Many people who struggle with guilt (including me) feel guilty about the wrong things. The guilt feelings that keep us fussing in overscrupulous anxiety about, say, hurting someone's feelings at a dinner party can become smokescreens that forestall more serious reflection on things for which we desperately need a sense of guilt.

Bad guilt incapacitates, preoccupies, or paralyzes and is in itself a sin insofar as it results in a compulsive self-focus, which Augustine believed was a hallmark of all sin. Good guilt isn't like that. Good guilt motivates us to repent and thereafter, as grateful recipients of mercy, to make what reparation we can; it turns us first inward and upward, then outward in self-forgetfulness, eager to get right and go on.

I don't think this distinction is news to thoughtful Christians. But let me offer a further distinction: examination of conscience that is entirely individualistic results in poorly focused guilt—possibly even in pathological guilt.

While we need to examine our individual consciences with full recognition of our particular sinfulness, we also need to take corporate confession seriously. Until we are able to reckon with collective guilt, we don't quite get to the deep strata of conscience and consciousness that unite us as fallen creatures in need of redemption and as fellow recipients of amazing mercy. United in one body, we participate in each other's sin as well as in the grace that animates us as the body of Christ.

Particularly for Americans who live in what is possibly the most radically (and sometimes pigheadedly) individualistic culture on earth, collective guilt is hard to swallow. What my cheating student or child-abusing neighbor does may concern me, but is "not my fault." Much ...

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Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has taught at Princeton University, the College of New Jersey, Mills College, Dominican University, and Westmont College. She now teaches at the UCSF/UC Berkeley Joint Medical Program and in the University Writing Program at UC Davis. Her column for Christianity Today appeared from 2000 to 2001.
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