You can’t defend the punishment of infants for the sins of their nation so don’t try

Posted on 10/18/11 24 Comments

In “Does God punish people through natural disasters?”   I considered Pat Robertson’s claim that the 2010 Haiti earthquake was a divine punishment on Haiti for the nation’s past sins. While condemnation of Robertson was universal, his critics seemed to miss an important point. In short, even if Robertson lacked evidence to support his claim, there seemed to be biblical precedent that it was possible that Haiti was judged for its sins. The passages I considered were drawn from Lamentations 2 and they described punishment visited upon children and infants in Jerusalem. Just as Israel was punished as a nation for its sin, so in principle it seemed that Haiti could have been punished for its sin. And that meant that 6 week old Landina, buried in concrete in the collapse of a hospital in Port-au-Prince, could have been punished by God for the sins of her nation.

The only problem is that it seemed absent a self-imposed moral retardation nobody would seriously coutenance infants being punished for the sins of others. To illustrate, an agonizing case has come to light recently in my own city. A deceased three year old was discovered by the police, covered with bruises from head to toe courtesy of her aunt. Does anybody think it is possible (not likely but merely possible) that her aunt could have been the righteous agent of a well deserved punishment? The very suggestion is disgusting. Now compound the offense by considering whether the toddler could have been justly beaten to death because of the sins of the city or country in which she lived. That isn’t merely disgusting. It’s simply off the charts.

So why is it that when such morally absurd and abhorrent claims are attached to the Bible that people suddenly begin to debate then in all seriousness?

Our task has thus been centered on this question: is there any moral framework that could justify the punishment of Landina for the sins of her nation, and thus which could (in principle) justify the punishment of Haiti’s people for the sins of their nation?

I considered three proposals. The first attributes Landina’s punishment to a hypothesized sinful preexistence (that is, prior to human conception and birth).

This suggestion is multiply flawed. To begin with, it is completely ad hoc (there is no reason to accept it apart from the need to explain the punishment of infants). Second, it is unjust to punish an individual who now lacks cognitive awareness for sins they previously committed whether it is an Alzheimer’s patient or a newly incarnated infant. Third, it doesn’t actually provide a justification for the biblical thesis described in Lamentations which we are considering to apply to Haiti, and thus it isn’t even relevant.

Our second suggestion is the concept of imputation. The concept is predicated on the notion that infants are born with the sin of Adam imputed (or credited) to them. Consequently an infant, a fetus or even a zygote is literally guilty of Adam’s sin and can be punished for it accordingly. I am reminded here of the famous quip of Ignatius of Loyola:

“We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.”

Now there is just a modicum of truth in this infamous statement and here it is: we should trust authorities that know better than us. And there are many circumstances where this is true. If you’re rock climbing with an expert you better do what he says even if it doesn’t make immediate sense to you. If you’re taking a physics class you better trust your professor that he is accurately describing what we know of the quantum world rather than spouting quasi-spiritual nonsense. But even so, there clearly are limits. The child who trusts the molesting priest despite every moral fibre in his body screaming “This is wrong” is a tragedy. And the person who persuades themselves that it must be possible to punish infants for the sins of others is likewise a moral tragedy, as I said a lamentable case of moral retardation.

Our third theory, borrowing from a line of Augustine, proposes that every person is guilty of sin, including infants. And for this reason infants can be punished justly in disasters like earthquakes. But this is just false. Infants don’t have the moral capacity to sin. That was Augustine’s own projection onto then. Moreover, this proposal fails in the same way as the first: that is, it neglects the punishment of the individual for the sins of the nation by focusing instead on the punishment of the individual for the sins of the individual.

So where does this leave us?

Well it makes it enormously difficult, indeed so far as I can see it makes it impossible, to accept several claims in the Bible as they are being read. In particular, claims that describe infants and children as being punished for the sins of other people are just not defensible within any remotely plausible moral framework. And thus we ought not accept those readings of them.

This is a huge relief, for it liberates our moral intuitions. It means we don’t have to accept that black really is white simply because somebody told us it is. And this lifts from our shoulders the obligation of convincing ourselves that possibly the agonies of Landina and thousands of other Haitian children were punishments for their sins.

The key is that we have the focus and courage to deal with the problem comprehensively. When I was a child the very worst chore was picking weeds. I hated getting into the dirt. If I was forced to pick weeds and I had my way I would just pick the leafy green protuberance. Doing so made it seem like I was doing my job, for no weeds would be immediately visible. But of course that approach left the source of the problem – the root system — in tact underneath the surface. Likewise, reprimanding false prophets like Pat Robertson for doling out God’s judgment on nations is like snapping off the leaves and stalk while leaving the root system untouched. It is not enough to reject the ongoing visible manifestations of this regrettable theology. We need to get our hands into the soil and pull out the roots of the problem. And that brings us back to readings of passages of scripture like Lamentations 2 which seem to provide the testimony that black really is white. What shall we do with those texts?

