I appreciate all the response to my “When ISIS Ran the American South” post. I’ll do a longer, more in-depth follow-up later, on the role of Christianity in lynching and white supremacy. I want to make a shorter post, though, to answer some of the people on this blog and on Twitter who are pushing back against the idea of “collective guilt” — as if all Christians, or all Southerners, or especially all white Southern Christians today are responsible for what our ancestors did.
I don’t believe in collective guilt. I believe that it is wrong to blame all Muslims for what some Muslims do. I believe that it is wrong to blame all blacks for what some blacks do. Same thing with whites, Christians, Southerners, and all discrete groups.
But it’s not as simple as that. Not all are guilty, but all, or nearly all, are implicated. Here’s what I mean.
In Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, the pilgrim Dante interviews Francesca, one of the damned, condemned to eternal suffering in the Circle of Lust. In life, Francesca committed adultery with her husband’s brother. She tells Dante that she couldn’t help herself, that Love had its way with her. She quotes love poetry that she and her lover, Paolo, read together — literature that, she says, put them in the mood for love, for sin. Among the love poets she quotes: Dante himself.
She’s blaming Dante for her damnation. She’s wrong. It’s nobody’s fault but Francesca’s. The writer cannot be held guilty for the misuse the reader makes of his words. But it’s not as simple as that. Dante may not be guilty of her damnation, but he is implicated in it. Everything is connected.
I’ve been writing for a while about the Marquette professor who had his tenure stripped over a blog post he wrote that brought vile abuse via email onto a grad student he criticized. It is wrong to blame that prof for the actions of cretins who used his words to harass the grad student. But legalism achieves clarity at the expense of truth. That professor is implicated in her fate.
It is wrong, in my view, to make white people today suffer for the sins of their ancestors. Yet far too many of us whites — and I say this as a white Southern Christian who has been guilty of this myself — believe that chronology exonerates us cleanly. We are not guilty, but we are implicated; how can we not be? We are of this place and these people. Their story is our history. The fact that some people wish to use history as a cudgel to achieve power or to absolve themselves of their own implication in dirty doings, either in the past or the present, is regrettable, and must be resisted. However, we still must look at the past — our past — squarely, and do whatever is right to atone, even if true justice is not possible in time.
In the Commedia, Dante could not unwrite the lines of poetry of his past. But what he did, as the reader discovers, is take his writing with greater moral seriousness, realizing that his words, and his actions, affect more people and their fates than he once knew. That’s the modest point I’m making here. If we are to understand why the sick savages of ISIS do what they do, part of the analysis has to take into consideration why the sick savages who were our ancestors did what they did. And it’s not just Southerners, either. As a reader posted in that other thread, in 1909, a crowd of 10,000 people in Cairo, Illinois — the land of Lincoln — turned out to watch a lynching. It wasn’t just the South.
We are not all guilty. Almost no one alive today is guilty. But we are all implicated, one way or another. It’s an important distinction.