Structural sin and the ways of death-dealing

Christianity Today ran a rather silly article trying to undercut the claims of the Occupy Wall Street protesters:

Occupy Wall Street protest signs seek to ignite a revolution of the 99 percent against the (richest) 1 percent, who are responsible for our troubles. Christians of course are forbidden from supporting this kind of worldview. The dissipation that exists in our country, unfortunately, has not been confined to 1 percent of the population. Christianity teaches us that all of us stand as imperfect, self-absorbed, broken people, each of us a contributor to the problems of the world in our own, creative way.

Political action has often served in our country as a lazy shortcut around the harder work of evangelization. If we are unconvincing in changing people’s thinking, we attempt to control their behavior through the political process.

What this misses, of course, is what both Catholic and Protestant theology refer to as “structural” or “social” sin. That is, there are institutional structures–economic, political, etc.–that create and reinforce unjust social arrangements. Simply calling people to individual conversion is insufficient to deal with these larger social forces.

Clark Williamson has a useful discussion of social sin and what he calls “the ways of death-dealing” in his systematic theology Way of Blessing, Way of Life:

A premise of all theologies that stand in the tradition of the social gospel, of the contemporary liberation theologies and of recent Roman Catholic social teaching is that existing forms of government, economy, and society “are neither divinely ordained nor naturally given but are historical products of the decisions of men and women in times past as to how their lives should be governed.” What human beings have created, human beings can change.


As long as we understand sin in ways that privatize it, hold to a view of salvation that reduces it to an individualistic or otherworldly matter (ultimate or “otherworldly” salvation should undergird and empower Christians in their this-worldly tasks), and regard social transformation as occurring in some miraculous manner, thinking that if only individuals change, the social context will take care of itself, the church will fail to address “the weightier matters of the law” (Mt. 23:23) in our time. (p. 38)

Williamson goes on to provide concrete examples of these unjust or sinful structures, or death-dealing ways: the unjust exploitation of nature, the unjust distribution of goods and services, sexism, racism, and militarism.

The point is that these sins are not exclusively the result of individuals making bad choices. They are the outworking of social structures functioning according to the way they’ve been set up. And the only way to remedy them is by changing or reforming those structures, which requires, yes, political action. This isn’t a substitute for individual conversion, but a necessary complement.

3 thoughts on “Structural sin and the ways of death-dealing

  1. I’m a little too simple to get all these deep theological arguments about sin and what other people’s sins are.

    Someone on my Facebook just shared a graphic that says, “WWJD? Grab a bullwhip and beat the crap out of some bankers, that’s what Jesus would do.” That’s a little more my theological speed.

    Without, you know, the actual giving of physical violence towards others, although I wouldn’t mind seeing the bankers taking their extra income and spreading it at the apostles’ feet for giving to the poor and needy among us.

  2. Yup. “Equality of sin; inequality of guilt” is the way that Niebuhr put it.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the idea that the masses can’t criticize the elites is the unbiblical one. Amos? Jesus? Hello?

    And so the project of stoning the prophets and decorating the tombs of the prophets continues apace.

  3. I was reading a 1973 commencement speech by Pedro Arrupe SJ today in which he said …

    “let us note that these dichotomies are differences of stress rather than contradictions of ideas ….

    1. Justice among persons, or justice before God?

    2. Love of God, or love of the neighbor?

    3. Christian charity or human justice?

    4. Personal conversion or social reform?

    5. Liberation in this life or salvation in the life to come?

    6. Development through the inculcation of Christian values, or development through the application of scientific technologies and social ideologies?”

    He goes on to answer that it should be both, not one or the other …..

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