Guilt, Shame and corporate identity

“When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for many days.” This phrase could characterize many of the responses to the tragic news the shootings at Virginia Tech. It was and is a shock to the conscience that anyone could behave so brutally. The immediate reaction was one of shock and despair. How could this happen? Who is to blame?

When the news broke that the shooter was a Korean American, a layer of complexity was added for all Koreans and indeed for all Asian Americans. How could it be that one of our own did such a horrific act? A friend of mine commented that to him it makes perfect sense that the family would sequester themselves. How else could they respond to the intensity of shame that would inevitably result from having a child who would commit such an act? Others have commented on their own sense of pain and shame. Cognitive knowledge of one’s own innocence is no vaccine against the collectivist culture that is imbibed in one’s mother’s milk. The dishonorable act of one brings shame on all.

As I Black American I understand this in some small way. While not as deeply ingrained as my Asian brothers and sisters, there still remains some sense of corporate identification that causes me to rejoice when one of “us” does well and causes pain and shame when we do not.

There is another view that has been circulating lately which suggests that it is inappropriate for Koreans and Korean Americans to feel guilt or shame over the actions of one individual.

“The Korean claim to guilt and shame on behalf of Cho Seung Hui is well-intentioned but misguided. We are Americans first. While we share an affinity with Korea and appreciate and respect Korean culture, at the end of the day we are Americans. Our president is in the White House, not in the Blue House. And our response to this crisis should be as Americans, not as Koreans.”

There is much truth in this statement. Korean Americans, particularly those born in the United States are Americans. The primary language they speak, the realities they reference, and the lives they lead are American. And yet I find I must take exception to this statement as well.

As a Christian, my first reference for response to anything must be scripture, and not my culture. Indeed I must evaluate my culture, as well as everything else in my life, in light of scripture. And here, ironically, I believe that Koreans and Asians in general, get it more right than do Americans.

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for many days.” This quote, mentioned at the beginning of my post is one I’ve been reflecting on quite a bit as I prepare to teach from Nehemiah in just a few weeks. The irony is that such an ancient passage could have such contemporary and immediate relevance.

Nehemiah, the speaker, bears no immediate responsibility, guilt, or blame for the condition of Jerusalem. By all accounts, he has done what is right and kept covenant with God. He has been successful in his profession and he has risen to a position of prominence in the most powerful empire of his day. Yet when he hears the tragic news, he owns the responsibility of the broken covenant.

The parallel is not perfect of course, but there is a lesson here. As Christians we do well to remember that virtually nothing in scripture is addressed to individuals and that the people of God identify themselves corporately and are addressed that way by God. It is not that God is unaware or that we should be unaware of our individuality. Indeed it is in scripture that the principle is articulated that no one should be made to pay the penalty for another’s sin. But over and again the prevailing identity is not me, but we.

So then it is true that no one other than the Seung Hui Cho himself was ultimately responsible or guilty. But it is also true that he, like all of us, was not just an individual, but a part of a family, a community, an ethnos, and that his actions brought shame on all those who share in that identity because they do not represent who Koreans really are. To apologize for the actions of ones family member is not the same as admitting culpability or responsibility for their crimes. It is simply and acknowledgment of what we know to be true… we are connected.

This truth should be even more readily accessible for Christians, for we have been made members of one family and one nation. Not only that, but we are people who have not only had our guilt expiated by the punishment inflicted on the person of Jesus, we have also had our honor (as image bearers of God, whose image we dishonor all the time) restored by the reality of the resurrection. Jesus is the family member who “made it.” He is the elder brother who has succeeded when the rest of us fail. The victory he won is ours as well because we are connected to him.

Author: elderj

I was born the fourth child and third son of godly parents in Nashville Tennessee. After leaving home for college I got involved with InterVarsity, then graduated with a degree in finance. After that I got a masters in history. Nowadays I spend too much time reading, writing, thinking, and occasionally doing my job.

6 thoughts on “Guilt, Shame and corporate identity”

  1. Preach! You’ve captured a tension in the AA community — some of us emphasize the home culture so much that we forget that we are citizens of this one as well, while others identify so much here that we forget that we are also of a cultural and ethnic heritage that still helps to forge our identity. We’re in between cultures, and instead of trying to escape one side, there is great blessings in receiving the blessings and redeeming the curses of both.

    And yes, Nehemiah (and Daniel) are great examplars of people who did no wrong yet identified with a culture that did — and confessed. I’ve been very heartened by the response of the Korean and KA communities — they could’ve tried to distance themselves from the gunman. Instead, they, on the most part, expressed remorse and grief. And its in the tears — instead of a shift in blame — that healing flows.

    And on the side, you just waxed eloquent with this line: “Cognitive knowledge of one’s own innocence is no vaccine against the collectivist culture that is imbibed in one’s mother’s milk.” What’s up, Shakespeare?

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