Five Giants by Josh Philip Saunders

Structural sin

Cover image credit
‘Five Giants’, Illustration by Josh Philip Saunders. Further details available at:
Commissioned by the RSA for their work on ‘Britain’s New Giants’

Christianity needs a concept of structural sin

For many people in the western world, their ideas of good and evil are heavily influenced by Christianity, even if they are not religious. The Church teaches children that a sin is an act they do. Those children grow up into adults who don’t understand how they, without doing anything particularly evil themselves as an individual, can still be part of much wider problems, like structural racism, inequality, poverty and environmental damage. These are all ‘structural sins’, and our ability to respond to them is stunted by our inability to understand our role in them.

Stuck with an idea that we are only responsible for our own direct actions, we end up unable to deal with any problems that lie outside our most obvious responsibilities as a solitary individual.

In secular politics, more people are now starting to understand and think about institutional or structural racism and structural inequalities. Secular society is learning the language it needs to describe systemic oppression. Christianity also needs a concept of structural sin.

Praying as a child

Many children’s first learning about ethics is that they can do ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things, and that they need to say sorry for those bad things and try to make them right. This is often framed in explicitly religious language of sin and forgiveness, but even children brought up without a religious background will be taught with the same basic concepts.

For many children, prayer will consist of some mix of ‘Please forgive me for calling Sally names and for annoying my sister’ alongside ‘Please look after the people in Australia running away from the fires. And for people in Africa who do not have enough food or water.’

It’s understandable that we only ask children to think about their own direct actions, because looking beyond this gets complicated, but nonetheless it remains a problem that from the earliest stage our concepts of evil are very much focused on the individual and their actions. Even as we grow older and become better able to understand the complexity of actions and their consequences, I’m not sure we do much better than what we teach to our children.

Praying as an adult

Looking at the prayers of penitence in the Church of England liturgy, they are written as ‘we have’, but the sins they describe are the actions of individuals, not the consequences of the society and structures. I think most people read them as being about their individual and direct actions.

‘We have sinned against you and against our neighbour, in what we have thought, in what we have said and done, through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.’

‘We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things that we ought to have done; and we have done those things that we ought not to have done’

You can look at a whole range of prayers of confession online, and I haven’t yet spotted any that offer any obvious framework to think about societal evil or ‘structural sin’. Other key prayers aren’t much better, the Lords prayer mentions our trespasses and the trespasses of others against us, which to me sounds like we’re talking about us seeking forgiveness for commitment evil acts as one individual against other individuals, and vice versa. It doesn’t capture a sense of wider societal evil.

Treating human-caused tragedies as natural disasters

The corollary of leaving societal evils out of our prayers of penitence, is that when they do appear, they are treated as though they are tragic but natural disasters. We pray for some divine agency to intervene on all sorts of issues – poverty, war, disease – as though those problems have arisen spontaneously, like freak lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions.

We pray for them as though the world doesn’t have sufficient resources to meet everyone’s basic needs (it does), as though it isn’t in the power of governments and leaders to avoid violence (it’s difficult, but possible), and as though the treatments or preventions for many of these illnesses aren’t already discovered, known and available to us (they often are, but they’re too expensive for many of the people who need them).

Most Christians fall under the myth that our economic system, the very existence of wealth and prices, is a natural inevitability. The fact our economy isn’t ‘planned’ by one person or government doesn’t mean that it isn’t created and sustained by humanity as a whole. We might not be deliberate or willing participants, but we’re involved in sustaining it nonetheless.

Many Christians will hasten to add, rightly, that when they pray to God about these things, they do so knowing that these problems are, at least in large part, created by humankind. Christians point out that their prayers are to transform humanity so we can deliver ourselves from these evils, and that praying about them is part of making that transformation.

That might be true to an extent, but why is it buried, tacitly, in the assumptions behind the prayer. If we don’t make our own social responsibility explicit, how do we expect that to percolate down into our own minds, or to our children? I strongly suspect that, subconsciously at least, most of us still feel like many of the greatest evils facing the planet are nothing to do with us at all.

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