The Sin Problem Problem

The Sin Problem Problem August 27, 2018

Samantha Field shared some insightful, important, and powerful thoughts about the language that conservative Evangelicals use about racism and other social issues as being a “sin issue” and a “problem of the heart.” Here’s a lengthy excerpt:

Maybe like me you’ve noticed a pattern of influential Christian ministers referring to racism or sexism as a “heart issue,” and found it as frustrating as I do.

Framing racism or other systemic social problems as a “heart issue” accomplishes a few things. First, it centers Christianity in the conversation. If racism is a “heart issue,” then the solution is conversion or repentance– all the individually racist person needs to do is repent and allow Jesus to change their heart. If a racist person accepts Jesus into their heart and once they’ve done so, follows the Spirit’s guidance away from prejudice and towards acceptance– then racism is solved with the Christian religion. Saying racism is a “heart issue” means that we don’t need affirmative action, we need Evangelical Jesus.

Second, it allows people and their communities to escape any feeling of responsibility or guilt. If racism is truly a single person’s heart issue, and the resolution is for that person to repent, then there’s nothing that Bob or Susie is responsible for when Jim is a racist turd. If Jim is a Christian, then Jesus and the Holy Spirit will handle it. If he’s not, then there’s nothing more for Bob or Susie to do– they just have to continue being Jim’s friend so they can be a “good witness” for Christ in his life. What good would it do to tell Jim that he’s being racist, if it’s a heart issue? No, we just need to “love on him” more and “be the only Bible he’ll ever see.”

Lastly, if racism is an individual’s “heart issue,” then it’s not systemic. An indiviudal’s heart issue does not require a church, as an institution, to change. Heart issues do not ask the Church to examine itself or shift course; in fact, if racism is a heart issue than most Christian churches are doing the exactly right thing by harping on a “personal relationship with Christ” and telling its members to repent of private, individual sin.

If we were to communally acknowledge that racism or sexism or ableism is systemic, then we’d have to commit to a massive undertaking. We’d have to take a hard look at how our seminaries and ordinations and denominations and alliances and conventions operate and be honest with ourselves for the first time in history. We’d have to overhaul power structures, ordination tracks, and hiring processes– and everyone who currently enjoys all the cultural power, who wield all the political influence, would lose their access and prestige. The leadership would have to admit that it’s not God who brought them to the position they hold, not their commitment to the faith, not their hard work, but systemic, structural practices that marginalize anyone who isn’t a cis, white, heterosexual man.

It’s not coincidence that the people who stand to lose the most power, influence, and money are the ones claiming that sins like racism are an individual problem and the solution is to maintain the status quo.

On the topic of what Jessica Goldstein calls the “Feel-Good, Feel-Bad” Story, which praises an individual’s inventiveness or tenacity in a way that distracts from the systemic problem that necessitated their action, Libby Ann writes:

The problem with these stories is that the challenges they show individuals solving—on an individual level, or by coming together as individuals—are systemic problems that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Furthermore, the solutions these stories tout as heartwarming leave those underlying systemic problems in place.

Daniel Camacho wrote along similar lines:

It’s time for Christian leaders and members to own up to the patriarchal crisis that churches are experiencing. When the book of Genesis describes the fallen, sinful nature of humanity, it names the specific curse of oppressive male domination.

To simply chalk these instances up to sin in the abstract misses the ways in which sin has become enfleshed in hierarchical church structures led by men with little accountability. It also lets men, and male religious leaders off the hook. If we can understand this, then perhaps we can think about steps for moving forward.

It is good to see so many people talking about systemic evil rather than merely individual sin!

Of related interest:

Pastor: Evangelicals Must Stop Promoting “Spiritually Disastrous” Social Justice

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Uffa. John MacArthur.

    It’s interesting to me that the weight of what the Bible has to say about sin is primarily about national/societal sin. While obviously collective sin is composed of the sins of individuals, and certainly – as the Dalai Lama reminded us – individual transformation is key to changing the world, the vast majority of the Scriptures that speak about sin are speaking about the sins of a people.

  • John MacDonald

    My grandmother, who is one of the dearest, kindest people I ever met, and a devout Catholic, is racist when it comes to Jews, Blacks, etc. She doesn’t believe the holocaust happened. She grew up in Germany during the war and is a product of the culture at that time. We just ignore or laugh when she makes a snide racist remark, because not even an act of God is going to change her. She is set in her ways.

  • A chronically depressed white person living in poverty might be better off than a black person in that situation, but how much power does she really have in the absolute sense?
    I find it fascinating that the very same American progressives who constantly talk about “white privileges” say and do almost nothing against Wall-Street, the fiscal privileges of the 1% and the way multinationals are screwing the whole planet, which will disproportionately affect poor southern countries.

  • jekylldoc

    While I see the point made by the main author here, about racism etc. being labelled a “sin problem” avoiding the structural issues, we cannot avoid the difficulties involved in trying to find structural solutions. Many of the proposals I have heard for “solving” the structural issues sound to me like they are likely to be worse than the structural issue they are addressing.

