I realized that while the distinction between guilt and consequences in the context of this series is one that is clear to me, I haven’t written anything in this series to explicitly draw that distinction. And it will become increasingly important as the series progresses. So I’ve decided this will be the topic for today’s post. The next post will be my first one directly venturing into my early interactions with the narrative text of the Holy Scriptures on this topic.
In my second post of the series, I tried to outline the specific shape of the problem of defining original sin as inherited guilt. In other words, before God as judge, each person is born already condemned or guilty as a result of their inherited guilt for the actions of some distant ancestor. However, the fact that I reject that perspective does not then mean that I believe that any of us are somehow free from the actions and choices of our parents and ancestors. Nobody starts life with a clean slate completely free from the influence of anyone but themselves. But the language for what we experience is not properly the language of guilt or innocence. It is the language of consequences.
And yes, just as I did in the second post of the series, I have a brief thought exercise that should help clarify the difference. So once again, I ask you to engage your imagination and travel with me on a short excursion.
A woman, perhaps as a teenager interacting with the wrong group of people and making poor choices, begins to experiment with illegal drugs and eventually becomes addicted to crack cocaine. As an addict, she continues to make poor choices and becomes pregnant. Over the course of her pregnancy, this woman continues to be ruled by her addiction and keeps using crack. Eventually, she goes into labor and delivers a daughter. Because of her mother’s illegal drug use during pregnancy, the little girl is born with crack cocaine in her system, already addicted to it. She is what we call a “crack baby.”
None of us would consider arresting that baby for the juridical crime of using illegal drugs. No judge or jury would find the poor infant guilty for the crime of her mother. In fact, we would in most cases take the child from the mother, not as some form of punishment, but in order to protect that helpless infant girl from further harm. The mother may have committed a crime, but the baby girl did not inherit the mother’s moral or legal guilt for that crime.
However, that infant was born into and bearing the consequences of her mother’s decisions and actions. Those consequences cannot be escaped. Depending on the circumstances and severity the child may suffer lasting physical or mental damage. Even if she escapes with no permanent physical damage, she is still beginning life without the safety and stability of a home with parents. That little girl will suffer to some extent the consequences of her birth flowing from the actions of her mother. She need not be ruled by them. People often manage to overcome the circumstances of their birth in amazing ways. But she will not be able to escape those circumstances.
The same thing is true for us all, though usually not in as clear a manner as in my little story. We are born into a dangerous and disordered world. We are born mortal and subject to death. We are born to parents who have been shaped themselves by that reality. We are surrounded by human beings also shaped by those same forces. In Christian terminology (which I am still not always comfortable using), we are born into a fallen creation and we suffer the natural consequences thereof. Moreover, we specifically suffer the consequences of our parents’ choices and actions. We might be born into poverty or wealth (and neither are free from pitfalls) as a result of what our parents (or their ancestors) have done. We might be born into a family engulfed by a multi-generational cycle of abuse. We might be born into families ruled by addictions. But even if we escape the most obvious sorts of negative consequences of our birth, we are still mortal. And it’s still a disordered and sometimes even dangerous world in which we live.