the doctrine of "structural sin"

Another piece of a discussion on Jesus Radicals...

It seems to me that the doctrine of original sin shares many similarities with the modern doctrine of "structural sin." Both state that everyone is born into this sin. Both state that we bear this sin not because of anything we actually did or thought or intended, but as a condition of being part of the group we were born into. In the doctrine of original sin, this group is all humanity. In the doctrine of "structural sin" the groups are smaller, but it still ends up applying to everyone.

I think the doctrine of "structural sin," though, is more oppressive than original sin in one important aspect. Original sin, we are told, can be removed by forgiveness through the church, if we repent. Not so with "structural sin." This remains as long as the evils of the society we live in still remain. We can repent all we want, but as long as we are connected to society (through economics, consumption, citizenship, race, etc.) we are connected to and complicit with its evils. And it is impossible to not be connected to society in some way. Thus this "sin" cannot be removed from us, at least not in this life. I am not surprised that this seems to cause an unquenchable guilt in people I know who believe it.

How about some examples of how the doctrine of "structural sin" is commonly applied these days. This essay addresses racism and "whiteness." Not everyone is born into this sin, just those who are the same race as the dominant group in an oppressive society (in American society, this is white people). Certainly there are many, the majority, of white people who actively support and participate in this evil. But the doctrine of "structural sin" tells us that even those white people who disagree and even oppose racism are still guilty of this sin, complicit in this evil, because they benefit from the oppression by being given advantages as white people in this society ("white privilege"). This guilt remains for white people, according to this doctrine, until "white privilege" no longer exists in our society. For us, that probably means all our life.

In a recent essay concerning vegetarianism, the doctrine of "structural sin" undergirded the argument that we are all complicit in the suffering caused by the food industry. The author was encouraging us to minimize that suffering by not eating meat. But because of his belief in the doctrine of "structural sin" he had to admit that even vegetarians caused suffering because of the food they consumed, because everyone did ("even Christ," he said). Even the food needed for survival makes us complicit in this oppressive and destructive industrial structure, since we pay money for our food and that money is passed along to others, and that supports a system that causes serious suffering (and I agree it definitely does cause suffering). While we could possibly disconnect from the food industry by growing all our own food, we would still be guilty of the "structural sin" of all the other industries we buy things from. Thus for effectively everyone in our society, there is no way to get free from this "sin." Even if we repent and repent and even fight against oppressive industries, we are still guilty as long as we buy.

And I've seen other essays here that apply the doctrine of "structural sin" to our status as American citizens. Since this is a democracy, we are responsible for the actions of our elected leaders, since they act "in our name." Thus the doctrine of "structural sin" says that we are complicit with the evils perpetrated by our government and the military, even when they are done far away from us, ordered by officials we did not choose, even if we try to stop it. Because we are citizens. Though we did not choose this, we gain many advantages from citizenship, and if we accept them then we are part of this national society and share the guilt of its evils. We could renounce citizenship and go elsewhere. But citizenship anywhere would make us complicit in the evils of that nation, and there is no nation I know of that is not oppressive. So, again, it is a "sin" that we cannot stop doing.

I may not have gotten all these details exactly right, and I'm willing to be corrected. But I think the overall implications of the doctrine of "structural sin" are accurately presented. It seems to me clearly a more damning doctrine than original sin, because, effectively, there's no possible release from it.

Both these doctrines are false, though, in my opinion. I don't see anything like this in Jesus' teaching. They seem to both be inventions of institutional theologians, serving (consciously or unconsciously) to reinforce the power and control of society over us. In that, I see them both as opposed to the freedom that Jesus offers us.