Sunday, August 24, 2014

E6. There is such a thing as corporate and structural sin.

Now, for real, the sixth and final post in the third section of theology in bullet points on the nature of evil.
1.There is such a thing as corporate sin and sin that is perpetuated by the structures of society. These are sometimes difficult concepts within Western culture. Western culture tends to be individualistic in orientation, and our system of justice does not hold me responsible for the actions of those with whom I am associated.

This is neither the default of the human animal nor the majority sentiment of human culture in history. Homo sapiens is a herd animal. We live and travel in tribes, and we have tended to hold entire tribes and families guilty for the actions of single individuals within those tribes.

We are not surprised to find this dynamic in the stories of the Bible as well. When Achan sins in Joshua, all of Israel loses its battle with Ai. Then, in order to cleanse itself, Achan's whole family--even his animals--are stoned to death. The elimination of his whole family accomplishes a kind of atonement, and Israel is thereby collectively purged of its guilt.

By far the most striking example of this "collectivist" dynamic has to do with the Babylonian captivity. There is a layer of texts in the Old Testament that indicate that the generation of Israel that went into captivity was not the cause of the captivity. In 2 Kings, it was the sin of Manasseh--who died peacefully of old age in bed--who ensured Israel's destruction, even though the righteousness of Josiah followed him (2 Kings 23:25-27).

Both prophets and psalmist wrestled with this collective punishment for the sins of a previous generation, indeed, a previous king according to 2 Kings. Both Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31 record a saying that circulated in Israel, "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." One of the psalmists does not even blame the sin of a previous generation: "All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant" (Ps. 44:17-19).

Jeremiah 31 associates a new dispensation with a new covenant God was going to make with Israel: "everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge" (31:30). The idea that we all stand as individuals before God is thus not just an idea of Western culture. It is an important strand within the biblical texts as well. So Paul may invoke Adam to explain the current situation of humanity (collective guilt) but his theology does so in order to make salvation available to every individual.

2. It is no surprise, therefore, that we tend to think more today in terms of the collective consequences of the sins of others than in terms of collective guilt. This is not a bad thing. Indeed, in the flow of biblical revelation, the strand that should prevail is the one that affirms with Ezekiel 18:4: "The one who sins is the one who will die." [1] We should not model our behaviors toward others on the basis of the groups to which they belong.

There have been and no doubt are Christian groups that would use a sense of collectivist guilt in Scripture as a pretense for prejudice against other groups. Certainly Jews have been persecuted by Christians in the past under such a pretense. And today many American Christians would no doubt be tempted to want to destroy all Muslims under a similar assumption.

The New Testament principle of "neither Jew nor Greek" in Galatians 3:28 cuts across all group culture. Revelation 7:9 suggests that people "of every nation, tribe, people and language" will be part of the kingdom of God. The trajectory of the kingdom thus trumps any sense of collective identity based on racial or ethnic determinants. We have a new family, a new tribe as Christians, and the true Church is an "invisible" Church insofar as our ability to determine who is in it.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there are collective consequences to the sins of our groups. The "sins of my parents," when we speak of such things as drug use or unwise actions during pregnancy, can have a direct effect on the health and soundness of the child. If my father gambles away all the resources of my family, then I may very well suffer in consequence. There were Germans who hated Hitler and still died in the Allied bombings.

We might say that the notion of collective guilt, insofar as it is legitimately considered, is a hyperbolic way of speaking of collective consequence, except in the case of collective sin mentioned below.

3. However, there is such a thing as collective sin. Wrongdoing is compounded in the hands of a gang or a subculture or a tribe or a culture. The sin of one can be amplified when many are doing it together. The collective sin of the Nazis was far worse than the sin of Hitler himself or any one Nazi. We begin to enter the territory of the atrocity.

We can also speak of individuals being "complicit" in the sins of others or in the sins of their group. This is a kind of sin of omission, a sin by what one doesn't do rather than by what one does do. It is a sin of silence while others do wrong around you. Is there a time to die in protest of the wrongdoing of the surrounding culture?

The story of Kitty Genovese is now a reference point in American law for those who standby and do nothing while a crime is being committed. [2] An American rightly can be found guilty of not helping a person when the crime is serious and it would have been easy enough to help. This is the enactment in law of James 4:17: "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them."

Collective sin is thus the wrongdoing perpetuated by a group of people, including those who do nothing when they could. As with individual sin, collective sin can be intentional or unintentional. A group can harm another unintentionally, especially out of ignorance. There is a kind of collective guilt that goes along with collective sin, including collective sin that is unintentional.

4. A society can not only sin corporately, but it can set up or allow structures to exist that perpetuate collective sin. Slavery as we conceive it today is a societal institution that perpetuates collective sin structurally. American slavery was a system of more or less permanent domination that is a classic example of "structural sin."

Any system that perpetuates injustice toward a particular segment of society is "structurally sinful." The Jim Crow laws are another good example of structural sin, where whites in America enacted laws that systemically oppressed another group. Any economic system that perpetuates poverty is structurally sinful. [3] Any system that has a "glass ceiling" for women of equal giftedness is a structurally sinful system.

If the fundamental criterion of sin toward others is that which does not love neighbor, then any structuring of society that is unloving toward specific individuals, not on the basis of their choices but on the basis of their grouping, is structurally sinful.

There is such a thing as corporate sin, and the structures of society can also be "sinful" in the sense that they wrong the individuals in that society.

[1] I suspect that the greatest deficiency with the current default neo-evangelical approach to the Bible is that it tends to apply individual passages of Scripture directly to today without taking into account the entirety of Scripture, its overall council. It does not adequately take into account the diversity of the Bible or the way in which God has accommodated his message to particular times and places.

[2] This woman was mugged and murdered outside an apartment complex. The murderer came at her three times and stopped the first two times when lights in the apartment building came on. But no one called the police.

[3] It is significant that the perpetuation of poverty is not merely a question of "Republican versus Democrat." You could argue that the welfare system in America, because of the way it functions, actually perpetuates poverty and dependence. This argument seems every bit as sound as the nineteenth century argument that unbridled capitalism tends to make a few very wealthy while taking advantage of the majority who do the work.

In the future, we may have to consider a system where automation controlled by artificial intelligence eliminates the need for most human workers and, thus, creates a system where the owners of the automation accumulate wealth while the masses have no economic means. This is a question of structural sin we may have to face in the days ahead.


Chad Gibbons said...

Are there any good books or resources I could turn to for further elaboration on a Wesleyan understanding of corporate sin? Many of Wesley's own comments on sin either don't seem to address the issue or preclude it altogether.

Ken Schenck said...

I know Chris Bounds is writing a book on Sin for the Wesleyan Church. I'll ask/look around...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Laws whether they are formal or informal "protect" our sense of decency, civilization and our understanding of who is "criminal", mentally ill or a 'terrorist". When structures,leaders or groups do not live by the laws that protect us equally, then, we "fall short" of supporting society and its "norming norms".

Some Christians like to "universalize God" so that the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man is defended. But, I think it unrealistic, and most possibly dangerous to view those that act in ways that undermine society, individuals, or public decency, as "innocent" or a part of "God's Creation". It doesn't make distincions or discriminate.

Discrimination or discretion is a learned trait. Children do not have these traits. Are you suggesting that Christians should act and believe as "children"?

Mr. Mcgranor said...

Pastor/Professor although are we not judged individually for our sin? Individualism in its worthwhile sense is an advent of true Christianity, that is Protestant-Christendom. Can there really be corporate sin? The notion seems Catholic, Orthodox, or Judaic especially.