Social Sin: Who’s Responsible?

Social Sin: Who’s Responsible? March 21, 2014

Is it possible to take sin seriously when all of one’s collective responsibilities are understood in terms of protecting the individual right to define one’s own responsibilities? I’ve heard it said that one of the great advances in Christian reflection over the 20th century has been the “discovery” of social sin. Consider, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous interpretation of Luke 10:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

For King, loving one’s neighbor cannot be simply limited to individual acts of charity, it must extend to changing the “system” that produces the very need for charity. What bothers me, however, is the fact that the conception of social sin still doesn’t give us a moral vocabulary adequate for the tragedies that happen all around us. When a homeless guy freezes to death, it is still either his fault or not anyone’s fault in particular, the fault of “the system”, which just becomes a fancy way to talk about the collective nexus of individuals in society who have may or may not have contributed (voluntarily) to the current circumstances. It is an all or nothing affair. When something bad happens, it is either the fault of an individual or the fault of all individuals collectively – which doesn’t amount to much because it is difficult to articulate in what sense a particular individual has failed a collective duty. When it is everyone’s responsibility, it is no one’s. It is clear to all that some kind of sin has occurred, but the who and what are indeterminate. As a result, it is all too easy for anyone to divest themselves of responsibility.

It seems to me that this is just a structural problem that Christians thinking about sin in our society today have to confront. In the past, some have tried to get around it by appealing to the ways in which people are unable to live up to God’s universal moral laws. But the problem with these sorts of approach is that they work by separating responsibility for action from the actual consequences of those actions and, as a result, people have a problem figuring out why, say, their telling a few lies could possibly deserve the punishment of hell. Some have recognized this problem and moved away from talking about morality and towards the language of idolatry – the problem is that our desires are disordered. But both these approaches share the same problem of being unable to link our sinful condition to the actual social ills that occur. One can understand how one’s sinfulness affects one’s individual life, but neither goes very far in helping us talk meaningfully about the kind of sins that the Biblical prophets decried as Israel’s transgressions. How can we even begin talking about genocide? The Holocaust? The consequences of slavery? Sex trafficking? Perhaps the greatest sin of our culture is that we have arranged our societal responsibilities such that we have divested ourselves of genuine responsibility for our collective ills, our perversions of justice, our oppression of the poor. Our sin is that we have hidden our sins.

Certainly Paul was writing with wisdom when he penned these words in his epistle to the Romans:

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness…”

There are two revelations in the letter: the first is God’s wrath (1:18), the second is his righteousness (3:21). Both are necessary for a proper understanding of the Gospel: the bad news is that we are more sinful than we would dare to imagine, but the good news is that we are more loved than we would dare hope. Let us repent in dust and ashes.

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