For starters, I think we need to read them as fully human heart-felt cries written in the face of enormous suffering. Imagine that your city or country was decimated and you sat down to write a lament about the destruction. Is it possible that you might make theological statements which, extracted from their context and read as part of a formal treatise, would be strictly speaking, incorrect? Sure. You might very well write “God, why don’t you care?” “Why are you angry with us?” For a later reader to take those statements and try to defend them as literal, straightforward theological assertions of divine apathy and anger would be to miss the point to an embarrasing degree. And yet this is precisely what Christians do when they read the laments of ancient peoples as if they were providing the raw data for a formal theology of providence.

Here’s the inevitable question that somebody will pose to me: how do you choose which texts to read as straightforward theological assertions and which as non-straightforward laments or complaints or cries? The answer is a longer one than we can address here but we’ve already provided one sure criterion. If the straightforward reading of a text attributes to God moral horrors or moral absurdities like the punishment of infants for the sins of adults, then you need to seek another reading of the text. That may not tell us precisely how to read these texts, but it surely tells us how not to read them.

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  • Snardiff

    “Does anybody think it is possible (not likely but merely possible) that her aunt could have been the righteous agent of a well deserved punishment? The very suggestion is disgusting.”

    Judas was the means by which an innocent man was murdered, yet he was guilty because his motives were vile. I’m not sure what the point is here. Landina would die no matter what happened. The only question is whether it would be sooner or later. We may not have all committed our sins visibly in time, but we all have a sin nature and would have committed sins had we lived long enough or existed in the right circumstances. We must not confuse our finite circumstances and role with God’s. We would be evil to walk up to a random person and “punish” them, but we cannot say the same of God. This is my analogy: we are like prisoners shuffling around the prison yard. We have no right to “punish” each other, but the judge who has committed none of our offenses has the right to sentence us to death, if that is what we deserve.

    • randal

      “Landina would die no matter what happened. The only question is whether it would be sooner or later.”

      That is beside the point at issue. The point is whether it is just to maim or kill an infant for the sins of others. The fact that Landina is mortal does not provide any guidance to that question, but our moral intuitions surely do.

      “We may not have all committed our sins visibly in time, but we all have a sin nature and would have committed sins had we lived long enough or existed in the right circumstances.”

      But that is not relevant to the question at issue which I stated above.

      “We would be evil to walk up to a random person and “punish” them, but we cannot say the same of God.”

      This sounds pious, but it is simply inconsistent. Can God go back on a covenant he has made with human beings because he is God? Can he lie because he is God? Can he impute the sins of adults to an infant and then punish the infant for it?

      As for the prisoner analogy, I already rejected the imputed guilt notion that Landina is being punished for guilt from others. Of course if you accept the coherence of that notion of imputation then you have an answer to the problem. But it is an answer I reject.

  • http://www.thepietythatliesbetween.blogspot.com Eric Reitan

    A few years back I was at a talk by Marilyn McCord Adams that focused on her reading of the Book of Job. One of her main conclusions, as I recall, had to do with the “friends” of Job who sought pat justifications for the horrors Job endured–who sought to immunize God from critique through acts of victim-blaming and analogous moves. If you read Job with any care at all, the message is that God strongly denounces these “theodicies.” His approval, instead, falls on Job.

    We might be tempted to say that the character of God in the poem approves of Job DESPITE the fact that Job, in effect, shook his fist at God and shouted out “Why, God? Why?” But part of Adams’ argument was that this approval comes BECAUSE of Job’s honest expression of how he was feeling, not in spite of it. Adams’ idea is that, in the face of horrors, Job approaches God in the manner that presupposed a relationship of love and trust, as opposed to a relationship defined by the appeasement of power.

    When we feel as if we have been wronged by a tyrant, we keep our mouths shut or, even, make up excuses for the tyrant so that he won’t have reason to turn his capricious wrath against us. It was Job alone who responded to his plight as if God were a beloved friend who had apparently wronged him, as opposed to a tyrant from whom one can expect no better (but whom one had better strive to appease by blaming others).

    This is a surprising moral to draw from the story of Job, given how much of God’s speech at the end is about the gap in power and wisdom and greatness between Job and God. But I think it may be the right one. If so, it isn’t a story that is supposed to offer a theodicy, but rather one that advocates a certain way of responding to God in the face of horrors–not by seeking to justify God’s permitting them, but by honestly crying out our anguish, perplexity, and even outrage.

