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