Last week Pope Benedict XVI brought delightful news for the Jews. In his new book the pope personally exonerated Jews for being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, denying that Jews shared collective guilt for the death of Their Lord. In this, he reiterated the repudiation of collective guilt by the Vatican, nearly fifty years ago, in 1965. On this matter, at least, there is to be no retreat.
Those of us who can remember the earlier repudiation will also remember the brilliant conniptions of Lenny Bruce. As Bruce admitted, “Alright, I’ll clear the air once and for all, and confess. Yes, we did it. I did it, my family. I found a note in my basement. It said: “We killed him, signed, Morty.” Tonight Morty can rest serenely.
The debate over Jewish complicity in the death of Christ, in contrast to the complicity of certain Jews, is a matter of no small significance, even if, as Bruce slyly commented the statute of limitations should be running out. Ultimately the issue is not about Jews and Jesus, but about the assignment of blame for creating a climate of violence.
When I teach freshmen, I begin my seminar on Scandal and Reputation by explaining to these students that sociology is the most dangerous of disciplines. We are the academic subject that through its very birthright trades in stereotypes. Our lineage demands that we discuss race, class, and gender. We do not – or do not only – talk about one black barber, a wealthy stockbroker, a woman of ill-repute, or some malevolent rebbe. Our call is to talk about people, and not persons. Social psychologists push the discipline to gather data from persons, but we analyze what we gathered as if it came from people.
This means that when Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting rampage, we asked how he got that way. And when Jesus was nailed, we ask who is responsible for a climate of crucifixion. As a sociologist, I believe that our task is noble. It might have been Lenny’s Uncle Morty who was responsible, but the broader question is which social forces contributed to the climate in which the crucifixion was conducted, just as we asked about the shooting in Tucson.
Let me be clear, these questions should not lead to a drama of rebuke, punishment, and attack. But surely it is fair to consider how we should understand responsibility. Let us leave Jerusalem for the streets of Memphis. Forty-three years ago next month an assassin, James Earl Ray (surely admired with grim satisfaction by too many) murdered the Reverend Martin Luther King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. If the Jews are washed of responsibility for Jesus, are white Southerners as well? Do they, too, receive a pass? Did the climate of racism and hatred in the former Confederacy contribute to the assassination of Dr. King or does the blame adhere to James Earl alone? Is there any responsibility to be shared for creating a climate in which violence occurs?
Collective guilt is a strange concept. It can’t be passed along like some genetic mutation. Surely no guilt adheres to unborn generations, but should a climate of hostility be forgotten or forgiven? Collective guilt is not the right term, but the beliefs and attitudes in Memphis 43 years ago deserve our consideration.
This week a committee of the House of Representative is considering the radicalization of Muslims in the United States. Not all, but some. The attacks on the World Trade Center are not the responsibility of Muslims in the United States and abroad, but we can ask whether the beliefs within radical Islam permitted these men to operate within a community, even while, like James Earl Ray, keeping their plans to themselves.
Individuals must be held responsible for their freely chosen behaviors, but they operate within communities that hold beliefs and provide the infrastructure for action. The man who pulls the trigger or who hammers the nail deserves blame. And no community deserves blame for the act itself. However, when we realize that acts depend on social climate, assigning responsibility to groups is both necessary and proper.
As Pope Benedict asserts, the “temple aristocracy” – a small coterie of elite Jews – was at fault for Jesus’ torment. But if we focus too tightly on any small coterie, we ignore those who listened with rapt attention and whose consent gave these elites their moral authority. Jerusalem, Memphis, Jiddah, Tucson: communities shape the action of individuals in ways that they may not even recognize. If we focus on the deed of the man, too often we miss the voice of the crowd.