Can sin be systemic? The Christian Scriptures teach that sin is both a human condition & concrete action. Sin as a condition refers to the posture of the human spirit in relation to God, namely one of antagonism and total rejection of his rule. Sin as concrete action (also “sins”) are specific manifestations of sin, the condition. For example, Jesus teaches greedy actions (extortion, withholding paychecks) proceed from a heart in love with possessions. The condition is a predictor of action.
“Systemic sin” is one way to theologically conceptualize the spread of sin from the human soul into human society. The Christian Scriptures teach that sin proceeds from the core of the human spirit (Mt. 23.25). In contrast with this Christian understanding, Karl Marx bypassed the soul entirely. Marx chose to locate mankind’s chief problem in a social framing. However, I believe Christians must not try to refute Marx by reversing the polarity; claiming that the soul alone is where sin is located. While this is true in terms of cause to effect, it is reductionist to deny the effect of sin and its capacity to create processes and systems which normalize the human sin condition by cultural practice. In these cases, evil is perpetuated and image bearers are harmed. The Scriptures show an irreducibly complex relationship between sin & the systems/cultures it often creates.
When we define the nature of sin as human condition leading to action, is it possible for sin to be systemic? Whether racism, criminal justice, economic poverty, slavery, the pornography industry etc. — is it possible for sin to dwell in institutions, processes, or systems? I believe this framing is a false polarity; one that pits sin against systems. Sin is located in the human spirit, but never isolated from human society, which is shaped by man made processes, systems, and institutions. Faithfulness to Christian Scripture calls for complexity, not polarity, when we consider systemic sin.
Take for example the sin of one of Israel’s kings. This sin became the reason the Northern Kingdom went into exile and judgment. King Jeroboam’s sin, grew into systemic idolatry in 1 Kings 12. He built a network of idols in the cities of Dan/Bethel & recruited non-Levite priests. His systemic idolatry served his god of political security; keeping his citizens from traveling south to a rival kingdom to perform rites of worship. How does Scripture frame it? Sin or system? We find complexity, not polarity.
“And YHWH will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and made Israel to sin.” 1 Kings 14:16
It was all sin. Mentioned three times in fact. Yet the systemic nature of his sin is spelled out plainly. It was irreducibly complex: structured & systemic such that it “made Israel to sin”. Generations of Israelites found their sin condition, their proclivity to reject God’s rule, coddled and normalized by Jeroboam in his pervasive network of convenient alternative sacrificial sites. Yet both they and Jeroboam were responsible for their action. Their sin was fundamentally rooted in the condition of their own human soul, yet bound and blinded by the active structures which they themselves formed. What does this tell us about ourselves?
Confronting sin in the human soul must lead to an examining of the systems/effects it created in human community. This is irreducible. Take for example the Nazi Holocaust. Such a tragedy emerged from the hearts of men. But it’s brutal efficiency was a systematically driven machine. The movie Conspiracy shows this plainly. The entire movie is the true story of a single day’s top secret meeting of high ranking Nazi party members who gathered to plan the Holocaust. The calm and serene nature of their conversation created extreme cognitive dissonance for the viewer. How could they discuss the murder of millions so calmly? Because systematized evil is often dissonant and depersonalized.
When sin spreads from the spirit to systemic reinforcement—whether intentionally or by neglectful drift—it works to sever the human conscience from pangs of guilt. What we can systematize we can often distance ourselves from, like winding a clock just once. The systemic complexity of the Holocaust was the very dynamic that allowed many to offload their guilt & embrace complicity.
The darkness of the heart runs deep. Sin that grows to form systemic structure, whether that be abortion, ethnic disparities, or human trafficking binds & blinds the human spirit, with far more damage to the human community & human conscience. There’s a reason Jesus centers his rescue and reign in the spirit of mankind, as a matter of priority, through His Spirit. The human spirit needs the transforming and forgiving light of Christ.
Christians would be out of step with Scripture to assume that Christ ruling in the spirit of men would not lead to a profound social reckoning within human society. Bonhoeffer rightly noted, “the Church is not subversive enough.” As the society of Heaven, Jesus has not left his followers without the means to embody an ethic of righteousness and justice in the here and now. When the forgiveness and welcome of Christ reaches down to resurrect the human spirit from death, out of those depths can flow streams of justice into the world, creating not only new people, but new people who embody a new Creation community together as a witness to the world today of Jesus’ tomorrow.