Social Sin

Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable. – Proverbs 13:34

Is there such a thing as a “social sin”? It is out of a respect for my friend Brendan/Darwin that I want to examine and critique his rejection of the idea of social sin, with which I partially agree, but which I believe also leaves out some crucial facts. This is not a point against Brendan/Darwin, since I don’t believe he intended his post to be a treatise on the issue. It is rather a point in his favor, since his general considerations give us the opportunity to explore the question in greater detail.

It must be said at the outset that there are obviously different things that one might mean by “social sin.” Brendan/Darwin begins his argument with the observation that there are those who become “frustrated” with the emphasis many Christians place on individual failings to the neglect of “social or political sin.” There is a significant difference, however, between social and political behavior. My intention is not to split-hairs in order to undermine a valid point (which it is), but rather to highlight the extent to which society and the body politic have become indistinguishable from one another. In my recent essay on the social effects of abortion, I make a distinction between organic and artificial social bonds; the former are those that necessarily follow from man’s social nature, while the latter are those created through politics, i.e. laws. Because we are imperfect and often malicious beings, some artificial authority will always be required for men to attain “the highest good.” But human laws are not foundational – they are supplemental to natural and divine laws, or at least they were in most places in the Western world until the 19th century.

I cannot go into all of the historical reasons why the hierarchy of laws was overturned, and human law came to subvert, dominate and destroy the divine and natural laws. The effort began in earnest with Thomas Hobbes in the middle of the 17th century (though he may have been prefigured by Machiavelli in the 16th), who bequeathed to us most of the ideas we regard as “liberal” today. Because of his efforts and those who took them to heart, we have now reached a point in our civilization in which nothing escapes the pull of politics. Because of our natural tendency to make religions out of ideas – to systematize them and attempt to practice them as a way of life – there really are now such things as “political sins”, or as they may be called, deviations from the party line, or in modern Western society, the consensus of the political class.

The typical advocate for “peace and justice” these days, however, is not necessarily concerned with a party line or the consensus of the political class. Thus they do not typically speak of “political sin” in the way a devout Marxist-Leninist may have in the Soviet era. Nor, however, do they fully understand the proper meaning of “social sin”, which is anything that violates or undermines the organic social bonds or the “laws” that govern them. Hence, abortion is a social sin because of the manner in which it undermines the natural social order established by God (and which even a rational atheist not entirely given over to hedonism must recognize as at least established by nature). There are few sins, upon this understanding, that would fail to qualify as social sins in addition to individual sins, which is precisely why no such distinction existed throughout most of human history.

Rather, the P&J advocate recognizes what I would call institutional sin. Thus, my friend Darwin/Brendan is not entirely accurate when he writes the following:

Societies do not perform sins, people do. While it may make sense to talk about some pervasive evil such as racism as being a “social sin”, racism does not in fact consists of “society” being racist but rather of a number of individual people within a society behaving in a racist fashion. If workers are being treated badly or paid unjust wages, it is not because society does this, but because a certain number of individual people choose to commit those acts.

There is both truth and error in this thesis. “Society” cannot sin, because society is not a person (though it is an organism), but rather the sum total of the bonds between individuals – bonds upon which, I must add, all individuals depend upon for their existence as individuals. It is also true that in any given case, “a number of individual people” make a decision to sin. But it is not irrelevant when those individuals all belong to a particular institution, which is a part of society, and whose collective activity is directed at a common goal. In both examples Brendan uses – racism and unjust wages – the perpetrators are undoubtedly individuals, but they are also members of institutions, and they sin in their official institutional capacities.

Would it, for instance, have made any sense to speak of the “individual sin” of Jim Crow laws in the South? Of course not; laws are not individuals. But if a law protects or promotes sin, this is a case of institutional sin. The same might be said of those capitalists who collectively worked to prevent the enactment of good laws, of basic protections for workers, resulting in enough widespread social misery to warrant an unprecedented development of Catholic political philosophy by Pope Leo XIII. Though individuals may ultimately be responsible for obeying or resisting an unjust law, or for establishing a necessary law where none exists, it would not be altogether accurate or helpful to reduce the problem to one of individuals.

