Transfer of Guilt and the Limits of Individual Responsibility

Forty-five minutes west of Potsdam, New York, there is an enormous billboard by the side of the two-lane highway that snakes across the northern edge of the state. It says, “Jesus died for your sins.”

Among those who even take notice, there are surely some who nod approvingly as they drive by, but inevitably others who roll their eyes. They have heard it before, and it makes no more sense to them than the last time. The message that Christ died on the cross for our sins is difficult for many modern people to grasp as anything but an overworn religious slogan. If we are free and autonomous individuals as we have been led to believe, how can the cruel death of another distinct individual - two thousand years ago, in a radically different setting and culture - have any effect on our lives today? How could that possibly cohere with our cherished belief in individual responsibility?

The Good News of Individual Responsibility - and it Limits

The Jews were still languishing in exile in Babylon, when Jeremiah spoke a prophetic word, 

In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.” (Jeremiah 31:29-30)

Commentators have described this as a key moral advance - a decisive step toward modernity - in its affirmation of individual responsibility. The ancient notion of collective guilt, in which the Lord “visited the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7), is now revised in the assertion that “everyone shall die for his own iniquity.”

For the Jews this was good news.  They had taken the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 and their exile that followed, as divine punishment for the collective sins of Judah over the generations. In the Book of Deuteronomy, as the Israelites are poised to reclaim their land after years of slavery in Egypt, the Lord had warns them, “if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you….you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other…” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 63-64). And now all this had taken place.

Jeremiah’s message of individual responsibility promised an end to the exile of the Jews.  It suggested that they were not merely condemned to suffer for the sins of past generations. In their embrace of personal responsibility, in opting for obedience and faithfulness, their situation could change. Which it did; as Jeremiah prophesied, the exile of the Jews came to an end in 539, when Cyrus, the King of Persia, defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return home.

As common sense as individual moral responsibility may seem to us, it has its limits. It may fit our view of the world and our place in it; it seems fairer and less antiquated than notions of collective guilt in The Old Testament. But with any advance there is often a loss - in this case the weakening of the idea of collective responsibility. Such a loss makes it hard to grasp the reality of Original Sin as the effect of the Fall, or modern notions like “institutional” racism, or our own part in the inequities and injustices that persist today. And it renders one individual’s atonement of the sins of others nonsensical.

The Transfer of Guilt

Charles Simeon was the vicar of Holy Trinity, Cambridge (UK), and is an enduring icon of Anglican Evangelical preaching. He arrived at Cambridge University in 1779, a typical upper class British adolescent, oblivious to matters of faith. A note from the college provost calling for his attendance at chapel for Holy Communion on Easter threw him into a panic. Interested in little more than horses, gambling and the latest fashions, Simone later said, “Satan himself was as fit to attend the sacrament as I.”

Troubled by a sense of unworthiness, he read popular moralistic texts, but these only depressed him further. Turning to Bishop Thomas Wilson’s “Instruction” on the Lord’s Supper he found a way forward in the description of propitiatory sacrifice in the Old Testament. He suddenly thought, “What, may I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an offering for me, that I may lie my sins on his head?”

On the Wednesday of Holy Week, he “began a hope of mercy. On the Thursday, that hope increased. On the Friday and Saturday, it became more strong. And on the Sunday morning, Easter Day, April 4, I woke early with these words upon my heart and lips: Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

Jeremiah’s announcement that “everyone shall die for his own iniquity” includes the corollary that each person will “live” (that is, “be saved”) because of his or her personal virtue. But that offered no comfort to Simeon.  Like Luther before him, he was all too aware of the depth of his own moral poverty before the perfection of God. But the possibility of a “transfer of guilt” to another; the prospect that he was not trapped in the isolation of his own individuality, but he, and others like him, could share in solidarity with another particular individual so profound that this person could carry his guilt, and everyone else’s with it - this brought unimaginable relief and the spontaneous cry, “hallelujah, hallelujah!”


This blog is written by the Rev. Dr. Christopher Brown, the Canon to the Ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.