First in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.
The very notion of personal sin causes problems for many religious liberals. We religious liberals tend to be optimistic folks who believe human beings are mostly good. Rather than say that someone is sinful, we are more likely to say that someone has been forced by circumstances to act in a certain way. We are usually careful to separate the behavior labeled “sin” from the person who engaged in that behavior. We like to give individuals the benefit of a doubt. Even if we reluctantly conclude that someone has been sinful, we hope for the possibility that person might be reformed. We generally think of personal sin as something that’s done intentionally. An accident is an accident; an error is an error; personal sin requires a certain amount of free choice, and you have to choose to engage in sin.
On the other hand, we religious liberals are generally willing to talk about social sins. Even religious liberals who dislike to use the word “sin,” which seems to them old-fashioned and overly punitive, might be convinced to call racism or sexism a “social sin.” The word “sin” seems to carry too large an emotional impact to be applied to individual persons; but for most of us the vast amount of damage done by racism or sexism warrants the use of such a powerful word.
But who is it that is sinning when we’re talking about broad social ills? Take racism, for example: we know racism is social sin, we know that individuals engage in racism, but is it the individual racist who is committing the sin? We are much more likely to talk about personal sin when an individual has participated in broader social ills, but even then we tend to assume that an individual can be educated out of their sexism or racism (or other social sin). We imagine that sin is too big to be carried out by one individual; sin is so big we imagine it as being carried out by groups of people.
Sin doesn’t usually end suddenly; it usually ends through a long-term communal effort. There are no magic wands that can be waved, no sudden conversions from sinfulness to sinlessness; it takes time and effort. So, for example, people of good will have been working to end the sin of American racism for centuries now, and while progress has been made, much remains to be done. It would seem that the greater the magnitude of the sin, and the more people who are involved, the longer it will take to end sin.
We can make a personal choice to stand up to social sins. We know that if we don’t try to resist social sin to at least a small degree, then we will be participating willingly in that sin. (Sometimes when we learn about a new social sin that we weren’t aware of before, we groan inwardly, and wish to ourselves that we had remained ignorant a while longer.) There are so many social sins in the world — from racism to climate change, from toxics in the environment to poverty — that we can’t work on all of them simultaneously; we tend to believe that if we work on eradicating at least one social sin, we don’t have to work on all the other sins (as long as we know that we’re resisting that social sin in our hearts, if not in actions).
Where does sin come from? Mostly we believe that human beings are the cause of social sin; social sin also results from the randomness of the universe. Yet when we witness social sins that are very personal, like domestic violence or child abuse, we may be willing to place some of the blame on the individual committing the sin. Thus social sin and personal sin can overlap; the abuser can choose to seek help, and if s/he doesn’t, then we may well be willing to think of that person as sinful.
Those are some preliminary observations about we religious liberals think about sin. What have I forgotten? Where do you disagree with me?