Guilty until Proven Guilty
Ancient Israel had a Day of Atonement, in which the sins of the nation were transferred to the scapegoat:
"And they made a ramp for it [the scapegoat] on account of [the pilgrims] because these used to yank at its hair, and cry out to it, 'Take our sins and go!' 'Take our sins and go!' " (Mishnah Yoma 6.4)
And after the scapegoat had died, the sins of the people were considered to have perished with it; the people were thus cleansed and righteous.
Today we have no less need for a scapegoat; and some portions of our society have already found convenient targets on whom to impute their sins.
There is crime in the inner city, but there are no criminals there, because the perpetrators are all innocent; their conduct is someone else's fault. Poverty, drug abuse, fatherlessness -- the blame for all this rests not on the drug seller or the husband who abandoned his family or those who decried education; for these are all righteous since their guilt has been transferred.
There are mobs forming in the streets, but all of them are innocent. They proclaim their righteousness with every shout, and point the finger of guilt at those who would restrain them: "Take our sins and go!"
Who is more innocent than someone who has just robbed a convenience store, and then assaulted a police officer?
Who is more righteous than someone who quarrels with police, and resists their lawful orders?
And who is more guilty than the great-grandson to the fifth generation, whose ancestors once dabbled in the slave trade? Or who ancestors never traded in slaves but who has the same outer color as those who did? Why should not all the imperfections of the descendants of slaves be transferred to them?
Who is more culpable than someone who would rob these perpetrators of their innocence? Who is more wrong than an officer of the law, whose very function would deprive men of their scapegoat, and tell them they have to retain their own sins? Why is this considered among the greatest of lies? Because for these righteous with their scapegoats, there can be no crime.
Writing in the 19th century, Dostoyevsky put these words into the mouth of the holy monk Zossima:
...for even if the uneducated man of the people is depraved and cannot abstain from his foul sins, he knows that his sins are cursed by God and that he is doing wrong when he sins. (The Brothers Karamazov)
Within a culture delineated by biblical norms, even the "depraved" could locate the dividing line between right and wrong. But we no longer think in such terms; today the line passes only between oppressors and oppressed. Someone else is to always to blame; we are innocent.
We are conditioned by politicians and media to believe that breaking the law is not misconduct, it is really just an expression of social protest, a right to which one is entitled; a primeval cry for -- of all ironies -- justice. I took shoes or goods and broke windows, but I am righteous. You are the guilty ones. Your white privilege is responsible, therefore you bear the sin, and not I.
Dostoyevsky has Zossima continue:
But this is not true of the upper classes. They want to. . . devise a system of justice based on pure reason, not on Christ, as before, and they have already declared that there is no such thing as crime and that there is no sin. And from their point of view, they are right -- for how can there be crime if God does not exist? In Europe the masses are rising against the rich; their leaders are inciting them to blood and violence and are teaching them that theirs is a righteous anger.
Cleansing anger must always convince itself it is righteous. It is that cleansing anger that purged Dostoyevsky's Russia, a few decades later, resulting in millions of deaths. But their killers were not murderers, they were righteous men who had no sin. "Take our sins and go!"
Having dispensed with God in our public life, and nourished politics which explicitly exclude Christ or any other biblical principles, why should we expect anyone to believe that they should be held individually accountable? We have reduced humanity to membership in one of two groups: the victims, or their taskmasters. The pure, or the unblemished. We batch people neatly into these generic lumps. Were you born into the wrong class? Your guilt is inherited and can never be discharged. Were you born into another class? You have no guilt, you are forever immaculate no matter what you do, because it is others who will be made responsible for your deeds. "Take our sins and go!"
But in doing away with God, we also do away with the only acceptable scapegoat.
"But they cried out together, saying, Away with this man..."
Malcolm Muggeridge observed:
The Christian religion . . . for two thousand years persuaded Western man that he existed as one of a human family whose father was in Heaven. As in a family, each individual was separately and particularly loved. The most sacred, the most inviolable thing on earth was a human soul, any and every one, whether it inhabited the flesh of rich or poor, clever or foolish, well or sick. Thus, to incorporate a man into a herd, and put him under the necessity of following the herd's destiny, was to destroy the purpose of his being. He was himself or he was nothing. Of the herd, the fearful image stands forever -- the Gadarene swing rushing to destruction. (Things Past)
How long before our own culture plunges over the cliff, in a mad race to escape guilt, and to insist that it can find its own path to righteousness without God?