There are always those, however, who go too far, who are utterly infected with the secular spirit of the age, who continue the work of the usurpers of previous centuries. And from here on my critique ought to support Darwin/Brendan’s main idea.

On many campuses, from the lowliest community college to the loftiest ivy league university, the influence of Marxism is still felt, even if it has been shorn and stripped of much of its modernist methods and terminology in favor of more fashionable post-modern garb. The central proposition remains that men are almost entirely social products; it follows from this that man’s salvation from sin is almost entirely dependent upon reforming, or perhaps even destroying and rebuilding, society. In this schema, there is no room for the idea that Christ’s death upon the cross has already saved mankind. Nor is there room, more broadly speaking, for the idea that a spiritual transformation born in the free will and conscience of human beings is of any social value. If men are entirely products of society, then free will is an illusion; only the “conscious” vanguard of communists, racists, or feminists have a developed enough social psyche that equivocates to something like a free will, which entitles them to rule in the name of the people, and justifies the crimes, destruction, and mass murders they perpetrate.

They suffer from many disorders of the mind and spirit, chief among them, I believe, an intoxication with the possibilities of power. Whether their issue is class, race, sex, or some other demographic indicator, subversive radicals spend their lives and careers obsessed with analyzing power relations and reducing all social phenomenon to conflict between one or more groups. “Truth” becomes nothing more than what the dominant class, race, gender, etc. says it is, while simultaneously denouncing as “false” the ideas of those they oppress. In other words, truth is entirely replaced with power. This is one of the arguments of the post-modernist philosopher Michel Foucault, whose work “Truth and Power” is aptly summarized in the following words:

‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.

This is not how I believe, or how Catholic tradition holds, that human societies have operated throughout history, or how truth is established, though it is what happens when people who project their own diseased thoughts onto all of history finally seize power.

Yet in Leviticus, we read:

Thou shalt not do that which is unjust, nor judge unjustly. Respect not the person of the poor, nor honour the countenance of the mighty. But judge thy neighbour according to justice. (19:15)

In this one holy law, all of modern social theorizing is ground to a halt and turned on its head. Judge thy neighbor, not according to how much wealth he has, the color of his skin, his sex, or any other variable, even when they are rich white males. But judge thy neighbor according to an objective moral law, a truth, a standard which retains its essence and its validity outside of time and space, preceding man and all of his works, and outliving him as well. This is not to deny or to minimize a preferential option for the poor, which is present in many parts of the Old and New Testaments. I wrote about this extensively here, and have developed these thoughts further since that time.

For now I will say that God’s love of the poor, and his call for justice, do not justify welfare states, intrusive bureaucracies, excessive taxation, or other infringements upon genuine human liberty. To proclaim as much is not “liberalism”, but a rejection of collectivist tyranny and the usurpation of family and community by alien and hostile ideologies, policies and programs. It was Pius XI who noted and warned against the disintegration of society into nothing more than “individuals and the state.” In such conditions, to return to the opening idea, the social becomes the political, society becomes the state, and opposition to the expansion of the state, opposition to “the common good” – all juxtaposed to the only remaining alternative, the isolated individual.

This is a false dichotomy! Most American conservatives are decidedly NOT, as certain pretentious people typically label them, “liberals” or “individualists”; they resist the state out of a conscious, semi-conscious, or barely-conscious desire to preserve marriage, family, faith and community from the usurpations of secular religious fanatics. They have every right, and indeed a moral obligation to do so. Those that do reject these organic associations and bonds in the name of personal autonomy are precisely those most likely to insist upon state intervention in every other area of life, because life cannot be lived outside of associations of some kind.

The worst libertines are often the most statist, and the most condescending about their statism.

Among the least statist are to be found those who sincerely value the organic social bonds, or the “traditional” social structures.

The former want complete moral and spiritual autonomy while insisting upon materialist collectivism for society; for perversion and degeneracy subsidized by the state in a never-ending orgy. Their ways are completely summarized in Chapter 2 of the Book of Wisdom.

