What is Social Sin?
It strikes me that although we've been talking a lot about social sin, trying to prove its existence by way of example and illustrating how it helps facilitate and/or coerce undesirable behavior in individuals, we haven't really defined social sin and clearly contrasted it with individual sin. A definition of social sin will be helpful both to clarify our discussions and to show why it is a neglected topic in mainstream Christianity.
Individual sin is a selfish choice made by one person which has destructive consequences flowing immediately, directly and near-exclusively from the choice. An example is if I decide to punch someone who angers me. The selfish decision is my opting to harm another rather than controlling myself. The harm to my "neighbor" flows as a direct and immediate result of my selfish decision.
Social sin is more complex. It is the result of thousands or even millions of different selfish choices by as many different people. The destructive consequences flow indirectly and as a cumulative result of all the different selfish choices. Poverty is perhaps the best example. Each time we choose to buy a $4 latte rather than to donate to a food bank, each time we spend $1000 on a sofa rather than to donate to Habitat for Humanity, each time we buy a pack of cigarettes rather than donating to a charity hospital, each time we vote for candidates who cut social programs, each time we purchase products from corporations with substandard wages, we contribute to the social sin of Poverty.
Social sin is collective, an aspect of our society which doesn't resemble the Kingdom of God.
It is easy to see why mainstream Christianity focuses on individual rather than social sin. The latter is more difficult to understand. It's obvious that I am harming my neighbor rather than loving him when I punch him in the nose. But I don't directly, immediately and exclusively cause Poverty when I buy a $4 latte. Moreover, social sin often results from selfish omissions rather than selfish acts.
But our contribution to social sin is no less sinful than our individual misdeeds. Indeed, social sin - as the sum of countless selfish actions and omissions - is actually more destructive and damaging than individual sin.
It may be helpful to "translate" social sin into the language of individual sin to make my point:
I am fond of positing the following hypothetical to people. You are about to enter a coffee shop to buy a $4 cup of coffee. You notice someone lying weakly outside the shop, begging for food. By the looks of her, you can somehow tell that if you don't give your $4, she will starve. Would you blow it off and buy the coffee anyway?
I invariably get an emphatic "no way." What is hard to get people to realize, though, is that we make the decision to blow it off and buy the cup of coffee everyday. Although there isn't someone physically sitting outside the coffee shop, there is always someone, somewhere in life-or-death need who could be saved with a small act of charity. The ease with which money can be donated to good causes - via the internet, telephone, mail, etc. - means that our ability to help and refusal to do so is almost as direct and immediate as a refusal to someone at the coffee shop door.
Although the conversion of the small indulgence in coffee into a direct choice between life or death is artificial, our contribution to Poverty by making repeated similar decisions is very real.
Almost a century ago, Walter Rauschenbusch took "individualistic theology" to task for its neglect of such social sin. Although the mainline denominations do acknowledge the evils of Poverty, I don't think they have done a sufficient job in answering Rauschenbusch's call.