Friday, August 20, 2004

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.

17 Comments:

At 12:09 AM, Blogger Joe G. said...

You make some very interesting points in this series of posts regarding social sin. It seems clear, to me at least, that often times God's displeasure with Israel in the Hebrew Bible was with it as a community, a nation, not necessarily with individual misdeeds, per se. So, it is possible to infer that this idea of social sin is implied in these texts.

I am wondering if you plan to address how social sin can be changed. Most people seem to understand how individual sin can be addressed (e.g. repentence, contrition, confession, etc.). But, how does a community repent, change its ways? Through ritual? Through individual acts of change? Through a profound prophetic, grassroots movement that calls us to a better way? Any thoughts about that?

 
At 9:45 PM, Blogger jrl20 said...

I think that Jesus began the "profound prophetic, grassroots movement that calls us to a better way." That is, Jesus' message is BEST understood as a call to create a loving SOCIETY. Modern Christianity's focus on INDIVIDUAL and otherworldly salvation is a corruption of the ORIGINAL message.

So where do we go from here? How do we undo social sin and build the Kingdom of God? I think that we must look more closely at exactly what Jesus taught (rather than what Paul and Augustine and Luther, etc. tell us he taught) and try to follow the message in our individual lives. The only way to obliterate social sin is to realize how our decisions contribute to it and to do our part to incrementally to change it. As Ghandi said, be the change you want to see in the world.

More concretely: consume less and give more to charity, vote for those who support social programs for the poor, take a job that effects social change, volunteer, etc. etc.

 
At 9:48 PM, Blogger jrl20 said...

See also the latest posting.

 
At 6:47 AM, Blogger Marcus said...

Is the increasing power and impact of the sex industry also social sin? Complete with "sex tourism" and the apparently increasing global trade in women and girls, quite literally taken for slaves and sold into the most astonishing hell-hole brothels?

I would have thought so.

Just wondering what you thought, since concern for sexual morality is so often taken as paradigmatic of obsession with individual sin. Not so easy to draw the line, always, is it?

 
At 1:18 PM, Blogger Lost In NY said...

The sex industry is absolutely social sin. Sure, individual acts - buying a sex slave, selling a sex slave, taking advantage of someone in a weaker position then you for your own pleasure - are still sinful, but the mere existence of such an industry shows a more widespread impact of sin attributable to more than those explicitely participating in the industry. Like politicians not dealing with the problem, and individuals for not harping on their politicans to deal with the problem. Not to mention more obvious connections, like buying pornography.

 
At 7:42 PM, Anonymous francis said...

tarantado gumawa nito

 
At 7:42 PM, Anonymous ysma said...

putang ina nyo lhat

 
At 10:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kakahiya naman at nakakalungkot kasi naiintidahan ko ang salita n'yo... buti na lang hindi maiintindihan nang iba kundi isang malaking kahihiyan na naman ito para sa ating bayan na kilala bilang katolikong bansa sa asya... sana lang maliwanagan kayo ng isip at maintindihan ninyo ang konteksto kung bakit ang ito naging isang kasalanan... 'wag kayong mag-alala kasama kayo sa aking mga panalangin...

 
At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Dochebadge said...

ummmmmmm......... LOLZ?

 
At 4:54 PM, Anonymous MuggerDodger said...

This is Bull... :D

 
At 10:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1 @Gr33 \/\/iif |)@ |-|0|\/|e |30Y @|30v3

 
At 10:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yo yo G, man i'm all up on that god shit man, the shit for real it saved me from the hood, bless the big man, one love... yo if you dont mind cheeck my new album out man, it bangin....

 
At 10:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my name is elena, im 16, and im looking for an experienced man to show me the ropes

 
At 10:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

show us some pink bits elena, if your so keen youll post a pic ;)

 
At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

jesus is my answer

 
At 10:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

whoever wrote this is imature. poor girl, shes only 16..

 
At 7:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ummmmmmm... i still don't understand what social sin is. like I have a asignment on it but i can't find any sites that clearly describe it.

 

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