    Frankly it looks to me like most proponents of “structural” analysis have nothing better to offer as an alternative than hard socialism, probably with them in charge. With all due respect, I think that the people being structurally harmed are probably better off under structurally discriminatory capitalism than they would be under government control of the economy.

    • I must object to this attempt to use the false dichotomy marketing tactic that is old hat among advocates of minimally-regulated capitalism. There are many options available between Communism (or whatever “hard socialism” denotes in your mind) and the other extreme of an unregulated market with no restrictions, regulations, or safety nets. Indeed, all of the major nations in which people engage in discussions like this one fall somewhere in between the extremes. But a nuanced approach doesn’t allow for an easy dismissal of alternatives and embrace of the status quo.

      And so let me ask which of the various alternatives you have actually looked at closely. For instance, what are your thoughts on Universal Basic Income?

      • jekylldoc

        Well, socialism with electoral democracy is not hard socialism. But no country has managed, for example, to mandate equal pay for women in such a context. Probably the needed involvement of regulators would be more oppressive than the persisting patriarchy that still causes significant wage discrimination. On the other hand, the waste and emotional toil of an insurance model for medical care is so costly that it now seems obvious that a public option for all, if not single payer, would be a more efficient and humane way to do medical care. If that is a “structural fix” then fine, but my support for it is based more on efficiency than on equality.

        I used to think Universal Basic Income was a great idea. I don’t anymore. I think it is too simplistic, basically telling people who would like to participate productively, “Here’s some money, now go leave us alone.” I am quite serious in saying that communities need to evolve structures of empowerment, leveraged by government resources but animated by actual caring. Structures that connect people to opportunity as effectively as the old immigrant communities did, where somebody would find a job for the newcomers through connections, only these days involving explanations and patient skill-building and not just an opening in a firm somewhere. Or, if that isn’t appealing, structures that work the way lifelong learning does.

        I have seen a lot of easy dismissal of alternatives as well. They tend to be theoretical and shallow and fed by pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook out of right-wing think tanks. But the old truism remains true that it is a lot easier to criticize than it is to find actual better-functioning alternatives.

        • I don’t see Basic Income as telling people “leave us alone.” I have always understood it to be saying “Whether you stay at home to care for family, or work for someone else, you deserve to have at least a minimum income to live on, because those activities contribute to society.

          • jekylldoc

            Thanks for the reply. My characterization was intentionally extreme, and I would not say that in a debate in which the policy was actually being considered. But upstream of the policy debates, we should be thinking about how the world actually works.

            I have a friend who did some of the key work on what level the guaranteed income should be in the U.K. on the basis of overcoming social exclusion. We know that social exclusion leads to poor school performance and increased likelihood of crime and unemployment later. So in a sense the Basic Income proposal is the opposite of “leave us alone.”

            But it also leaves a productive person to find their own way into the world of work, even though the world of work is already telling them it doesn’t want them. We should engage with that situation, as seriously as we engage with disabled people being excluded because no business wants to be the one that bears the cost of letting them work with their disability. I understand how badly the Welfare Reform of the 1990s did with this problem, but that’s a lot more true in some states than in others. Work requirements are sometimes turned into terrible burdens, but in other places they have been stepstools to get the person onto the first rung of a longer ladder.

            And frankly, the idea that a person deserves an income by virtue of being alive is not a very honest message. In some cases it really means the person can have the time to give their children a proper childhood, but in other cases it enables someone to game a system and get away with it because no one wants to go to the trouble of pushing them and getting involved with them. Getting involved is a fraught thing to do, and a system that tries to do it on an impersonal basis is open to a lot of abuse by authority. But can we really say it is more just to just provide income to a person who could easily be working, but went off the tracks at some earlier stage in their life and doesn’t know how to get back on?

            My position is a bit quixotic, but frankly, so is advocating for Basic Income in the U.S. at its current economic and political state. And if you ask yourself which one ordinary people can actually do something about? I would argue for mentoring and getting involved.

          • My two questions in response to what you wrote are (1) do you think that people who are inclined to “game the system” or are unproductive citizens for whatever reason should simply be left to starve, and (2) isn’t your quixotic position as you articulate it just as subject to the dictum “it is a lot easier to criticize than it is to find actual better-functioning alternatives” as any other?

          • jekylldoc

            Good questions. I might prefer a Universal Basic Income to leaving nothing between the people and starvation, which the current party in power seems to think is the right thing to do, with their approach to SNAP, for example. I just don’t want to let them frame the discussion that way, as if the only options are two that have nobody getting involved with them. I think “The Prophetic Imagination” was a call that should be heeded: let’s think about what would be the right way before we get caught up in other people’s dichotomies.

            As to whether I am just cheaply criticizing, I’m not sure. I hope to be moving back to America soon and getting involved, and maybe then I will have a better idea. There are people out there trying to take a really interventionist approach with some success. Anecdotally, it is possible to make a lot of difference in people’s lives when there is non-judgmental support, both emotional support and mentoring. Maybe it’s just a process that needs to be learned by those of us who don’t believe profit is the best measure of value.