But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.
Compared to sin we typically think about, this passage might surprise us in two ways. First, it talks about accidental sin; we tend to think that we can’t be blamed for what we didn’t mean to do. Second, it talks about communal sin; we tend to think that we can’t be blamed for something bigger than us. However, we can and we can. Much of the injustice in our world is accidental and communal, but we are still responsible.
When we buy products built by children in unsafe working conditions, it’s accidental and communal, but it’s sin. White privilege is accidental and communal, but it’s sin. The cycle of credit card airline miles (for one person) and insurmountable credit card debt (for another) is accidental and communal, but it’s sin. Cornelius Plantinga describes this well (in addition to the essay quoted below, he wrote a whole, helpful book on the topic):
In a racist culture, racism will look normal. In a secular culture, indifference toward God will look normal, as it does in much secular education. Human character forms culture, but culture also forms human character. And the formation runs not only across regions and peoples, but also along generations. A boy can “inherit” his father’s sexist idea that men ought to dominate women. A daughter can “inherit” her mother’s sexist idea that women ought to let men do it.
-Cornelius Plantinga, “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” p.14
This sounds bleak, but recall the message of the passage from Numbers. The main point is not to prove that there’s such a thing as accidental, communal sin; that’s almost assumed. The main point is that when this sin is realized and the offering is given, “all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven.”
Perhaps we avoid the idea of accidental, communal sin because we don’t like digging into something that we feel unable to fix. The good news is, Jesus Christ Himself is the offering, and he can change what we cannot change, both our society and us. We have a Lord who secured victory over sin and a Spirit who delivers us from our own flesh. Thanks be to God; we can dig in. We can acknowledge and seek out and repent for and address accidental, communal sin, because we follow Jesus Christ. His reign has arrived, and it’s taking over for good.