The Life of a Wrong

Posted on September 28, 2013


How long is one responsible for a wrong?

Recently the CIA released a new report on Operation Trajax.

The document—“The Battle for Iran”– revealed a few new facts on the removal by the United States of a prime minister in 1953 skirting too close to the edges of communism. This was, after all, the Cold War.

He was replaced by the Shah who was in turn replaced by a fundamentalist Islamic revolution in 1979.

And today the Iranian fundamentalists hold us (like in the U.S.) responsible for these intrusions into the sovereignty and independence of Iran. They want an apology and some other acknowledgment that the U. S. was responsible for what happened half a century ago.

In our own country, some descendants of African slaves seek some sort of apology and even compensation for the enslavement and use of their ancestors by the descendants of the white slave owners. This wrong goes back almost four hundred years to when the first Africans were imported into the colonies in 1619.

So how long is an individual or nation responsible for the sins of the past?

Or, to be even more precise, how far back does accountability go? One generation, two generations, four hundred years, more?

If we go back four hundred years, we might as well go back four thousand, or four hundred thousand years.

Eve took a bite of the apple, persuaded Adam to join her, and so disobeyed God and opened the door to sin. She did it. Women should pay reparations to men for introducing guileless man to sin.

Never mind that man has free will and certainly didn’t have to follow Eve’s example. But how many sane men want to buck their wives when the wiles are turned on?

“I’m sorry Eve, but we are prohibited by God from doing that.”

And Eve says, demurely, eyes cast down, “But Adam, don’t you love me?”

Ok, let’s put Adam and Eve aside, although we’ll return to Scripture in a moment.

While the concept of reparations is not new, its extension beyond traditional meanings is new. It embodies an all-the-world-is-a-village kind of thinking. Somehow we are all responsible, for example, of taking care of all the children, and, by extension, we are all responsible for what went on in the past.

There are some problems with that point of view. One, it ignores individual responsibility.

And, two, are Germans today for example—more than half a century removed–responsible for the murder of six million Jews by Hitler’s regime during World War II?

Right after the war some Germans for sure were held individually responsible, tried in an international court, and hung for “crimes against humanity.” They were monsters and deserved it. But what about their children and their children’s children? How long does guilt endure?

The Biblical argument is that one is personally responsible for one’s actions, and not collectively responsible for what happened in the past. But the Old and New Testaments differ.

In the Old Testament some sins are visited on the sons and the sons of sons. See for example Genesis 20:5.

But in the New Testament those born again are given a new lease on life and forgiven for their sins. They are in the language of Scripture, “born again,” even given new names, and the slate is wiped clean.

They are responsible and accountable for their decisions, not those of their fathers or ancestors.

This teaching is very clear. You are indeed responsible for what you do. You have a free will and so can decide to accept the mercy and love and salvation of God, or reject it.

As they teach us—or at least used to teach us—in Kindergarten, there are consequences to our actions.

Does this mean that we, as a people, and you, as an individual, are totally blank slates, no more responsible to remember the past than an animal, like your pet dog for example?

Absolutely not. You are made in the image of God and so are endowed with many of the attributes of God. You have a conscience, you have a mind, you have a soul, you are equipped to remember experiences, and to make wise decisions based on those experiences.

You even have been given a collective memory. We call it history.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana captured something of the spirit of history when he wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We learn from the past, both from the mistakes, or getting it right, from the tragedies, and the victories, although tragedies and defeats are better instructors than victories.

We do not forget the long and often brutal history and degradation of slavery, of Hitler’s “Final Solution” to the “Jewish problem,” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (as necessary as they were to end World War II), of countless other examples of cruelty and inhumanity and brutality in the world, past and present.

Nor do we ignore the Mother Teresas who have dotted the centuries, the givers not the takers, the examples of good will and charity and love rather than hate and envy and pride that mark the diverse human experience.

While our parents are supposed to feed and comfort and teach us from helpless newborns through some point in adolescence, we eventually grow up and mature.

We, in fact, become accountable for what we do. Not for what our parents did, or our grandparents, or our ancestors back in the mists of time.

It is both a liberating and fearful moment when we discover this central truth of the human experience, when we can reap the fruits of our freedom, or crash from bad decisions and bad choices made with that same freedom.

That freedom is God-given gives most of us some clues as to how we deal with the world successfully.

Published as an OpEd in The Tuscaloosa News as What is the Lifespan of a Wrong?