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Column: Choosing to bear the sins of the father

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children." Matthew 27: 24-25

For millennia, this Biblical passage helped promote anti-Semitism throughout the entire Western world. These words were cited by Christians again and again. The Jews killed Jesus, and, as Matthew so clearly wrote, Jesus' blood would be forever on their hands.

Thankfully, in the decades following the Holocaust, Christian communities finally stepped up and dispelled the notion that all practitioners of the Jewish faith deserved persecution because of a gospel writer's obvious prejudice. Nonetheless, the Gospel according to Matthew continues to stick out for this resolute message: The sins of the father become the sins of the son.

Modern society frowns on such a notion, of course. We cling dearly to the idea that everyone controls his or her own destiny, and, accordingly, we believe that everyone should be judged irregardless of their parents' or grandparents' failures.

Included in the litany of criticisms in response to my previous column concerning racial injustice in the South was just this rebuttal. Many asked how I could characterize the modern South so harshly because of the atrocities performed by previous generations.

It is a fair question.

What open-minded individual could possibly imply that the Southerners of present day carried some perpetual scar acquired at birth, an unwashable stain as a result of crimes committed decades before?

For the record, let me state explicitly that I resolutely believe that no person should be held directly responsible in any way for the sins of a father.

My grandfather happens to be a staunch anti-Semite, a person of ugly intellect; I would most certainly be horrified to be placed in any category alongside him.

What I hope to illustrate, though, is that there exists a clear difference between being forced to bear a responsibility and choosing to bear that same responsibility.

Bar none, my favorite figure in all of literature, film or any other cultural mediums of antiquity up to the present is that of the tragic hero. There's no contest, really. I admire the figure who aspires for greatness in spite of, and often because of, a tormented soul.

Evidently I'm not alone. Such tragic archetypes dominate popular culture, as evidenced by recent Oscar-winning films like Gladiator and Braveheart, both of which revolved around tortured protagonists. Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe were not knights in shining armor carrying the princess away to a shimmering castle. Each was haunted by his family's slaughter, by the knowledge that it was choices, his choices, his actions that killed his wives and children.

I'd like to think that I prefer my heroes to have guilty consciences not because I'm some pain-hungry masochist, but rather because they reflect a sense of justice and nobility to which one should aspire.

What I respect most of all is someone willing to seize responsibility rather than passively deflect it onto others. I wrote my column "Attacking the beloved South" because I feel that too many Southerners would like to cherish the rich, positive traditions of their cultural heritage while at the same time absolving themselves of past atrocities.

It's a fair choice, but not one I wish to make. Many people criticized my column for espousing some self-righteous demand for guilt.

I guess my best response is that I don't believe guilt has to be a crippling force. I don't believe feeling responsible for something awful must drive someone to drink or shatter a person's self-esteem. On the contrary, I strongly hold firm to the belief that choosing to bear responsibility can be productive and empowering.

How so?

Feelings of guilt, debt and personal responsibility inspire like no other. They are resolute in their impact and motivation. I know without shadow of a doubt how I feel about racism, rape and murder because when I looked at those pictures, I felt physically sick.

I became sick and upset because I realized that the people who committed those crimes called themselves Americans. They lived where I live, and they looked like I look.

The sins of our fathers should not rest on our heads because we are guilty of them. Rather, we should choose to keep those sins close by, so that instead of looking to deflect attention elsewhere, we focus ours upon the past in order to remember the ugliness in equal proportion to the good.

Nick Christie is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle. His column appears every other Monday.


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