Question 7: What is sin?
It’s been awhile since I first posted the “What is sin” question – but I still want to finish off this blog series. I think my main beef with sin is that so often it is thought to mean only personal, individual “bad things” that people do. Sin is so much more than that. A few years ago, I wrote an exegesis paper on Isaiah 1.14-23 entitled “A Theology of Sin: Arguing For a More Social/Communal Understanding of Sin in America” (this was when I was in my “Long Paper Titles Will Get the Best Grade”-phase). You can find the paper here, if you are interested. In that paper, through my exegetical work, I argued that personal piety meant nothing to God as long as there existed rampant social sin. When we think of sin, it is important to realize that sin includes much more than just bad things individuals do. It includes the social, systemic sins. It includes the structures that are in place in the world that cause oppression, injustice and so much more. I think this is what some of you were getting to in your comments.
This is not to negate the fact that there is often a personal or individual aspect to sin. Gustavo Gutierrez, liberation theologian, wrote the following:
“…sin is not considered as an individual, private, or merely interior reality…sin is regarded as a social, historical fact., the absence of brotherhood and love in relationships among men…When it is considered in this way, the collective dimensions of sin are rediscovered.”
Any good theology of sin will include both the individual and the corporate idea of sin; to focus solely on the individual is to avoid obvious social evils and forces of tyranny and oppression and to focus solely on the social aspect is to lose any type of human culpability and responsibility for the evil that is taking place, often times in social institutions because of individuals. Many times this occurs because of humanity’s desire to stop looking outside of themselves: “Man is tempted to make himself existentially the center of himself and his world.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology II)) Tillich does a good job of recognizing the similarities and links between both the individual and the social and more universal aspects of sin: “Sin is a universal fact before it becomes an individual act, or more precisely, sin as an individual act actualizes the universal fact of estrangement.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology II))
So, what is sin? Sin is individual and social, personal and communal. Sin is that which gets in the way of the work of God’s Kingdom on Earth – whether it be individual and personal issues or social and communal ones.