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.