    So how does this relate to your post? Job’s “friends” were prepared to set aside their compassion, their moral intuitions, their instincts about right and wrong, in order to “justify” God’s allowing horror. Job, by contrast, held firm to his own sense of right and wrong, even if it meant he could make no sense of God’s behavior. If Adams is right, the message of Job is that the latter is to be preferred. Those who try to reconcile Landina’s horrific death with God’s sovereign goodness by invoking victim-blaming stories or lifting God above morality are being like Job’s friends. If we are to be like Job, we shouldn’t try to justify or whitewash Landina’s fate, but should instead turn our gaze towards heaven and cry out, “How could you?!”

    • chris

      Good post, Eric. Have you written more on this kind of thing at your blog?

      • http://www.thepietythatliesbetween.blogspot.com Eric Reitan

        Chris,

        Thanks for your interest. I’ve written a number of things on my blog (and in IS GOD A DELUSION?) that, in one way or another, touch on the problem of evil and the propensity to attribute horrors to God (in the name of fidelity to Scripture and/or out of some misguided desire to appease or please God). I think the two essays on my blog that most directly relate to this post are Divine Sovereignty and the Horror in Haiti and Divine Mystery and Divine Goodness.

    • randal

      Good comments.

      I find it really frustrating when (conservative) Christians immediately throw up warnings the minute you begin to raise hard questions about issues like this. They raise fear-based warnings like “Be careful not to blaspheme the Lord.” If raising hard questions and being dissatisfied with the answers provided is blasphemy then the Bible is chock full of blasphemers. But I don’t believe for a second that people who introspect their faith critically and carefully and ask the hard questions are doing anything wrong.

      I would add however that sometimes theologians have charged that the very idea of pursuing a theodicy is itself morally problematic (e.g. Kenneth Surin). That’s foolish. There is nothing wrong with theodicy. Indeed, the alternate reading of these problem texts that I propose is a form of theodicy. But Surin is right to observe that there are many terrible theodicies (those of Job’s friends included) and many of those theodicies are evil.

      • http://www.thepietythatliesbetween.blogspot.com Eric Reitan

        I would add however that sometimes theologians have charged that the very idea of pursuing a theodicy is itself morally problematic (e.g. Kenneth Surin). That’s foolish. There is nothing wrong with theodicy.

        I agree. I’ve certainly not avoided the challenge of pursuing theodicies in my professional life…nor has Marilyn Adams, who, in my view, has offered some of the most novel and challenging moves in philosophical discussions of the problem of evil in the last two decades.

        I think Adams’ point in her discussion of Job is best understood as about our relationship with God, and the need to be honest about our questions and feelings, even when they are of the “How could you?” variety. Theodicy is problematic when it defines our relationship with God so as to render us little more than divine sycophants.

        • randal

          I agree that Marilyn McCord Adams is a top notch theodicist. So is Richard Swinburne, but Adams has a pastoral dimension to her theodicy that is simply absent from Swinburne’s.

  • pete

    Maybe it is correct to quiet down in these instances, and let the grieving grieve.

    On a Calvanistic providence model, perhaps the issue will be between God and Landina herself when she grows up.

    However, I think it is beneficial to grapple on this point.

    I became fascinated with the concept of “Qesep” (translation of a Hebrew word meaning “anger/natural consequence of breaking God’s created order”)

    I came across this while writing a theodicy paper.

    So if Ezekiel 18:20 precludes further punishment of children for their parents sins (cf. Lamentations written contemporarily with Ezekiel), then we can throw out any idea that God is NOW/STILL punishing children through natural disasters.

    That seems to leave open the possibility of “qesep”. Consequence of the disruption of the natural order through Adam’s sin.

    It is more of “cause and effect” than God’s anger flaring up.

    And Job talks about Satan having the ability to afflict people through natural disaster.

    I don’t wanna be so simple as saying “the devil did it”, but theologically speaking, qesep and demonic forces are a possibility.

    It seems both nature (Rom. 8:19) and we (Rom. 8:23) groan for the redemption of humanity and the heavens and earth.

  • CarolJean

    Randall, why can’t it be understood that children suffer for the sins of their parents. Not that they are guilty of the sins of their parents but that the punishment on the parents affects the children as well. Whatever punishment God chooses to bring on a nation for sin, whether it is the sword, pestilence, famine, evil beasts (Eze 14:21) or natural disaster (Gen 6:17), the children will be affected by it. They will be caught up in it. The consequences of the sin of the parents affects their children. I wouldn’t call it direct punishment by God upon innocent children per se but a direct consequence of being associated with the sinful adults who are being punished.

