The Religious Right has a monopoly on sin. Now, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that religious conservatives are more prone to acts of sin than their fellow Americans. But when it comes to naming, and most importantly to blaming individuals and groups in our society for their supposedly sinful ways, the overwhelming majority of the finger pointing comes from the conservative side of the political and theological aisle. The one-sidedness of this discussion has perpetuated a particularly dangerous conception of sin in our national discourse: a persistent vision of sin obsessed with supposed (and often sexual) venial immoralities, all too often divorced from any sort of social or economic awareness.
It has not always been this way, and for the sake of our country and our faiths, it is vitally important that progressive understandings of sin find their way back into public discourse and begin to direct discussions of sin back to their true focus: justice.
A quick history lesson: In the United States, the pendulum of public perception of sin historically vacillates from a more conservative understanding of sin as the fault – and the responsibility – of the individual, to more theologically and socially progressive indictments of whole societal structures and norms as sinful in and of themselves (for a terrific exploration of this trend pick up James A. Morone’s Hellfire Nation). Examples of the former, more individualized understanding of sin are evident in the Great Awakening movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more recently in the surge of evangelical Protestant Christianity. The latter, or more progressive articulations of sin have defined many of the paramount movements for social justice in the history of the United States, some of which are listed below. In sharp contrast to the logic of their conservative counterparts, which often claim a direct correlation between an individual’s circumstances and that individual’s piety, progressive understandings of sin seek to alleviate the societal causes of suffering by framing oppressive social structures in theological terms engineered to compel resistance to, and the eventual dismantling of, these structures themselves.
Although progressive understandings of sin continue to strongly emphasize individual responsibility, they actively avoid the demonization of individuals enmeshed in societal structures that promote sinful behavior. This emphasis on social rather than individual culpability is particularly important in the cases of individuals and groups who themselves are made to suffer under oppressive, sinful social systems. To somehow blame the persistence of dehumanizing poverty on the moral or spiritual failings of the poor themselves, for example, smacks of precisely the sort of theological misdirection that we seek to combat.
While the language of sin is sure to make some progressive religionists – and many progressive non-religionists with whom we labor – a bit uncomfortable, progressives of all stripes should recognize that the use of theological language in work for social justice hardly constitutes a novel development. Rather, the language of sin, when strategically marshaled and deployed by progressives, has functioned as an invaluable part of our nation’s struggles for social justice. Some of the greatest progressive victories in US history have followed from the successful branding of otherwise accepted societal practices as unjust not only at the moral level, but at the theological level as well. The movement for abolition, the worker’s movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the non-proliferation movement, and even Prohibition (which sought to tackle the perceived social sin of alcohol abuse as opposed to demonizing over-indulgent individuals) all effectively framed the societal ills against which they labored in the highly potent theological language of sin.
The language of sin should not be invoked lightly, and it is vitally important that any rhetoric that relies upon such weighty moral claims be restricted to societal structures, institutions, and practices. Human behavior and its motivating factors, not human beings themselves, must remain the focus of our efforts at reclaiming the language of sin. Assertions about an individual or group’s own inherent sinfulness open the door to precisely the sort of dehumanizing, theologically justified violence against which this site and people of all faiths should labor.
That being said, when approached with the proper respect and caution, branding harmful societal structures with the language of sin stakes not only a dramatic political claim, but a dramatic theological claim as well. The language of sin constitutes the moral framework by which religious individuals call ourselves and others to justice, and juxtaposes contemporary realities with the highest limits of human potential. Consider the moral implications when contemporary social and political circumstances – and individual responses thereto – are measured against the cosmic processes that circumscribe all of human history. Even when justice seems remote in any immediate sense, individual and corporate actions of resistance against sinful societal systems and structures take on new and profound significance when conceptualized as integral to the bringing about of God’s vision for humankind, the achievement of humanity’s own highest potential.
In addition to the direct challenges it poses to oppressive societal structures, the resurgence of a socially and theologically progressive understanding of sin holds incredible promise for the coalescence of the Religious Left. By employing the language of sin to address contemporary societal ills, religious progressives open a discursive space in which diverse theological resources may be brought to bear on shared political goals. In this way, we gain one more venue within which to explore the incredible internal pluralism of the contemporary progressive movement in the United States. Stay tuned for further installments of our 21st Century Sin series, in which we will continue to explore ways in which theological language and resources may be brought to bear against the sinful structures responsible for suffering in our society.