Living in a broken world: How Original Sin helps me make sense of structural injustice

In my previous post, I tried to draw attention to some of the difficulties that come from recognizing ourselves to be part of a massive and deeply broken system. I suggested that one common, knee-jerk response to this condition is to simply deny that our system is broken, or that we as individuals are in any way implicated in that fact. This response appears all over the internet in the form of people denying the existence of patriarchy, ignoring historical and contemporary colonialism, or getting defensive when presented with evidence for structural racism. Rather than being simply a shirking of responsibility, I argued, these reactions reflect  an honest response based on a particular understanding of ethics. In short, an ethical view that emphasizes the individual’s personal responsibility for their own actions does not leave a lot of room to accept and make sense of moral condemnation on the basis of large, systematic forces of oppression.

In this post, I want to explore what I see as a possible response to this ethical dilemma that I think underpins a lot of conservative-liberal disagreement. That is the notion of Original Sin.

Original Sin gets a phenomenally bad rap these days. At one level, this is a reflection of the prominence of sexual ethics in much discussion and interpretation of theological issues, which results in the idea of original-sin-as-our-depraved-sexual-nature getting pushed front and center. I’ll just say right now that I don’t find that interpretation of original sin especially interesting or compelling, biblically or theologically – although I don’t deny that the Bible and Christian theology generally tends to take a dim view of human sexuality.

I think Original Sin is about something much broader. It’s about the spiritual and ethical flaws of human beings, not their sexual appetites. It’s about precisely this fact, which social critics and activists keeps hammering home: that we live in a broken world, and we are implicated in its brokenness.

The simple fact of the matter is that I benefit from the suffering of others. By living the way that I do, I cause other people harm. I do not intend to harm them; I intend only to live my life. Nevertheless, environmental, social, and economic ills are perpetuated. Sweatshops are kept open, forests destroyed, and stereotypes are upheld. This is one of the senses in which I interpret Romans 7:15 “…What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”.

It seems to me that this mismatch between intention and action confronts virtually every person living in North America who has taken the time to think about it – although it is perhaps more acutely true for well-educated white guys like myself. And an ethics rooted in individual choice and responsibility just doesn’t go that far in resolving the dilemma. Indeed, the opposite seems very often to be true. Our individualized, personalized ethics offer two major ways to respond to this sort of global injustice. The first is a retreat – away from politics and into the realm of the personal. I strive to be good to my family, good to my friends, good to my neighbour. This does nothing to ameliorate the harm that we do by perpetuating entrenched systems of oppression; instead, it allows us to feel righteous in our perpetuation of broad social harm.

The second response is to take up personal responsibility for political problems. This is clearly admirable, but it is also emotionally devastating and hubristic. I did not make the world this way; I don’t know how to fix it. Forgetting that has led, historically, to a good deal of revolutionary violence, missionary conversions, and structural adjustment programs. But it has never yet solved the fundamental problems.

My point is not that either of these responses are bad; my most important role models all embody one or both of these responses, and that’s what makes me admire them. To be a good friend and neighbour, to be an activist for a just cause, these are the highest of human callings. My point is that, because they lay such a deep emphasis on the individual’s personal responsibility and accountability, they fail to provide an adequate lens through which to view the problem of living in a structurally unjust world. They are inadequate because the notion of responsibility they embody is inadequate; I am not ‘responsible’ for patriarchy. It’s not my fault that others suffer to make my t-shirts and grow my grapefruits. But at the same time, I am implicated in that fact. By focusing on individual responsibility, both of these perspectives deprive us of a vocabulary that can make sense of these ethically counterintuitive situation.

So that’s where I think Original Sin comes in. The story of the Garden of Eden tells us that human beings have been fucking things up since literally forever; that this is a built-in, permanent condition of human existence. We are inheritors of unworthiness. Our own failings, as we let people down, say nasty things and think nasty thoughts, are unsurprising reflections of the fact that to be human is to err. We inherited injustice and by our natures we perpetuate it. That is a basic fact of our fallen condition.

As any responsible reading of the Bible will show, this does not excuse us from struggling against injustice. But it does make nonsense of the notion of fixing the world, by merely human means. It gives us a useful way to respond to the fact of failure, the inevitability of failure.

Original Sin, like the idea of structural injustice itself, presents us with a sense of guilt for actions beyond our control. More than the sexual gloss, I think it’s this that explains its deep unpopularity in modern times. Modern progressivism since the Enlightenment has emphasized the individual’s ability to shape – and improve – his or her world. But an honest encounter with the realities of structural injustice shows us the limits of this kind of thinking.

In the context of Christian theology, our basic fallenness is only the starting point, of course. The essential counterpart to the notion of Sin in the notion of Grace; although we are not worthy of redemption, we have nevertheless been redeemed. This allows Christians to avoid falling into hopelessness, or simply give up trying because “the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing”.

