While the public acknowledgment by scientists, world governments and world leaders that climate change (and human culpability in its cause) is no longer a theory but a reality is heartening, our failure to respond appropriately has led me to reflect more deeply into the nature of structural sin and its resistance to change.
In terms of Climate Change, structural sin refers to the fact that we, as individuals, are not consciously culpable for it, but rather the institutions, corporations, and economic systems we have formed, and are part of, have and continue to contribute to damaging changes to the environment, which may ultimately result in a natural disaster that threatens our survival. Yet while we recognise our survival as threatened, we continue to be slow in responding decisively to counteract that outcome.
The reason behind this failure to respond, I believe, has to do with the very nature of structural sin and our unwitting participation in it. Structural sin presents 4 moral challenges to us as individuals:
- The relative invisibility of structural injustice to those who do not suffer directly from it. One insidious characteristic of structural sin is its tendency to remain invisible to those not suffering from it. If we do not see the structural injustice in which we live, we cannot repent of it. Moral vision, therefore, does not simply see the impoverished child or the family displaced by global warming. Moral vision sees also our functional relationship to that child and sees, in particular, whether or not our ‘way of life’ and the public policies and corporate actions that make it possible are contributing to her poverty. Moral vision must extend beyond interpersonal relationships to social structural and ecological relationships. It sees the children who do not eat because their lands grow our strawberries, the mothers whose low wages produce our inexpensive consumer goods, the young people whose lives are lost fighting the invasion of their homelands by the oil companies that supply our homes with heat.
- The fact that structural injustice continues regardless of the virtue or vice of people involved. Not by will or intent, I am involved in the sins of economic and ecological exploitation even where I seek to resist them. I continue to reap the ‘benefits’ of economic and ecological violence. I cannot refuse all use of petroleum-based roads, fabrics, plastics, fire trucks, public utilities, and medical care, and more that, in today’s world especially, depend on petroleum. Social sin transcends individual moral agency.
- Its transmission from generation to generation unless exposed and confronted. Members of a society (be it as small as families or as large as economic systems) are socialized toward assuming unconsciously that its social structures and attendant values and worldviews are normal, natural, inevitable, and even divinely ordained. This dynamic is crucial in understanding how we become inheritors of previous acts and how our collective acts influence and shape the coming generations.
- Its expansion as a result of concentrated power. Where power collects, so too does power for human beings to serve self-interest and mask the damage entailed.
Dietrich Bonheoffer, reflecting from prison on the widespread complicity with fascism in Hitler’s Germany, said, “The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts.” In other words, the cloaked nature of structural evil is at its very heart.
Bonheoffer is steeped in the longstanding theological recognition that, in all things human, evil and good are intertwined. That is, though we strive for the good, the human condition of limitations and fallibility means that never is the good that we do completely free from evil. The call to resist evil is fraught with a frustrating ambiguity in a world in which all alternatives to an unjust situation may themselves be tainted with injustice and in which what brings wellbeing to some vulnerable people may bring damage to others. For example, if public advocacy closes down a shale-fracking operation in one state because of the many dangers it poses, what becomes of the families whose bread-earners are left unemployed?
My coming flight to Melbourne intertwines evil with good. It will spew out unacceptable amounts of greenhouse gases into the air. Yet it gets me to my work destination in 2 hours enabling me to use my time more efficiently and minister to more people and spend time with my brothers in community before they set off for work, and to visit my aging aunt in the nursing home, while still being at the parish where I will conduct the parish retreat in plenty of time to meet with the Parish Priest and his committee in preparation for the coming week of work. This set of ‘goods’ may not have been possible had I travelled the 2 days required by car or train (which also would produce unacceptable amounts of greenhouse gasses). These goods do not justify the evil entailed in my flight; rather they illustrate the intermingling of good and evil, and the extent to which that mixing may serve to cloak evil.
The problem with responding appropriately to this form of structural sin from the Christian faith tradition, as well as that of Judaism and Islam, is that these traditions do not name sin in this form. In many faith communities, response to sin is aimed at the individual’s sin, rather than a social structural sin in which the individual participates simply by living as we do. But seeing sin as individual wrongdoings is a common misunderstanding. Biblical faith holds a far more complex and far-reaching notion of sin. Sin in its fullest sense refers to disorientation from right relationship with God, which then leads to disorientation from right relationship with self, others, and all of creation. That disorientation results in wrongdoings. Sin is dislocating God from the centre of reality.
Martin Luther provides a useful image of sin. Drawing upon Augustine, he taught that human beings tend toward serving their own self-interest above all other considerations and deceive themselves into believing they are not.
Within our Christian faith community, one such modern day deception has presented itself from the focus on the New Cosmology and the theology of Original Blessing. Those theologians who have embraced the wonder and insight to the generous and loving nature of God as discovered in this approach now struggle to make sense of the traditional theology of redemption. The notion of a God whose anger must be appeased by the blood sacrifice of His only Son is incompatible with the understanding of a God of unconditional love. It presents a picture of a monstrous God in serious need of anger management at worse, to a weak God whose hands are tied by a self imposed structure of sacrificial appeasement that clearly bears the marks of a pre-science and primitive understanding of the necessity of blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin.
Yet our complicity and our propensity to be part of structural sin, and our seeming powerlessness to stand against it, highlights our need for redemption, and the fact that we clearly cannot save ourselves, even if our corporate survival depends on it. Whatever the mechanism proposed to theologically explain the mechanics of the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross, we cannot deny the fact that we need to be saved from ourselves.
How we define sin determines what constitutes salvation, freedom, or liberation from it, and the path toward that freedom. If sin means disorientation from right relationship with God, repentance means ceasing the way of sin and ‘turning the other direction.’ The Hebrew word means turning back to God.
Once we do this, we begin to feel empowered to do something to stand against structural sin. Structural sin no longer feels all powerful, and therefore no longer deprives us of the hope and motivation to do something to counteract it. We come to see that the fact that individual actions are relatively powerless in the face of structural sin, it does not mean that personal efforts to counter it are immaterial, ineffectual, or unnecessary. Structural sin, while it cannot be dismantled by individual actions, cannot be dismantled without them. Thus every system of evil also requires people to resist their own and others’ participation in it, even while acknowledging that their acts of resistance in themselves appear relatively ineffectual.
But recognizing that we cannot do it on our own, but rather in a partnership with a power greater and wiser than our own, founded on a right relationship gives us the best chance of ensuring that our working together will not be a case of the blind leading the blind, and provides us with the faith that we do not work alone but in alignment with the ultimate force for good that has our world and our own best interest at heart.