Sunday, March 08, 2020

Under the Tower of Siloam

Individual guilt differs from corporate guilt, and individual repentance from corporate repentance, not just quantitatively but qualitatively.

That’s going to require a fair bit of explanation, especially for Christian readers born into our hyper-individualistic Western culture. Most of us only think about the matter of corporate guilt when we find ourselves summarily dismissing Progressivist ravings about race- or gender-based privilege. We rightly reject being held responsible for the long-term social impact of patterns of historical behavior in which we have never engaged and from which we do not personally benefit. “Each of us will give an account of himself to God,” we say.

Full stop, move along now.

So then, please bear with me a bit. Corporate guilt and corporate repentance are definitely biblical concepts. The Left radically misapplies them, and cynically attempts to use them to its own political advantage, but they are not exactly pulling the idea out of nowhere.

Corporate Guilt and Corporate Repentance

Corporate guilt is not merely the sum total of all moral violations committed by individuals belonging to a particular group. It involves something more than volume, volume, volume. Corporate guilt occurs when individual sins become public sins: first tolerated; later rationalized away; institutionalized in the end. It produces a multi-generational fog of moral inversion in which children are conditioned to accept false default assumptions about right and wrong and go on to promote these values unchallenged.

It is this extra component of mass social acceptance which makes corporate guilt qualitatively different from individual guilt, and requires that it be repented of separately.

Daniel’s famous prayer in chapter 9 is all about corporate repentance for corporate guilt. It is national, not personal:
We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets.”
Daniel, taken captive to Babylon as a youth, had no part whatsoever in Israel or Judah’s rebellion against the commandments of God. He was a devout man from the moment we encounter him in scripture. To the best of our knowledge, he had never met a prophet or rejected the voice of God. And yet he becomes the spokesman for a nation in desperate need of repentance and restoration. Had he been the only Judean who had repented, then surely the earthly people of God would have remained in Babylonian captivity. But he was not. He gave voice to the cry of a generation of guilty descendants of Israel eager and ready to get right with their God.

Consequences and Effects

Corporate guilt affects everyone in a particular group, whether or not they are personally guilty of anything. Godly Jeremiah was dragged to Egypt by Judean rebels. Daniel prospered personally in Babylon, but many godly Judeans did not. And regardless of his personal success, he remained forever a man of Judah and a true Israelite at heart, not a Babylonian. He bore the stigma of believing in the God of Israel, and took the personal risks that came his way because he refused to adopt the ungodly practices and worship habits of his Chaldean captors. In fact, Daniel’s whole life, personal and political, was molded and dictated by the actions of men and women dozens and hundreds of years before he was born. Like it or not — individual or not — he was part of a group corporately accountable to God, and he knew it very well.

Corporate guilt involves consequences in this life. Corporate repentance is about getting those ongoing consequences lifted or abrogated so our corporate relationship with God may be restored and life may go back to normal. Corporate guilt is not a matter to be judged at the great white throne or the judgment seat of Christ; rather, the fallout from corporate guilt is usually very much visible in the here and now. If it is not visible to you today, trust me, it will be shortly.

And of course it should go without saying that genuine corporate repentance involves a great deal more than just saying, “Sorry, Lord, our bad.” It requires actually going and changing stuff at the institutional level. Those high places need to be torn down, false priests put to the sword, and Baal’s temple turned into a latrine.

A Familiar Passage in Luke

Okay, so where am I going with all this? Well, I’m going to Luke 13, actually. It starts with a passage we tend to interpret quite individualistically, which, I believe, is better understood corporately. We can still draw personal lessons from it, no doubt, but we will not interpret it faithfully in its original context if we come to it only as modern, Gentile individuals.

Here we go:
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’ ”
Now, the standard message we take from the Lord’s words here is this: Don’t pass judgment on others because they happen to experience suffering in life. Don’t assume they are guilty of anything unusually vile. You too need to get right with God, or else you will go to hell.

These are not untrue statements, but they are not at all what Jesus was trying to communicate to his first century listeners. They are at best extrapolations, even if they are worthwhile extrapolations. They leave the Lord’s original meaning unexplored and unconsidered.

A Little Context

Let’s start by examining the context a little. Luke 13 is decidedly corporate in character. Everything that follows from this incident is both national and Jewish. The parable of the barren fig tree in verses 6-9 is almost universally taken to refer to the nation of Israel. The anecdote about the woman with the disabling spirit in verses 10-17 involved a deliberate, Sabbath day provocation of institutional Judaism, and the healed woman is specifically called a “daughter of Abraham”. Uprooted from their usual context as part of the seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13 and transplanted here, the parables of the mustard seed and leaven in verses 18-20 are as accurate and damning a picture of the kingdom of God in its then-current Jewish form — bloated, infiltrated and thoroughly contaminated — as they are of any later iteration of the church. The narrow door analogy of verses 22-30 makes reference to “Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” The “you yourselves” here is unarguably and intentionally Jewish, as it is distinguished in the very next line from “people from east and west, north and south.” Finally, verses 31-35 are an eloquent lament over a Jerusalem that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”

The Lord is not mourning for a lost world in the climax of Luke 13, but specifically for his lost covenant people, institutionally corrupt and in crying need of corporate repentance.

