Structural Sin and the Purpose of the Church

Jesus Cleansing Temple jpg

Bernardino Mei, Christ Cleansing the Temple, c. 1655

America is coming apart at the seams. Greed, corruption, fear, and violence are among our defining qualities. We Christians must confront the fact that we have done a poor job of proclaiming Good News in America. As such, there are two conversations we must have in 2016. This first is, “what is sin?” The second is, “what is the purpose of the church?”

The opening verses of John’s Gospel provide a biblical basis for such conversations. Paraphrasing, they say that “In the beginning was Logos (Word) which was God. Logos became Flesh and went to live among human beings.”

No search for John’s original meaning can fully excavate such an abstraction as logos becoming flesh. What we can do — what we are invited to do — is to be creative with John’s gospel. Despite our saying that “God never changes,” John indicates that changeability is part of God’s nature especially as it relates to human need. If God has a history of changing, surely our definitions of sin and attitudes toward the church should be open to change, too.

1. What is structural sin?

We Christians long have interpreted sin as a personal break with God. Instead of focusing on personal transgressions, however, Christians need to talk about an idea well represented in the Bible – that sin is a structural break with God. The declarations of the Prophets, the Exodus and Resurrection events, Jesus’s disruption in the Temple all point to the idea that structures of sin make complete union with God difficult if not fundamentally impossible. There are at least five structural sins that Christians must address if we are to proclaim Good News in America. They are sins because they deal in death – spiritual, emotional, and bodily – and need to be reckoned as such.

  • Fear of gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, transgendered, intersex, and other people who are not “cisgendered”

By cisgendered, I mean people who conform to standard ideas of gender physiology and identity. These fears lead to bullying, isolating, Christian parents condemning their own children, fringe Baptist pastors proclaiming God Hates Fags, attempts to equate homosexuality with pedophilia, suicide, and murder. Homophobia and its variations are sins.

  • Factory produced food

Corporately produced chickens, lemons, tomatoes, and many other food items are products of cruelty and exploitation. A typical bowl of ostensibly nourishing homemade chicken soup is made from a chicken which was caged its entire miserable life, processed by vulnerable undocumented workers in an appallingly dangerous industry, and garnished with tomatoes picked by “guest workers” toiling in conditions of servitude, sometimes so doused with pesticides that their babies are born without limbs. Factory food is a sin.

  • Free Trade Agreements

FTAs, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, remove tariffs designed to protect small farmers and other small producers. They are designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few corporate owners by forcing small producers into competition with them. Millions around the globe are suffering from an epidemic of globalized worker exploitation associated with FTAs. Looking for decent work, many cross borders illegally and often are robbed of their money, dignity, and lives while in transit. FTAs are sins.

  • The militarization of our southern border and inner cities

The militarization of the US / Mexico border began in conjunction with NAFTA. It has caused the deaths of thousands of migrants. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, S. 744, which passed in the US Senate in 2013, the so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, was to a significant extent a border militarization package. President Obama’s 2014 Executive Actions on Immigration were designed to “crack down on illegal immigration” via further militarization. We glimpsed the militarization of interior cities in the aftermath of the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. Militarization is a sin.

  • The for-profit prison industry

Six million people are under correctional supervision in America. The industry preys on poor people, especially poor black men more than ½ of whom go to prison at some point in their lives. For-profit prisons, which exist through contracts with governments, target illegal immigrants. The largest American prison groups, the GEO Group, Inc. and the Corrections Corporation of America, have contracts with the Federal government to house 34,000 immigrant detainees a day. The prison industry is a sin.

2. What is the purpose of the church amidst structural sin?

  • Tell truth to power

There is no point in having conversations about structural sin if we do not tell truth about it to our congregations, other faith leaders, community organizers, and politicians. They all wield power. Moreover, we need to tell truth to power in ways that will make systemic change inevitable.

  • Create crisis-packed situations

Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” that resistance to structural sin involves creating “a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” Jesus cleansed the Temple because it had become a “hideout for thieves” – part of the Roman Empire’s package of structural sin. Jesus created a situation so crisis packed, it led to his execution.

Not all crisis-packed situations lead to executions. The 1963 Children’s Crusaders in Birmingham, organized by Rev. James Bevel, were met with Sheriff Bull Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses. The crisis-packed situation, broadcast on TV, resulted in the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1968, Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan broke into the offices of the Selective Service in Catonsville, MD and publicly burned draft board records. These and other crisis-packed situations eventually ended the war in Vietnam.

It has been a long time since church leaders created situations so crisis packed they led to ending structural sins. If the church is to proclaim Good News in America, it may be that the time for creating crisis-packed situations is upon us.

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