In his defense of the Amalekite genocide on “Unbelievable” John Allister appeals to what we can call the “Principle of Inherited Culpability”. While John doesn’t provide a clear definition of this principle, I’ll attempt to do so based on what he says.
Principle of Inherited Culpability
We will begin with a first attempt to articulate John’s principle.
Principle of Inherited Culpability (PIC): When members of a particular ethnic, cultural, national or religious group A commit offenses against another particular ethnic, cultural, national or religious group B, the culpability of the original offending members of A is transfered to descendants of A.
John appeals to this principle based on texts like 1 Samuel 15:2-3:
“I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
If this principle is true then I’m in trouble. You see, the Amalekites were separated by centuries from the crimes of their ancestors. I’m only two generations distant from my German ancestors who were complicit in the unspeakable atrocities of the Nazis that far outweigh the comparatively minor offenses of the Amalekites. So if the Principle of Inherited Culpability is sufficient to warrant the annihilation of Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 it would surely be sufficient to eliminate Germans now.
Modified Principle of Inherited Culpability
While 1 Samuel 15:2-3 seems to assume the Principle of Inherited Culpability, a closer look at John Allister’s defense of the text suggest that he instead defends a modified version. For example, he wrote in my blog:
“I think that there’s a distinction between corporate and individual identity. God judges the Amalekites corporately because of what they did to Israel, and the fact that during the 250-odd years since, they have persisted in that attack and not repented of it.” (emphasis added)
So it would appear that John’s principle is better captured in a modified principle:
Modified Principle of Inherited Culpability (MPIC): When members of a particular ethnic, cultural, national or religious group A commit offenses against another particular ethnic, cultural, national or religious group B, the culpability of the original offending members of A is transfered to descendants of A if the decendants of A do not repent of the actions of A.
The first thing to note about this MPIC is that it deviates from the biblical text Allister is seeking to defend. In 1 Samuel 15:2-3 the necessary and sufficient condition for annihilating current Amalekites is the sin of past Amalekites (that is, PIC). Allister’s MPIC diverges from the text.
There are two other problems with the MPIC. The first is that it doesn’t accord with human moral intuitions about culpability. You see, the practice of members of particular ethnic, cultural, national or religious groups seeking to rationalize and justify heinous actions of past members of the same group is very common. While we might consider such defenses regrettable and even immoral, we do not think that the fact that people make them is sufficient to transfer the guilt of the ancestors on their contemporary defenders.
Imagine, for example, a Turk named Mahir who runs a convenience store in Toronto. If you were to ask Mahir about the culpability of Turkish people in the Armenian genocide of 1915-23 he would be unapologetic in his defense of the actions of the Turks as morally justified.
Walk a block down the street and step into a sushi bar and ask Hiro about the Chinese genocide of 1937-38 at the hands of Japanese forces in the imperial city of Nanjing. According to Hiro we haven’t heard the full story. There are all sorts of reasons why the Japanese soldiers acted as they did. In addition, Hiro would be fiercely skeptical of Chinese reports of the atrocities.
Now go across the street to the sports bar and listen to Dave from New York explain why the US had to drop atomic bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “It wasn’t a war crime!” Dave says, his voice becoming shrill. “Do you know how many lives were saved in the Pacific theater as a result of the bombs?”
Mahir, Hiro and Dave are all rationalizing the heinous acts of past individuals who share their ethnic, religious, national and/or cultural identity. This is hardly surprising as this kind of behavior is uibiquitous among human beings. While we might reject the defenses of Mahir, Hiro and Dave, we would hardly find the fact that they defend the indefensible or rationalize the irrational or moralize the immoral as entailing that they’ve thereby shouldered the exact same guilt borne by the ancestors who committed the crimes.
To put it bluntly, even if we’re appalled at Hiro’s defense of the Rape of Nanjing, that does not provide sufficient grounds to turn his sushi knife on him (though it would provide grounds to eat at the Dim Sum place down the street).
As for the Amalekites, if you were raised an Amalekite you too would undoubtedly have identified with all sorts of rationalizations of the past actions of your people. Would that social formation in which you identify with indefensible rationalizations of past actions be sufficient to warrant your execution?
Twice Modified Principle of Inherited Culpability
Let’s close by noting a further problem with Allister’s MPIC which is sufficiently serious to warrant a third principle: the MPIC fails to address the massacre of the infants and children in 1 Samuel 15. After all, infants and small children cannot possibly have a culpable affiliation with the heinous actions of past ancestors. Even if you thought Hiro should be killed for his rationalization of the Rape of Nanjing, it would hardly follow that his six month old daughter Kaori should also be subjected to the sushi knife. Such a conception of justice is simply beyond the pale.
But this is precisely what Allister would have to defend. Hence, we’d end up with a third principle of inherited culpability:
Twice Modified Principle of Inherited Culpability (TMPIC): When members of a particular ethnic, cultural, national or religious group A commit offenses against another particular ethnic, cultural, national or religious group B, the culpability of the original offending members of A is transfered to descendants of A and the infants and children of the descendants of A if the decendants of A do not repent of the actions of A.
Of course this is absurd. And I have no doubt that Allister doesn’t really accept this principle since he would never appeal to it as grounds to kill an infant like Kaori. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Allister is then left with no ethical principle to defend his reading of the passage beyond saying “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
But when the things we are claiming God said are moral atrocities we have excellent grounds to ask the next question: did God say it?