Two Incidents

Bearing all this in mind, let’s have a look back to the first five verses. We have two incidents: one involving Galileans, one Judaeans, encompassing both halves of the divided nation under Roman rule. At least one of the two incidents had political overtones. Pilate did not mingle the blood of Galilean worshipers with their sacrifices because he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. He was making a political point, putting a subject people in their place. He was sending a message to the nation.

It is not at all unlikely that the second incident had political overtones as well, as George Buchanan suggests here*, though we cannot be sure. The Tower of Siloam was a relatively small, ancient, Syrian structure situated along the old wall of Jerusalem in the shadow of a colossal Roman fortress constructed by Herod. Its footings have been unearthed and measured. The tower could easily have been toppled onto a group of Judaean protesters by their Roman overlords to make a statement, but of course this is pure conjecture. What we can be sure of is that the Lord’s original audience knew perfectly well the circumstances of both tragic incidents to which he refers, and were in a far better position to understand their full implications than modern readers, for whom they are lost historical references of no particular import.

“Likewise” Times Two

So individual salvation and eternal destiny are not the subjects here. But the biggest hint that we are talking about national repentance (to usher in an earthly, Jewish kingdom) rather than personal repentance issuing in salvation is this: the word “likewise” (homoiƍs, meaning “equally” or “in the same way”), twice repeated, and the reference to “suffering”. The Lord is surely saying something like this: “Unless you repent as a nation, you Jews will find yourselves suffering and dying as randomly and pointlessly as these, your fellow countrymen.” He is making reference to the then-future destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, which took place in the wake of a crushed Judaean revolt, a symptom of Jewish intransigence and abject refusal to bow the knee to their God, confess their guilt, and publicly acknowledge Jesus as their promised Messiah and deliverer. The leaders of the nation decided they were up to ushering in the kingdom themselves. They were not.

The historian Josephus claims 1.1 million people were killed during Titus’ siege of Jerusalem, the majority Jews, and that 97,000 more were captured and enslaved. This would certainly call to mind the Lord’s words in Luke 13, “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Repentant Jews, for the most part, were already long gone by the time the nationalistic Zealots drew the eye of Rome and brought final judgment on their nation. These had converted to Christianity and spread across Europe and around the Mediterranean, taking their faith to the world.

All to say, if we’re going to use this passage as a call to repentance today, we had best get the character of that repentance correct. It is corporate repentance that is in view, not individual repentance of sins ushering in salvation.

A Useful Lesson to Consider

That’s still a very useful lesson to consider. Many of our churches are in quite a state today, some not wildly incomparable to the condition of institutional Judaism in the first century. The Lord calls us not just to individual repentance for our various sins against him, but also to an attitude of humble re-examination of what we do when we come together as a testimony to Christ. That is what Revelation’s letters to the seven churches are all about.

Where have our current church habits and practices come from? Do they come from the teaching of Christ and his apostles, or have they been absorbed by osmosis from the world around us? Is there anything about the hypocrisy of first century Pharisees to which we might inadvertently relate? Have we tested everything handed down to us and held fast to the good, or have we simply accepted the traditions of our spiritual fathers uncritically and without appropriate Christian discernment?

Make no mistake, persecution of Christians is coming, and maybe sooner than later. When the first Western 21st century believers are singled out to experience the wrath of an angry secular mob, expect to see a few of their fellow Christians politely suggesting that maybe the suffering they are experiencing is not the product of faithfulness to Christ but rather a consequence of their own sin. (Who am I kidding? This is already happening.) Maybe these troublemakers were insufficiently respectful of a woman’s “right to choose”. Maybe their churches were unacceptably exclusionary and unwelcoming toward members of a particular rainbow demographic. Maybe they voted for Donald Trump. Maybe they were “worse sinners” and “worse offenders”, and brought unnecessary grief on themselves. Surely such a thing could never happen to us, could it?

The Lord’s answer to that question may reasonably be inferred from Luke 13.

* Buchanan says, “The eighteen who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell might have been killed in a construction accident, but the fact that both chreias are mentioned together, and that the areas involved are geographically very close to each other, suggests that both events probably occurred at the same time and for the same reason, but this is only a deduction.”

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