But I don’t want to get in to that here, because if I’m being perfectly honest I don’t really know what to think about Grace or how it relates to my life (if you’ve got thoughts on that, let me know). The point I want to make in this blog post is that understanding our moral predicament as the predicament of a fundamentally fallen being is a useful corrective to two unhelpful tendencies in contemporary political discourse. The tendency to limit ethical responsibility to the deliberate acts of an individual, on the one hand, and the tendency to condemn on the basis of macrocosmic tendencies and seek to improve the whole ‘system’ on the other.

Religious tradition: it’s everywhere

In a debate on Facebook the other day, one of my political theorist friends argued that “tradition” – by which they meant especially religious tradition – must be considered one value among many, if indeed it is a value at all. In other words when making political judgements we must consider things like individuals freedom, social justice, the rule of law, and also, perhaps, the teachings of religious traditions.   In a debate about gay marriage, for example, we might take seriously Catholic arguments against it, but this cannot be the over-riding concern.

I agree with this conclusion. But I think I disagree with the premise – that religious tradition can properly be considered “one value among many”. Not because I think tradition isn’t valuable, but because I think that way of framing the issue gets things backwards. It makes it seem like religion or tradition belongs to the category of “values” – a category which includes other things like individual rights, and which we use in the present to make ethical decisions. But it seems to me that in fact “values” belong the category of “traditions,” or, one might also say, “religions”. This is part of what I was getting at in an earlier post on popular piety, I see everything as a religion. I don’t think that traditional religious practice can be a standard for judging something because I think pretty much everything can reasonably be called a traditional religious practice. Let me try to flesh that out.

I suppose I shouldn’t say I see everything as a religion – really what I mean is that I find it useful to think about a lot of things in religious terms. When I look at the Tea Party, for example, I find it fruitful to ask: who is their God? What is their vision of salvation? I think it’s fascinating to compare the ethics and aesthetics of the body in contemporary sex-positive feminism and Christian monasticism – because both sides agree that one’s relation to one’s body is essential to achieving a good life. I am struck by the similarity in form between self-improvement literature, advice in the business section, and religious sermons.

Partially, I think this unusual extension of the vocabulary is legitimate for historical reasons. Our western civilization emerged from Christendom, and the categories that we use in a contemporary context to make sense of our lives have deep roots in Christian Culture. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche points out the fascinating similarity between the notion of God and the scientific notion of Truth; both are these abstract, unbelievably pure concepts that hover over everything we do an serve as the ultimate rubric against which our activities can be measured. For Nietzsche, Truth is just God in disguise. And I think you could go further than that and argue that the evolution of our modern understanding of Truth – or verité  or whatever was substantially developed by theologians, in their effort to clarify and understand the concept of God.

More than that, many of our political ideals and ideologies have significant religious roots. Human equality, for example, is a distinctive and powerful message of (some forms of) Christianity and Islam. Contemporary Liberalism, socialism, and feminism, all inherited, in one way or another, this idea.

And on top of that, the history of religion is the history of a sustained and varied reflection on the basic question on how to best organize a human life, at the level of individual. This is popular piety side of religion – the side that produces rituals, rules, and mantras to help people get on with their day. Focus on your breathing to find inner peace. Repeat these words when you are distraught. Cultivate these emotions and resist those ones. To navigate life successfully, you need to have some set of these sort of practices. And the contemporary traditions of self-help and self-improvement recognize this, and devote a great deal of energy into continuing the project of attending to the minute details of human psychological and emotional (and spiritual) well-being. The language of prayer and mediation and penance and “walking with God” usually disappears, but the basic problems are the same.

And so I live in a world where self-help, feminism, lifehacks, and psychotherapy are all parts of what I am perfectly happy to call a religious world-view; what John Rawls would prefer to call a “comprehensive world view”. But Rawls would then make the embodied practices and the rituals that inform these practices disappear in his intellectualizing language. The point is that we all have our pieties, so why not name it.

So this does two things to my friends argument. On the one hand, it gives us grounds for leaving intact the substantive commitment: we should take the Catholic position seriously – because as a tradition it deserves our respect – but not let those being our only values. But on the other hand, it insists on seeing those other important values as expressions of a particular embodied values system – of a religion. Just like the Catholic commitment to a certain version of human flourishing through divinely ordained procreation, the arguments for equal human dignity or for the legitimacy of queer expressions of sexuality are parts of someone’s attempt to live a good and meaningful life. It is for that reason that we must take both seriously – not, as it sometimes seems, because they are both internally coherent or persuasive arguments.

This distinction is important because it reminds us that political arguments are not abstract debates; that we are talking about actual conflicts between actual peoples actual way of life. That is the rhetorical error of liberals, who want to pretend that politics is really all about finding the right principles and then applying them. But that liberal error leads to a corresponding conservative error – to believe that only old traditions count. They look on contemporary liberal society and instead of seeing a wide range of ethical-religious experiments, they see a valueless wasteland. They have missed the ways that ‘religion’ has transformed. They miss the ways that rich, intentional, ethically motivated ways of life continue to flourish, for better or for worse, outside of the bounds of an organized Church.