    On a smaller level, like that of the immediate family, an alcoholic parent, or a cigarette smoking parent, or an abusive parent can have a deleterious effect on the child. How much more on the larger scale?

    • randal

      Scenario 1: Baby Jane dies in house fire as divinely orchestrated punishment for her parents’ sin.

      Scenario 2: Baby Jane dies in a house fire as a direct consequence of her parents’ sin.

      You are proposing Scenario 2. I was addressing Scenario 1. If you agree that Scenario 1 is irredeemable, then you don’t take Lamentations at face value and I have no disagreement.

      • CarolJean

        The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha was a divinely orchestrated punishment from God for sin is similar to Scenario 1. Baby Jaheel living with his parents in Gomorrha dies as a result of being collateral damage due to his parents sins. Baby Jaheel was not being directly punished by God.

        I don’t understand what you mean by irredeemable?

        • randal

          Actually the fate of Baby Jaheel is not what I’m talking about. Scenario 1 is not concerned with an infant who suffers as collateral damage for punishment directed to another. Rather, it is concerned with an infant that God punishes for the sins of another. Morally speaking the issues are very different. To say that scenario 1 is irredeemable is to say it cannot be morally justified.

  • Snardiff

    Randal, I apologize. I did misunderstand the direct question you posed and I agree with you. “Let it no more be said that the fathers will eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth will be set on edge. Everyone will be punished for his own sins”.

    I think that people may suffer as a *consequence* of the choices of their family or community. This is justified because these people are sinful in and of themselves. If they have true faith, they will overcome the limitations of their surroundings. The misfortune that they have may be intended by God to build their character (as in Hebrews).

    So technically I grant your point. The misfortune of this child and others are not for other people’s sins. I was afraid you were trying to make a case that some people were innocent and that if people suffer misfortune then somehow God was being unjust. I think you bait people like me with your photos and provocative statements. Please remember that today the great temptation is not to follow people like Robertson, but that there are many rebellious people claiming to be Christian (such as emergents like Jones, McLaren, Pagitt and Bell) who shake their fist at God and think that any misfortune is unjust and therefore God is unjust. You are too careful an exegete to fall into this error, so please do not help these people to tempt others into these errors.

    • randal

      Thanks. However, I like much of what Rob Bell has written. What specifically is it that he has written which makes you think he is a rebel who is shaking the proverbial fist?

      • Snardiff

        Here is Albert Mohler’s review of Love Wins with several quotes from the book: http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology/

        This is the first page of Rob Bell related shows from fightingforthefaith.com:
        http://www.fightingforthefaith.com/.services/blog/6a00e54eea6129883300e54efeb5c98834/search?filter.q=rob+bell
        many of these are reviews of full sermons in which Bell’s faulty methods of interpreting scripture are clearly seen.

        • randal

          Hmm, this isn’t quite what I’m looking for Snardiff. You denied that Rob Bell is a Christian and described him instead as “shaking his fist” at God. Those are strong charges. I think when Christians make those kinds of strong charges about other Christians they should be able to defend them. And by defend them I don’t mean providing a hyperlink. (By the way, be careful about Al Mohler’s reviews of books. His review of The Shack was positively shameful.) What I mean is this: you should be able to provide a passage from Rob Bell’s published works, or perhaps an excerpt from him speaking, in which he affirms something that the Christian tradition regards as heretical and thereby placing him beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. If you can’t provide that very specific supporting evidence you shouldn’t call other Christians non-Christians who are shaking their fists at God.

  • Jag Levak

    [Randal wrote] “nobody would seriously countenance infants being punished for the sins of others… So why is it that when such morally absurd and abhorrent claims are attached to the Bible that people suddenly begin to debate them in all seriousness? … If the straightforward reading of a text attributes to God moral horrors or moral absurdities like the punishment of infants for the sins of adults, then you need to seek another reading of the text.”

    This would seem to be a position based on the idea that there is something fundamentally trustworthy about our moral intuitions and sensibilities, and as such, they can serve as a reliable guide to interpretation of claims of God’s actions.

    [Randal also wrote] “we don’t see the big picture…. When we are talking about an agent with an “infinite qualitative difference” from human beings it is not surprising that there may be times where that agent acts in a way that seems inconsistent with its own perfection. But that does not warrant us to conclude that it is not perfect.”

    This would seem to be a position based on the idea that our limited perspective can render our moral intuitions unreliable, so where there is any conflict between our sensibilities and our notion of the perfection of God, our notion of the perfection of God should be overriding.

