200: STRUCTURAL ‘SIN’

“A warm welcome to the 200th Post of Zingcreed, the unique Christian/Atheist blog, where I muse aloud about religion and life. You’re welcome to ‘eavesdrop’ and laugh at how I get everything wrong, but it’s my personal polemic where I write what I feel!” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

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Sin may be (a) personal (yawn), (b) church or (c) structural.

By church sins, I mean all those historical activities the church tries to cover up. The episodes of church history that are never mentioned in those services and sermons where the clergy are so keen at getting us to confess trivia. The actions that no-one has ever heard the church say they’re sorry for. The things that make our personal peccadilloes pale into insignificance by comparison:-
slavery
antisemitism
the inquisition
the crusades
witch hunts
slaughter of non christians
slaughter of Christian ‘heretics’
making women second class citizens
the dark ages
(See the Zingcreed series of Posts on ‘Christian atrocities’ listed at the end of this Post)

As radical eco-feminist Catholic American theology professor Rosemary Ruether (ii) spells out, what this means is”…Christians, the church, can become followers of Christ only by knowing that they are, first of all, descendants of the betrayers of Christ. As successors to the apostles, the church descends from those who sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and betrayed him three times in the courtyard of the high priest. We are descendants of those who pressed Jesus to seize power, to use miracles to display his authority and thereby to establish a new realm of domination where we could sit on his left hand and on his right. The church continued to betray Christ by using his name to establish a new kingdom of domination, to rear up new classes of princes and priests, and to justify the subjugation of women, slaves and the poor. The kingdom of Satan is thus doubly entrenched in history, since Satan now wears the robes of Vicar of Christ and uses the cross of Jesus as his sceptre.”

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Shifty looking bloke – is he something to do with the church? Could he possibly be a former member of the Hitler Jugend, or was he once the Vicar of Christ? Or both?

Structural sins means evils such as oppression, exploitation and war that are built into the system. Systemic or institutional sin is another way of saying structural sin. It’s the sort of thing that campaigners for peace and social justice battle against. These sins are nothing to do with personal morality. Making everyone ‘good’ still wouldn’t reform a world where we find so much unnecessary waste, destitution, racism, famine, abuse of the weak, and conflict and melting icebergs. (Write your own list). These sins are more serious than giving into temptation and eating that chocolate, or thinking blush-making thoughts about a colleague at work.

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First a few general words about ‘sin’ and forgiveness in the gospels. Why? Because the Zingcreed blog is trying to see what Jesus was on about; ignoring his supposed divinity and taking his aphorisms and parables at face value (albeit in historical context). Perhaps we’ll discover what makes the church so obsessed with the ‘sins’ of its laity. Is this what JC actually preached?

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Well, I must say I got quite a (pleasant) shock when I researched this.
Sin and forgiveness of sin play only a very small role in the gospels. Looking at the ‘historical’ background to this, it is all supposed to have started with Adam’s Fall in Genesis 3. (Obviously as an evolution-teaching Atheist, I see this as a useful metaphor, rather than as a fact.)

