Following is a rumination on sin. To be clear, I am against it.
The catechism of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), To Be a Christian (TBaC), defines a sin as “a thought, word, or deed which offends God’s holy character and violates his Law, missing the mark of his will and expectation” (TBaC 194, p. 75). The Book of Common Prayer 2019 (BCP) concurs and expands the definition a bit in the prayer of confession from the Renewed Ancient Text of Holy Eucharist:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone (BCP, p. 130).
This prayer allows for both sins of commission (what we have done) and sins of omission (what we have left undone). If we think, say, or do what we know we should not do, we sin. Likewise, if we fail to think, say, or do what we know we should do, we sin.
Only moral agents — rational beings with a knowledge of God’s will and with the capacity for choice — can sin. It would take time and effort to develop that position fully and to defend it adequately, but I’ll proceed as if it is axiomatic. Angels can sin, as we believe Satan and his minions did and do. Man can sin, as we know ourselves to do. But, rocks cannot sin; they cannot think, say, or do. Moving higher up the chain of being, dogs cannot sin though they exercise a certain degree of (conditioned) thought, communication, and action (at least instinctually). To the best of our knowledge, dogs lack moral understanding — a conscience, if you will. A dog may be bad, meaning it doesn’t do what we’d like or does what we don’t like, but, Stephen King notwithstanding, a dog may not be evil or sinful. To attribute sin to a rock or a dog is simply a category mistake; neither falls into the category of beings that can sin.
It’s this notion of category mistakes vis-a-vis sin that I want to develop a bit. In our cultural climate we hear much about structural, systemic, and institutional sin — sin instantiated in the power structures (attitudes, networks, institutions, laws) of a society. Is this a theologically sound and useful way of thinking about sin?
In thinking this through, let me grasp the nettle of racism. I will offer what I consider to be a biblically-based definition of the sin of racism — certainly incomplete, perhaps lacking nuance, but functional:
Racism is the differential love of one’s neighbor as oneself based upon that neighbor’s race.
Notice that this definition cuts both ways: failing to love one’s neighbor due to race or preferentially loving one’s neighbor due to race. The Mosaic Law was clear on this: justice could not favor the rich, but neither could it favor the poor. Note also that I am using the word “love” not as emotional preference — we all prefer people who are in some sense “like” us — but in the Thomistic sense: willing the good of the other as other. If I do not will and act for your good — as opportunity allows — because of racial difference, then I have committed the sin of racism. If I will and act for your good preferentially because we share the same race — to the detriment of someone of another race — then I have committed the sin of racism.
Are you guilty of the sin of racism? I leave that between you and God, just as that question hangs between me and God.
But, more to the point, or to the question: Are the power structures and institutions in our society guilty of the sin of racism? To ask that question is, I think, to make a category mistake. Let’s think by analogy. Suppose it were possible — and it may be for all I know — to train a dog to differentiate between white people and black people. (I know those designations are not the preferred ones, but I need a clear dichotomy to succinctly explain this point.) Suppose further that, because I have a strong antipathy for black people, I train the dog to attack any black person who steps on my property but to wag its tail at all white people. Is the dog guilty of racism? Well, we have taken as axiomatic that a dog is not in the category of beings that can sin; thus, it is not guilty of the sin of racism. But, as its trainer, I clearly am guilty. Recalling the horrific scenes of dogs used as weapons against peaceful black protesters in the 1960s, we know this to be true.
And that leads to this question: is a power structure or institution more akin to a dog or to its trainer? Laws do only what humans have written into them. Red lines drawn around neighborhoods are merely that, red lines; but, they are drawn by people with an agenda. College admission policies — official or unofficial — do not accept or reject applicants; admission officers do. We could go on, but these example should suffice. Power structures and institutions are more like dogs than trainers. They do not fall into the category of beings — they are not beings at all — that can sin. To say the United States or the educational system or Anglicanism is guilty of racism — or not guilty, for that matter — is simply to make a category mistake. But, those who write laws and pass them, those who administer policies? Yes, these people can be guilty of sin.
Why are these distinctions important? Until we think clearly about sin, self-examination is barely possible; nor is confession and absolution. Unless we think clearly about sin, we may either ignore real guilt or be paralyzed by false guilt. Neither a power structure nor an institution can recognize sin, repent, amend its behavior, or be absolved. But the people who created and live within them can and must do.
But, this is not the whole story; clearly, I can’t tell the whole story. But this much also must be said. Though a structure or institution is not in the category of beings that can sin, a structure or institution may take on the character of sin (a phrase I first heard from Fr. Stephen Gautier, Canon Theologian of the Anglican (ACNA) Diocese of the Upper Midwest); that is, it may make sin possible, promote it, and even reward it. Jim Crow, as a power structure, made racism possible and certainly promoted it — even wrote it into law. Red lining made racism possible. Again, the list goes on. Let’s suppose that X is a sinful action. A law or institution that makes X possible is not itself sinful — that is a category mistake — but, it exhibits the character of sin. And because of this, such structures and institutions are subject to the judgment of God. Following the division of the Kingdom, Israelites in the northern kingdom engaged widely in the sin of idolatry. Since the monarchy, as an institution, permitted and promoted idolatry, the institution of the monarchy, and indeed the kingdom itself, became subject to God’s judgment. Individuals sinned, but the institution took on the character of sin. Closer to our own day, Nazis sinned, but many — perhaps most — German institutions took on the character of sin.
And we must acknowledge that there is a spiritual darkness lurking behind and within such structures, as St. Paul writes in Ephesians:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:10-12, ESV).
The power structures and institutions that take on the character of sin certainly fall within the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this present darkness that St. Paul addresses; they instantiate on earth the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. We are called to stand against them.
But this, too, must be noted. Individuals are not sinful simply by virtue of being enmeshed in a structure or institution that has assumed the character of sin. I live in a country that has made abortion on demand legal and accessible. I am not thereby guilty of sin. But, this is equally important; an individual is not absolved of personal guilt by blaming a structure or institution for his sin. A Nazi guard who was following orders when he herded Jewish citizens onto boxcars bound for Auschwitz was no less guilty of sin simply because he was following orders. An insistence on institutional sin can wrongly make everyone, or every member of a particular group, guilty. It can also wrongly make no one guilty.
This is a complex topic and I have merely scratched about a bit on its surface. Mainly, I hope this will spark your own theological reflections on sin and aid you in sound self-examination. And, of your mercy, pray for me, a sinner.