Why Progressives Can’t Say “Sin” And Conservatives Can’t Say “Social”

Why Progressives Can’t Say “Sin” And Conservatives Can’t Say “Social” December 1, 2020

I like to joke that progressive Christians DO talk about “sin,” we just spell it “systemic.”

I think this issue of how we think about sin and whether we think about sin is a significant divide in Western forms of Christianity.

For much of Christianity in the west sin is very individual. It therefore focuses on personal morality, because it is those personal sins that separate one from the personal God.

Since one’s relationship to God is, in evangelicalism, primarily personal, it is no wonder Christian reflection in this vein is attracted to a personal understanding of sin. As in: “I did something wrong and God, if it were not for Christ, would hate me for it.”

Progressive Christians, formed as we have been by a liberal social gospel tradition diverging from the more dominant evangelical understanding, think about sin not in this personal sense, but as part of world historical and cultural forces.

Sin is systemic, baked into things like racism and patriarchy that not only function as powers and principalities that harm (Ephesians 3:10), but wrap us up into themselves so that we often unwittingly (and sometimes wittingly) further them (Matthew 6:3; Romans 7:15).

We might say this is why conservatives are so triggered by mention of racism. They take the naming of racism personally, because sin is in their understanding personal rather than systemic. Rather than seeing racism as something to join progressives in combating systemically, they deny it altogether.

On the flip side, progressives are reactive to conservative naming of personal sins, seeing it as judgmental precisely because it is so personal. Progressives see such personalizing as itself a systemic issue, a power play with little empathy for the personalizing tendency.

We might joke and say progressives have read far too much influenced by Karl Marx, while conservatives have read far too much influenced by Ayn Rand.

Part Two

When we think about how sin gets “fixed” in these two ways of thinking, we discover how they divide even farther.

In conservative theology, since personal sin is an individual issue between you and your personal God, the concern is the judgment of God itself, the God who hates your personal sin.

The repair that can take place in this personalization is twofold. First, the sinner repents of their sin and commits to a new life (mostly focused on personal rather than systemic, political, or cultural change). Then what is promised is reparations, right relation with God, almost all of which occurs in relationship to life after death and salvation, since the only real thing that can change now is the personal.

In progressive theology, by contrast, systemic injustice is a corporate issue that God as social (trinity) is working out already now in the example of Jesus and the society he started.

Progressives respond to concepts like MLK Jr.’s “Beloved Community.” Sin can be addressed not in the by and by, but here and now, the kin-dom of God on earth. And this social justice in many ways takes precedence over any personal sense of sin and repair.

Both ways of thinking emphasize that an accounting must be made, reparations and restoration need take place, because of sin (systems).

The difference between them lies in the timelines (in the personal relationship and after death vs. in the social relations and here and now), as well as the context (between God and the person vs. among the community and among God as community).

Part Three

As you might imagine, I preach and teach more out of the progressive as opposed to the conservative pattern. I am grounded in the social gospel tradition, focus my ministry on social justice, and rarely if ever even mention the word “sin.”

I remember now I even blogged about sin, but the article was titled: “Should We Ditch the Concept of Sin?

Perhaps this new post is me just working out how to reclaim the word sin as an important term in Christian theology, especially if I am going to enter into any kind of dialogue with the Christian community from whom I consider myself most divergent.

I wonder, for example, if the next time I say something is racist, and my interlocutor responds, “I’m not a racist,” if I could respond, “Well, we’re all sinners.”

Frankly, just as I’m a bit lost on how to engage in rapprochement with evangelicals generally, I’m lost how to talk about sin and systems and the difference between us other than to simply name it.

I wonder if that might be enough as a start. In other words, when evangelicals say, “Talking about social gospel is unChristian,” I can respond, “You know that’s us talking about sin, right?”


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