  • Now, do the Jews today or in the Hebrew scriptures (‘Old Testament’) obsess over Adam’s Fall, and on getting redemption? No, it’s of minor importance to them.
  • Did Jesus preach incessantly about man’s Fall and how He had come to redeem us? No, he ignored it too. (vi)
  • Paul picks up the idea, however, and says we can only atone for all our sins by accepting Christ, thus by-passing piggy-in-the-middle Jesus who keeps talking about mercy and forgiveness instead!
  • Does the world’s largest church (the R.C.s) put “Jesus died for our sins” centre stage? By no means, they downplay it too. So, it seems like there was a several thousand year long interval between Adam and Pauline Protestantism when no-one thought personal sin was particularly  interesting. The Hebrew prophets had plenty to say about the structural sins of injustice and exploitation though.(See Prophets against profits)
  • Then the Protestants found that by inducing irrational guilt feelings in innocent people they tightened their control over them. As any evangelical will tell you for free, when you accept Jesus as your personal saviour, all your sins are washed away…’by the blood of the lamb’, blah blah blah… baa, baa, baa…
  •  There is very little by way of interpretation of Jesus’ death on the cross in terms of forgiveness of sins ( only Mk 10:45; and Matt. 22:28) (i)
  • It is astounding that there are only 2 passages where Jesus explicitly pronounces God’s forgiveness (Mk 2:1-12; Lk 7:36-50), most other references are to God’s forgiveness of debts, and it is just as astonishing that references to Jesus’ association with sinners come so few and so late. Who says Jesus died for our sins? Don’t look in the gospels for your answer.
  • As van Buren (iii) says “the doctrine of the Fall and of man’s ‘original sin’ is explicit in surprisingly few passages of the New Testament, considering its significant role in the history of Christian thought.” (e.g. 1Cor. 15:21-22; Rom. 5:12-19). “It is implicit, however, in many of the apostolic writings, especially in the recurring picture of man as a creature in bondage to forces or powers beyond his control. The conception of sin as moral perversity and ethical wrong, which has marked Western theology since Tertullian, ignores the portrayal in many parts of the N.T. of man as a creature suffering in bondage. Although the Gospel calls for repentance it also proclaims liberation.” (emphasis added.)
  • van Buren develops his thesis further (See Post listed below) “In the N.T., man is seen in the light of the free man, Jesus of Nazareth, and compared to him, men are not free; they are bound by fear and anxiety, mistrust and self concern.. The word for this is “sin”. The doctrine of ‘original sin’ is a comparative statement of man’s condition, measured by the historical standard of Jesus of Nazareth.”
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  • Developing the theme of liberation, who better to lead us back to structural sin than the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez.(iv)  “In the liberation approach sin is not considered as an individual, private, or merely interior reality – asserted just enough to necessitate a “spiritual” redemption which does not challenge the order in which we live. Sin is regarded as a social, historical fact, the absence of brotherhood and love in relationships among men……….Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes. (emphasis added) Sin appears then as the fundamental alienation, the root of a situation of injustice and exploitation…Sin demands a radical liberation, which in turn necessarily  implies a political liberation.”
  • In a footnote (p.187), Gutiérrez recalls the interesting comparison Marx establishes in Das Kapital between sin and private ownership of the means of production.. Because of this private ownership the worker is separated, alienated, from the fruit of his work: “This primitive accumulation plays in political economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race.”(Marx)

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Sin usually implies violence, so for ‘structural sin’ read ‘structural violence’. Such institutional violence may be widespread, indirect and covert (although not to the victims!). We remain unaware of the violence that we bring about if our own interests or ideology blind us to it. The violence may be psychological or spiritual, e.g. it may impair a person’s integrity, demean them, or cause them to betray themselves or their comrades. As Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote
“Sometimes a system can, without resort to overt force, compel people to live in conditions of abjection, helplessness, wretchedness that keeps them on the level of beasts rather than of men. This is plainly violent.To make men live on a subhuman level against their will, to constrain them in such a way that they have no hope of escaping their condition, is an unjust exercise of force. Those who in some way or another concur in the oppression – and perhaps profit by it – are exercising violence even though they may be preaching pacificism. And their supposedly peaceful laws, which maintain this spurious kind of order, are in fact instruments of violence and oppression.”

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If people are starving, when this is objectively avoidable, then violence is committed, and if that starvation is a side effect of the existing social and financial system, then we have structural violence, or if you like structural sin. When one husband beats his wife, that is personal sin; when one million men keep their wives in ignorance there is structural sin. As the World Council of Churches said in 1972 “When resources and power are concentrated in the hands of a few who use them not for the self-realization of all members of their community, but for the personal enrichment of an elite or for the dominion, oppression and control of their or of another society, then you have structural violence.”

As Rosemary Ruether says “For Liberation Theologians sin means not only alienation from God and personal brokenness of life, but also the structural evils of war, racism, sexism and economic exploitation which allow some people to dehumanize others. Likewise salvation means not only reconciliation with God and personal amendment of life, but a commitment to a struggle for a transformed social order where all these evils will be overcome…..a holistic vision in which the personal is integrated into the political.” (ii)

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“The church has to speak, not simply of personal sin, but of social sin, of sin as collective and institutionalized violence and greed. Social sin is of a different order from the sum of all the sins of individual sinners. It becomes a world where we inherit and which biases our opportunities, either as oppressed people or as privileged people, even before we have been able to make personal choices. This means that even people of goodwill do evil and profit by evil because of their privileged location in this system. This sense of social sin gives liberation theology a new understanding of the Christian doctrine of inherited sin, not as sin inherited through biology but as sin inherited through society.”