The latter want material and political autonomy so that they may better build and nourish the true spiritual community, comprised of faithful families, headed by faithful spouses, governed by a faithful covenant with God. This is the “society” to which we are beholden, and which against we can sin. But it is certainly no sin to resist or to disobey an artificial political power when it infringes upon God’s laws (Acts 5:29). Anyone who dares to call such motives “liberal” is a fool. They are better compared to those of the Vendee.

In a sermon (the final one of this book) that I can honestly say changed my life, Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, speaks about the extent to which a belief in utopia has replaced hope in eternal life. Says Ratzinger,

We should finally bid farewell to the notion of working to build the ideal society of the future as being a myth and should instead work with total commitment to strengthen those factors what hold evil at bay in the present and that can therefore offer some guarantee for the immediate future. (emphasis added)

In my view, this somewhat less ambitious earthly goal requires little more than a return to Aristotle, Aquinas, and Pope Leo. Americans in particular should look to Thomas Jefferson. And this is more or less what the Papacy continues to advocate today.

27 Responses to Social Sin

  • Thanks, Joe. This gives me a lot to think about — and I think I agree with basically everything you say here.

    A couple things that strike me reading your points here:

    I think you make an important point, which I’d neglected, about what might be called a climate of sin. We know, obviously, that our sins affect others, they are all social. Sin can also create temptation for others. It strikes me that in some situations sin becomes so pervasive that it becomes difficult for people to even know they are sinning. So in reference to Jim Crow laws — it seems to me that the laws themselves were sinful (as in unjust — obviously laws are not beings that can sin) and that in cooperation with them many people committed individual sins of treating other persons unjustly or without love. But that in a climate in which a certain set of sins was so pervasive, it became hard (though certainly not impossible) for people to even tell that they were sinning — and indeed many people doubtless sinned against others (in the sense of doing something wrong) without being culpable for those sins because they were so blinded by the climate of sin.

    Also, clearly, some sins are more “social” than others in the sense that they have wide ranging effects in distorting or destroying the social fabric.

    I get the sense that you may have a somewhat more organic (as in organism) image of society than I do — in that I would tend to see society as being more the incomprehensible complex web of interconnecting and overlapping relationships between persons, and I get the impression you may have a more organized view of society, such as Aristotle and Plato had.

  • More liberal individualist nonsense. You protest too much. You can say all you want that such views are “not liberal,” but the proof is in how you describe the relationship between the individual and society. That is the bottom line.

  • What is your view of the relationship between the individual and society? Does the Church have one specifically defined?

  • It seems part of all society’s problems at some level relate back to the individual. Removing injustices promotes human freedom and dignity. Nonetheless the first thing to be done is to appeal to the spiritual and moral capacities of the individual and to the permanent need for inner conversion. That is, if one is to achieve the economic and social changes that will truly be at the service of man.

  • Communion doesn’t seem authentic unless it is the free communion of individuals in relation to others.

  • I tend to think that the ideas of “social sin” and/or “structures of sin” are quite important, and that you’re missing something fundamental if you try to reduce social problems simply to the personal failings of individuals.

    To take an extreme example, in the early Jamestown colony you had mass starvation, due in part to the fact that folks there just didn’t work very hard. It is said that if you had gone to the town square during the worst of the famine you would have found able bodied men (themselves starving to death) who were just goofing off rather than working in the fields. As it turns out, the problem was that there wasn’t a connection between the work that a man put in and how much he received in return. Each man received a set percentage of the total produce of the settlement, regardless of how much he produced himself. Once this was realized the colonial government instituted a system of private property, and the starvation abated (you can tell the same basic story w/r/t the Great Leap Forward, and, on a far lesser scale, with respect to some of the current welfare policies in the United States and other developed countries).

    It seems to me that you can’t really explain what happened at Jamestown simply by reference to personal morality. You could say that the problem was just that people were being lazy and selfish (and no doubt many were), but to say this would be, I think, to miss something fundamental about the situation. People acted lazy because they were in a certain social situation, and once the situation changed they began to behave much differently.

