Does the Bible emphasize personal responsibility or systemic injustice?

With Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in the media spotlight this week, many have noted how white observers tend to process events like these as isolated incidences through the lens of “personal responsibility,” while African-Americans tend to view them through the lens of “systemic injustice” as part of broader patterns.

So I thought it would be helpful to ask whether the biblical story prioritizes one over the other: personal responsibility or systemic injustice? It seems to me if we as Christians think it does, we will also likely prioritize that one. So I asked some friends this week the question.

“Personal responsibility, definitely.” came the first answer.

“Both,” others said, “but if I had to land on emphasis . . .”

A common theme for many seemed to be that the Bible speaks to both, but if one had to land on emphasis it would probably be personal responsibility.

I want to contest this assumption.

Building Babylon

Let’s take a quick walk through the biblical narrative with the grid of “systemic injustice” in mind.

In Genesis, when sin enters the world, it grows rapidly like a wicked tree into the climactic Tower of Babel (humanity’s structured rebellion against God). And Babel is itself a foreshadowing of Egypt’s archetypal “evil empire” (when Israel heard the stories of Babel being built with “bricks and mortar,” (Gen 11:3) she knew from her experience in Egypt who was making the bricks (Ex 1:14)). As Genesis comes to a close, Egypt holds the people of God within her belly.

Egypt grows upon the earth into an enslaving, oppressive powerhouse. Pharaoh is Adam’s great-great-grandchild, wanting to rule the earth without God rather than with God . . . like his grandpa Adam, only now he heads a kingdom. A kingdom characterized by systemic injustice.

As Babel in Genesis 11 formed the backdrop for God’s redemptive calling of Abraham in the next chapter (Gn 12), so Egypt forms the cliffhanger backdrop at the close of Genesis for God’s redemptive liberation of Israel in the ensuing book of Exodus. Humanity’s structured rebellion against God stages the context for God’s redemptive movement in the world.

And God’s redemptive movement itself has structured characteristics: God does not redeem a scattered collection of isolated individuals; he redeems a people. They are to be an alternative society, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Ex 19:6) whose very presence amidst the mighty empires of the ancient world witnesses through their life together as a people what it looks like when God is king.

Much of the Law is oriented towards structuring the life of God’s people in a way that systemically improves upon the brutality of the ancient world: a more humane treatment of the poor, foreigners and other vulnerable populations; a more equitable use of land and resources through laws of gleaning and forgiveness of debt; cities of refuge and more humane restrictions on punishments relative to the ancient world. These are all hallmark characteristics of Israel’s legal tradition.

God’s kingdom, established in and through his people, is a major (if not the major) theme of the Old Testament. God is structuring the life of his people as an alternative society, a witness to God’s justice and righteousness through their life together, amidst the systemic injustice of the ancient world.

This major theme, of course, includes the flip side of the coin: the people systemically failing to embody this alternative! The spiraling cycles of evil and enslavement in Judges, the people wanting to be like the nations in Samuel, the legacy of corrupt kingship and the rise of militarism in Kings and Chronicles . . . and ultimately, God’s judgment upon his people–as a people–as they are carried into captivity under the structured empire of Babylon.

There are, of course, individuals like Abraham, Moses and David . . . but their significance in the story arises as representatives of God’s people. Abraham: the patriarch and progenitor of the nation. Moses: the liberator and lawgiver for the wilderness wanderers. David: the king who gives rise to the messianic hope for the kingdom.

Their personal responsibility is for systemic justice.

The Old Testament is not only both/and. One could, it appears, actually make a strong case for its narrative giving priority to systemic / corporate themes over personal / individualized ones. But let’s settle now for the more modest proposal that both are important to the biblical narrative.

Church and Empire

Does this change in the New Testament? One might say, “Yes, that was the old ways, but it didn’t work so Jesus came to save individuals.” I would suggest this is to fundamentally misunderstand the New Testament. Jesus comes to inaugurate God’s kingdom, to atone for the sin of humanity and establish God’s people–as a people–in and through the power of his Spirit.

The Church arises as colonies of God’s kingdom scattered throughout the empire, called like Israel of old to bear witness to the kingdom reign of God amidst the “principalities and powers” of the world.

This is more than an individual witness, it is a social witness. This can be seen clearly in the often-made observation that the “you’s” of the New Testament are plural. For example, when Paul says, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” (Eph 4:1) he is not saying, “I urge you, Jimmy, as an individual in your solitary life…” but rather, to borrow the Southern colloquial, “I urge y’all, church at Ephesus, in your shared life together…”

Our individualistic culture gives us a strong tendency to read such passages with a “personal” emphasis. But the epistles were originally read aloud to (largely illiterate) gatherings, and such passages were received primarily as instructions for their shared social life together, unpacking how the gospel was to structure their life together as God’s people.

They were to embody the systemic justice of God, in and through the power of his Spirit, as a witness amidst the systemic injustice of the surrounding empire.

The New Testament is, like the Old, emphatically both / and rather than either / or.

And in Revelation, at the climactic finale of the biblical story, the Christian hope arrives when the structured empire of Babylon is replaced with the City of God, in the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 – 22.

City of God

Speaking of the City of God, a related observation: Augustine is wisely looked to in the “personal responsibility” motif for his discerning insights on the personal nature of sin, running much deeper than our external behaviors to the interior level of desire. But it would be wrong to set Augustine over against the systemic nature of sin.

In The City of God, one of the most influential works in Western history, Augustine is laying a sledgehammer to the very foundations of the Roman Empire’s self-understanding. Augustine is devoted to demonstrating the relationship between the personal and systemic nature of sin. As the thesis of his work puts it:

Two loves built two cities.

Corrupted affections corrupt institutions and build corrupt systems.

There is an inseparable relation between the sinful desires of the human heart and the systemic injustices of our world. Sex-trafficking is rooted in lust and greed. Genocide is rooted in rage and pride. Personal responsibility and systemic injustice are not an either/or; they are a both/and.

Events like Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner are catalysts for reflective engagement with systemic issues rooted in histories of racism, embodied in policies, practices and procedures arising from a legacy of discrimination, and involving the troubled relationship between police, prisons and the criminal justice system with the African-American community today.

For Christians, it is a mistake to pit personal responsibility and systemic injustice against each other. The biblical narrative invites us to see them as inherently intertwined.