I have long been intrigued with the notion of our common responsibility, or rather, that I am “responsible for the sins of the whole world.” I think I first came across the notion in a quote from the Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. And even there, Dostoevsky was only putting on the lips of his fictional Elder the sentiments of the saints and the common teaching of the Church.
At one time I mostly thought about all of this as having something to do with the fact that there is only one human essence, that our common humanity is a sharing in one being (ousia). Though this is a way to think about it, I have come to believe that it is not the specific teaching of the Church. In a way, the Western notion of Original Sin is far more akin to this. There is only one essence, and Adam took us down with him – a kind of Federalism as it is known.
Instead, I tend to understand this now as something potentially centered in us as persons. There is a freedom involved in accepting the common reponsibility of humanity for all of its sins. I can say, “Yes,” to this, or I can refuse it. As Fr. Sophrony writes, our very refusal is a repetition of Adam’s sin, who refused to acknowledge any culpability in his own act. The problem, Adam argued, was with God, who gave him “that woman.”
It also centers the problem squarely within the realm of love (which can only exist where there is freedom). I am not utterly free, there are many givens within my life and situation. And yet there are many things that I can choose to embrace or refuse to acknowledge. This embracing or refusing is the action of our heart towards others and ultimately towards God (“inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren”).
Thus I cannot argue on some objective ground that you are responsible for the sins of all. You may want to refuse that kind of unity with the whole of humanity. But if you do so, you will not be able to pray for them. You cannot pray for the other as though you had no connection to them. Praying as though you had no connection is mere noblesse oblige, our pride that somehow we are different (and superior) to those for whom we pray.
Prayer, in its final analysis, can only be accomplished as we stand in union with Christ, and Christ will not separate Himself from others. He has “become sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus if we are to pray in union with Christ, we will also have to pray as though “having become sin.” Thus we can honestly pray and say that we are the chief of sinners.
But this must not be something we embrace as theoretical. We cannot theoretically pray. God is not a theoretical God, but He Who Is. If we embrace others and accept responsibility for their sins, then we do so only as an act of love that unites us to them and to God who has so humbled Himself. If we refuse them then we can at best find ourselves lost in our own righteousness, which, before God, “is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:5). But by embracing all, and becoming responsible for all, we unite ourselves with Christ “who is through all and in you all.”