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“As one struggles against evil, one also risks suffering and becomes vulnerable to retaliation and violence by those who are intent on keeping the present system intact, a system which is maintained by unjust violence. But in risking suffering and even death on behalf of a new society, we also awaken hope. The poor learn not to be afraid of those in power, and to begin to take their destiny into their own hands.The memory of their lives gives people hope. This is the real meaning of redemptive suffering.”

Like Che Guevara then.

Ruether ends with a rallying cry for the faithful: “We should not stifle the cry of Jesus (on the cross) by spiritualizing this victory over death, but, instead, let it continue to ring out from the cross, from all the crosses of unjust suffering throughout history, as a question mark about the nature of present reality.”

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John D. Crossan speaks with feeling as he – detective-like – puzzles out the true meaning of Jesus here. He distinguishes between the Greek words plutus (wealth), penian (poverty), and ptocheia (destitution), and he quotes Luke “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” To which Matthew  has added the words “in spirit” after Luke’s “the poor”.

Be patient as the importance of this thread becomes evident in a moment!

“The poor man has to work hard but always has enough to survive, while the destitute beggar has nothing at all. Jesus, in other words did not declare blessed the poor, a class that included, for all practical purposes, the entire peasantry; rather he declared blessed the destitute – for example , the beggars.

“Now, what on earth does that mean, especially if one does not spiritualize it away, as Matthew immediately did, into “poor (or destitute) in spirit” – that is, the spiritually humble or religiously obedient? Did Jesus really think that bums and beggars were actually blessed by God, as if all the destitute were nice people  and all the aristocrats correspondingly evil? Is this some sort of naive or romantic delusion about the charms of destitution? If, however, we think not just of personal or individual evil but of social, structural or systemic injustice – that is, of precisely the imperial situation in which Jesus and his fellow peasants found themselves -then the verse becomes literally, terribly and permanently true.”(emphasis added)

“In any situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect and systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed out deliberately as human junk from the system’s own evil operations.
“A contemporary equivalent: only the homeless are innocent. In contrast, none of our hands are innocent or our consciences particularly clear.”

Sources:
(i) Horsley, R. “Jesus and the spiral of violence. Popular Jewish resistance in Roman Palestine”Harper and row (1987) p. 182-3
(ii) Ruether, R.R. “To change the world. Christology and cultural criticism” SCM (1981) p.19, 25,28
(iii) van Buren, Paul “The secular meaning of the gospel based on an analysis of its language” SCM (1963) p.178
(iv) Gutiérrez, Gustavo “A theology of liberation. history, Politics and salvation” Orbis (1973) p.175-6
(v) Crossan, J.D. “Jesus. A revolutionary biography” HarperOne (1994) p.69-70
(vi) Pietersen, Lloyd talk given at Anabaptist dayschool, London, November 2012

Related Zingcreed Posts:
554: Four reasons why Jesus didn’t die for your sins 
Jesus and non-violence
Conscientious objection in the UK today
The Kingdom of God, a kingdom of nuisances and nobodies
Red Christians #20: ‘Che’ Guevara
Now that’s what I call practical Christianity #11: Jailed priest
Time to tackle the atonement
Alienation according to Karl Marx
‘Jesus as liberator’  Paul van Buren
Causes of Poverty according to Clodovis Boff
559: Just helping is not enough
Crimes of the bourgeoisie #4:Resources go to the rich
Jesus and wealthy people
Christian atrocities #1: Slavery
Christian atrocities #2: Slaughter of non-Christians
Christian atrocities #3: Crusades
Christian atrocities #4: Anti-semitism
Christian atrocities #5: The Inquisition
Christian atrocities #6: The treatment of heretics

London’s homeless speak #1 : Alan
London’s homeless speak #2 : Ben
London’s homeless speak #3 : Clive
London’s homeless speak #4 : Don
London’s homeless speak #5 : Eric

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