    So, if you are proposing that there is something trustworthy about our moral intuitions, and also something untrustworthy about them, do you think there is a trustworthy way to discriminate the trustworthy bits from the untrustworthy bits? And do you think there is something which can establish that our notion of the perfection of God is, itself, fully trustworthy? Couldn’t our limited perspective similarly render our notion of perfection imperfect?

  • Snardiff

    Just as a side note: don’t the liberals rejoice in trying to make all whites feel guilty for the crimes of some of the ancestors of some whites, and men feel guilty for the sexism of cultures they were not apart of.

    I would think that a liberal would love the notion of imputation of sin. Maybe this notion is only detestable when applied to non whites? I hope you do not let these “theories” of yours influence too much how you treat your own kids.

    • pete

      Snardiff:

      Are you liberal with sin, or are you perfect?

      From one conservative Christian to another… or am I a liberal?

      I don’t know what to make of the ethnic comment

      • Snardiff

        I am not liberal or perfect I am a romans 6&7 Christian. I am not a slave to sin, nor do I deny that I am without sin as Paul says in Romans 7.

        Re ethnicity: I disagree with liberals that people are ethnically guilty of sin, though this seems to be what they think. But given that they acknowledge this, they should agree that due to Adam’s sin: a) people are predisposed to sin b) they are guilty of Adam’s sin, since they would have done the same.

        I am working to get the times from Rob Bell’s own quotes that are the smoking gun from the fightingforthefaith site. He condemns himself in his own words.

        • randal

          Snardiff, can you define the word “liberal” or “Christian liberal”? What do you mean by that?

          And what do you mean “ethnically guilty of sin”?

          Your b) supports the view that people are in some sense culpable for sin they would have committed, but not for the sin Adam did commit.

          • Snardiff

            ““Christian liberal”? What do you mean by that?”
            The definition of Christian liberal: someone who is basically agnostic about the existence of God, or believes in some sort of deism, they do not believe that anything (transcendent) outside of the natural realm can exist. They think that the Bible is just a product of human invention. And yet, and this is the most harmful, intolerable part of the matter, even though they think that Christianity is a human invention and that whether God exists is unknowable, they still claim that they think of themselves as Christian. They try to infiltrate congregations and seminaries in order to subtly convince others of their doubt, like Peter Rollins.

            I just think this is totally wrong and unacceptable, like a doctor who takes the hypocratic oath and yet thinks it is Ok to kill people whom he judges worthy of death, instead of following his oath and trying to save everyone.

            “And what do you mean “ethnically guilty of sin”?”

            I mean that I often feel there is this guilt that secular liberals try to place on people that we are somehow guilty for what slaveowners did, even if our parents are immigrants from Europe, just because they are caucasian, even though they emmigrated in the 20th century. So if Pat Robertson says something obnoxious in the sense that he blames Haitians for what their remote ancestors do, I disagree with him, but when liberals berate him it bothers me because it seems they might be doing the same thing in another context. Maybe they are just saying that certain minorities deserve affirmative action because of institutional discrimiation (which I agree with), but there seems to be an animus that goes beyond that, and it is that which bothers me. I do not want to berate someone just because they are white and I think their ancestors may have been related to people who were racist- you see how wrong that is?

            “Your b) supports the view that people are in some sense culpable for sin they would have committed, but not for the sin Adam did commit.”

            Yes, based on Romans 8:7 and Romans 3:10 and following, it is clear that anyone given the opportunity, would have committed Adam’s sin. People agonize over blaming others for Adam’s sin, but I tend to think of this as a non issue. All suffering, while we cannot look upon it callously, is deserved, so as we seek to alleviate it we should not agonize over how “undeserved” it is.

            • randal

              Snardiff: “someone who is basically agnostic about the existence of God, or believes in some sort of deism, they do not believe that anything (transcendent) outside of the natural realm can exist.”

              I take it here that you’re saying agnostic, deistic, or committed to naturalism (since the third is incompatible with the first two). That is a strange way to define liberal. Picture a conservative Christian pastor who loses his daughter in a house fire after which he begins a deep struggle with faith and finds himself unable to believe that there is a loving God after all. It is not that he disbelieves it, but he’s not sure. He simply can’t reconcile his daughter’s death with a loving God. You think that in virtue of being agnostic he’s a liberal? Really?

              “They think that the Bible is just a product of human invention.”

              I know many, many people who really are Christian liberals by traditional definition (e.g. Peter Gomes) who would reject your statement.

              It seems to me that you need to think about your definitions some more. Be careful about using labels without clear definition simply to marginalize other people.