of a necessary condition for the whole of the condition. However, the doctrines of the Church as widely practiced on the continent constitute a necessary condition for the state of anti-semitism as it persisted from the middle ages through the Holocaust.
Imagine the use of deicide as an explicit trope in the portrayal of the crucifixion, explicit and implicit rhetoric identifying the contemporary Jews with the pharisees of the Bible and the persecutors of many disciples and early Church fathers. Imagine discussion of Jews kidnapping and butchering Christian infants, poisoning town wells, and practicing sorcery and extortion and general criminality at the expense of the good Christian folk in the pews. This is the sort of thing to keep in mind.
The question is whether we ought to allow that moral identity to persist into the future, whether the accountability for the crimes of the past still exists. Obviously the Church and individual churches are responsible for many contemporary instances of anti-semitism. I heard them sitting in the pews when I went to visit evangelical campus ministries at Fresno State, and in visits to local churches; there needs to be accountability there. But should there be similar account for the incidents prior to the second world war?
The reason that I've cited in my argument with some Christian theists is that the Church itself, by virtue of most theologies, claims to have a contiguous identity. Why moral features of that identity should be exorcised seems the object of special pleading for those theologians to engage in. Frankly, I think it is inescapable, as the moral value of the Church as a whole matters a great deal in the explicit discussion of its status in the Christian cosmology described by Paul.
The purpose of the exercise, then, is for Christian theologians and leaders, acknowledging this alleged contiguity of identity, to acknowledge as well that there are severe moral imperfections in the history of the Church for which they ought to be held accountable by society as a whole and, given their theological view on repentance, ought to repent of.
To whom they ought to repent given this line of argumentation [whether God or Jewish persons] is a reasonable question. I think the best answer is both, but that's tangential at best.
Only once have I ever heard such an acknowledgement from a Christian [a wonderful woman named Francine], and it was in the context of a session on anti-semitism awareness, where I was invited to speak.
If there are other instances, I would love to hear them, or read them, or recognize them in whatever form they come, but the reality is that the ones we get are weak-assed. John Paul II publicly apologized in 2000, so it only took the Church nearly-six decades after the Shoah to get there, and then Benedict reinstated a Bishop who claims that the Holocaust is part of a global Jewish conspiracy to manipulate historical consciousness. So there's certainly a mixed message there, though I do think that John Paul II was headed in the proper direction, clearly the current head of the Catholic contingent of the Christian Church does not agree.
The protestants claim that because of the disparity in the groups throughout Christian history, they cannot be held accountable as a particular group. For the reasons above, hopefully it will become clear why this is obviously wrong. If not, let's hammer that nail down a bit harder.
Given that the Church regards the identity of professing Christians as something that should be taken morally seriously, and that we should consider the acts of the apostles as something of theological and moral significance, or the writings and acts of Paul, we ought to expect that subsequent instances of Church groups which behaved morally reprehensibly should not be exorcised from the moral standing or social consciousness of the group.
The historical appropriation of Christian historical and theological teachings for either the explicit or incidental purpose of fomenting anti-semitism ought to be a part of the historical consciousness and moral identity of "the body of the Church" and something explicitly addressed in a time when individual churches and individuals within the Church are continuing to wrestle with anti-semitism as an issue. But, of course, for many preachers the issue remains one where the question of their own culpability is treated as irrelevant and the importance of their own action on the subject is not taken seriously.
There are many reasons, I think, why contemporary leaders in various churches, and many who claim to be theologians associated with or independent from a church, should not be taken intellectually seriously. This is not one of them. This, rather, is a reason why they ought not to be taken morally seriously.