"Yet say ye, "Wherefore doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father?" When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die: The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die". Ezekiel 18:19-21
This past week the Rotary club in my home-town were appealing for donations for the people of Japan after the horrific earthquake, tsunami and nuclear troubles that they have suffered. It appeared to me that many people were contributing generously and this spirit of generosity is something that is to be celebrated. Later that day my other-half's mother while in town shopping, also came across the same scene but with a difference. An elderly couple came along and began to castigate the Rotarians for having the temerity to raise money for the Japanese, which according to their argument they did not deserve as a result of the depraved manner with which they treated British troops in Burma during the second world war. When I heard about this I was shocked and appalled, a feeling I no doubt shared with those Rotarian men and women who had given up their time to help others. However for all I know this couple may have had some personal experience of the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war, which might account for their opinion and so for me to judge them negatively would be unfair.
At the heart of their argument seems to have been the contention that the Japanese nation today, over 80% of which are not old enough to have even been able to take part in ww2, are in some sense guilty of the crimes of some Japanese in the war generation, and as such should not be helped. It is unfortunately not a big step from that idea to ultimately regard the suffering of the Japanese in the recent disaster as a positive thing, a view that disturbingly I have personally seen expressed. It seems axiomatic to me that children are not to be held responsible for the sins of their fathers, or for that matter that no one is to be held responsible for the sins of others, and yet it would seem that not all would agree. In North Korea for example the children of political dissidents are punished for their parents "crimes", and on the very day of the Japanese earthquake, the world was witness to a horrific example of such twisted thinking. Palestinian terrorists broke into the house of an Israeli family in the West Bank, and brutally murdered both parents and three of their children; Yoav aged 11, Elad aged 4 and Hadas the 3 month old baby girl. Heaven only knows how anyone can consider the deliberate murder of children, for any reason whatsoever, to be acceptable. Disgracefully in Gaza the Hamas regime thought the occasion worth celebrating, and made quite a show of doing so. It is a pity that they do not follow the following sage advice:
"Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth.
And let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown :
Lest the Lord see it, and it displease Him."
The Unitarian rejection of doctrines such as original sin and vicarious atonement, partially originate in the strongly held principle, that the innocent do not bear the guilt of, and are certainly not punished for, the sins of others. (Some eastern understandings of karma, which posit that some of the sufferings of people, including children, result from sinful acts of previous lives, would presumably also be rejected by those who do not accept original sin.)
"More unreasonable than the doctrine of inherited sin is that of inherited guilt which underlies the doctrine of original sin. The guilt of any action can fall only on the person who by an act of will commits it or intends and plans it. But this doctrine places on the newly-born infant the burden of a sin committed before he was born and in which he had no part."
The Beliefs of A Unitarian by Alfred Hall.
We might also note that our teacher Jesus clearly stated;
"Forgive us our trespasses."
He did not say "Forgive us our trespasses and those of Adam etc. Whose guilt we bear". For most of us the belief that an innocent man (let alone God himself) had to die on a cross to allow God to forgive us our sins, is not one that we feel is supported by reason, morality or scripture.
"Unitarians maintain that the theory of satisfaction, which makes necessary the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as an expiation of the sins of the world, is contrary to the teaching of Jesus concerning the love and forgiveness of God. Further to inflict on the innocent, punishment due to the guilty does not satisfy any principle of justice with which we are acquainted."
The Beliefs of A Unitarian by Alfred Hall.
Our sins are our own, we are each responsible for our own transgressions, this is the price of our human freedom.
Another teaching of Jesus comes into my mind when people suggest that we should not help the Japanese as a result of their history:
"He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone." John 8:7
There are very few countries in our world that do not have dark chapters in their history, especially when viewed from the vantage point of modern times. If God forbid, a tragedy on the scale of what has happened in the far-east were to occur here, I only pray that countries all around the globe would not condition their assistance of us, on our not having behaved badly in the past! While recent British history does not equate in scale to the terrible actions of other nations, we can hardly claim to be innocent of wrong doing. Our behaviour in India before partition and our disgraceful treatment of Boer women and children during the conflicts in South Africa are two of many episodes that spring to mind as severe blemishes on our national narrative. I assume that those Britons staining the Japanese with the eternal mark of guilt, do not do likewise to our nation. They might pause and consider if their hypocrisy is sustainable.
Finally, even if it were the case that the current generation of Japanese were guilty of past wrongs, does that in any way diminish the suffering visible on our screens and newspapers? Should it force us to poor the ice of vengeance onto our hearts and snuff out the embers of empathy? Of course not. We would still be obligated to open our hands and reach out to help in any way we can, for any other approach would shrivel our humanity.
"If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again." Exodus:23.
Even when we have every reason to dislike someone, even when we have genuine enemies nothing testifies to the Divine presence in the heart of humanity, than to reach out over the divide with kindness, charity and mercy.
This past Wednesday, Jewish paramedics and residents of a settlement in which surviving members of the slain Fogel family were mourning their loss, reached beyond anger, grief and hatred and struggled to save the life of a Palestinian baby that suffered life threatening complications during birth. The baby's life was saved and the happiness shared by all involved, has removed at least one drop of mistrust and hatred from that troubled land, in the same way that the efforts of a Palestinian man to search for and return an Israeli child who had become lost after wandering from the settlement in which he lived, built bridges of mutual respect and kindness.
"But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you...And if ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? For even sinners love those that love them. And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? For even sinners do the same...But love your enemies, and do them good and lend...Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.