    I choose a right-wing example as I think this may help some people get past the emotional baggage associated with the idea, but the same basic idea would apply to the sorts of examples of social sin that would typically be given by the left (or by anyone else, for that matter).

  • Darwin,

    “I get the impression you may have a more organized view of society, such as Aristotle and Plato had.”

    Well, you know us individualist liberals… always promoting organized views of society…

    It’s nice to have a court jester though. Livens things up.

  • BA,

    You’d certainly get no argument from me that “incentives matter”, just as I’m sure you’d agree that free will remains at all times no matter how perverse the incentives, I guess I’m a little unclear, though, as to whether “social sin” means nothing more than “perverse moral incentive”.

    Which, among other things, doubtless means I need to sit down and give some serious reading attention to Chris Burgwald’s post.

  • The essential question is how far social structures influence freedom.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that structures of sin completely deprive people of human freedom.

  • I’d agree that structures of sin can, in some cases, almost completely deprive people of human freedom. But never completely. There are any number of martyrs and saints whose lives convincingly demonstrate that structures of sin are not the whole story.

  • Nate,

    I replied to this thought on your post at Vox Nova.

    http://vox-nova.com/2010/04/06/no-one-sins-alone/#comment-75898

    If you want to go moderate that.

  • And by the way, I do believe that individual wills can be completely corrupted – especially by addiction – and that this can lessen culpability in an act.

    A corrupted will is still free. But to compare to a will that has Christ at its center, is like comparing a person who is trying to wade through water with a person who can run as fast as his legs will take him. Freedom is there, but it is impeded, hindered, rendered less effective.

    But we can always find the way out.

  • JohnH,

    Agree with you. Also Pope Benedict says the same in Charity in Truth though I can’t find it now.

  • I’ll add this to the VN thread, but I agree John – the martyrs were not living in structures of sin. They were living in the body of Christ, and made strong in Him. They certainly encountered the structures of sin, and defeated them! But not through their puny wills and fragile hearts, but through the grace of Christ ..

  • Joe – great analogy. But I find the man wading through water is washed downstream, only to be saved by the men walking on water – who he has a choice to join or not. I think our freedom is found not in wading through hard currents, but in saying ‘yes’ to becoming a member of the Man who walks above the current.

  • Thank you for this inquiry! I think there is something we are distinguishing that I believe is well illuminated by the gospel. The very ideas of the “self” and “person” have been usurped over the course of the enlightenment, and need to be brought back to their true roots in Christian ontology. A metaphor for where we are might very well be is Star Trek’s Enterprise crew facing the Borg. Its almost like there is an “It,” an impersonal force that is trying to recreate humanity in its own image.

    I think Rene Girard’s work is very helpful in this instance (He’s a Catholic anthropologist). We are imitative creatures even at the level of desire and being – “If I had that car, I could be LIKE him.”
    Modernity wants us to deny or disclaim or remove our innate imitativeness. Christianity embraces it, and calls us to imitate Christ and the saints. This is a biblical and available way of approaching the whole idea of personhood, which is fundamentally a function of relatedness and fialty. “Free will” and “Social sin” take on a whole different dimension in this context. Despite the insistence that we are “free,” (a deeply missunderstood concept, maybe more like a modern pacifier at this point), obviously, there is so much out there that screams that we are not. I have to think that the only freedom I have is what or who I choose to be “had by.” We are natural disciples. As Bob Dylan says, “It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.” Its not like there is a convenient third option here, or a detached space to “reflect objectively.”

    Rather than teasing out “social sin,” the gospel exposes Satan’s fundamental violence as the single dynamism that it is, and it cannot survive, though its ferocity increases like a caged animal. The lynch mob is seen for what it is, and every manner in which it effects all of us day to day is put on full display. We sell out ourselves, each other, and the whole nation for that matter – it blinds us to itself, and Our Lord knew this as he provided the ultimate knock out punch: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” When we follow His example, and renounce vengence, even when we are in the right, we at least create a space, in our own lives and in the life of our people, where the kingdom, in even a small way, is at least possible.

  • Im still not sure that personhood is fundamentally a function of relationship and fialty. I thik that JP II noted that a person finds fulfillment only in relation to others, but nonetheless there is a personhood (yes an individual reality) that exists prior to relationship. At least relationship freely entered into. Thus the reality of individuality in the person remains.

  • No doubt there is an a prior individuality, but in a practical sense it seems inconsequential (without expression or reference) outside of a relational dynamic. Something like when Helen Keller finally got “water.” Of course the stuff was in her and all around her, but she had it like never before when she could name it, and thereby “see” it as such. I am not narrowing this to language capacity in our normal sense, though. Someone who is almost too small to see and clings to the walls of a uterus is responding to God in their own way. Of course, we would be wise to follow their simple example. I think this innate “freedom” and “individuality” can only find expression in relationship to its original author, which is in keeping with Our Lord’s invitation to freedom.

  • Yet Helen Keller was still a person even if there is no perceived relationship. So it is with the abandoned, those in a persistent vegetative state, those profoundly disabled etc. There may be the lack of fullness of personhood, but personhood nonetheless.
    I can agree that there is relationship of even the most impaired (the anencephalic) in relationship with God in created to Creator even if there is no will involved and no relationship of a rational form with other humans. But I think this is a different tack from saying we are not persons if we are not in relation to other humans.

  • Randall,

    I do insist that we are free. Much of the confusion and resistance to this idea come from a conflation of freedom with power. People see that it is not within a person’s power to do something – they conclude, therefore, that they are not free to do it. This is false.

    I can think of no better example, unfortunately, than the case of rape. A rape victim has not the power to resist his or her attacker(s), but that doesn’t mean, obviously, that they do not have the free will to do so. Though the savage and hateful “logic” of many abusers is that anyone who actually gets raped, wanted rape, we know that a person can be forced to do something AGAINST their will.

    ” Its not like there is a convenient third option here, or a detached space to “reflect objectively.””

    That’s what philosophy is, though (or was until the post-modern disease, which rejects objective truth) – objective reflection. Can it ever totally escape subjective and contingent circumstances here on Earth? Perhaps not. But philosophy exists to the extent to which one can detach and reflect. And it has been done, is being done, and will be done.

    Whatever I don’t comment on, so you know, I find agreeable :)

  • Thanks for this! I think I am branching off on a different “freedom” conversation.
    As far as a “detached space to reflect objectively,” I could have definitely explained that better. I do believe in a “space to reflect objectively,” I just don’t see it as “detached.” Not to make a new bunny trail, but I would simply assert that what has been truly great in our western skepticism has arisen in a “Christian” world, which allowed and encouraged it, whether it gets ackowledged that way or not. It is precisely the freedom won for us in Christ that allows the range of exploration we enjoy and benefit from. In this way, I see that as it serves us well in our Christian journey, it is happening “inside” the Kingdom of God, and can accomplish something truly worthwhile and enduring. I could go into this further, but I don’t want to pull folks away from the original conversation more than I already might have :) Keep being the one’s who worthily “draw from their strorehouses both the old and the new.”

  • Oh, and just to say I’m sorry if my comment sounded like I was detracting from the personhood of those who don’t seem capable of “relationship” in a recognizeable way. I put in the example of the unborn to illustrate this. If anything, such persons display God’s relatedness to us at a most basic level, in that “beyond words” way. They are “the least of my brothers” that give us an opportunity to serve God in a deeply profound way.

  • Blackadder,

    Your story about Jamestown may be mythology (that stuff about people who were “starving to death” actually “goofing off”!) but it does illustrate a real phenomenon. It shows how the “free enterprise” system is needed and works because people are sinful, i.e., tending to laziness among many other things; and how the system uses another sin, selfishness, to motivate people to get off their butts and produce. Thus the system is a necessary evil, which far leftists do not recognize as necessary, and rightists, including the great majority of Republicans, do not recognize as in any way evil.

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