Building a Theological Framework for Social Sin,
Social Justice, and Social Flourishing
Although God’s call to act justly is both individual and social, much of American Christianity has adopted a hyper-individualistic orientation. It emphasizes having a personal relationship with God, one-on-one discipleship, individual accountability, resisting temptation, and confessing personal transgressions.
All of these truths are parts of the Gospel, but they are not the entire story. In the Gospel, the individual and social are intertwined. Just as personal sin causes an individual to waste away, social sin causes a society to decay. Just as sin pervades individuals, it permeates communities and social systems. For example, Adam’s individual sin had systemic implications (Romans 5:12) and Achan’s sin was an indictment of the Israelites’ unfaithfulness (Joshua 7). Similarly, Jesus chastised the experts in the law for loading people down with burdens and not offering to help them (Luke 11:46). In contemporary times, the sin of racism is both individual and social. An individual can believe that someone of another race is inferior to them and treat them unjustly. When such beliefs and practices are held by a group of people in positions of power and influence, they can create laws and adopt policies that benefit one group and/or constrain another group. Sometimes these unjust actions are explicit and intentional. Other times, the perpetrators are unaware of their biases, but their actions are unjust nonetheless.
Injustice occurs when a person sins against another person or when one social group sins against another social group. In both instances, God urges us to confess the transgression, ask for forgiveness, and make amends. However, it is much more clear how to implement this reparation on an individual level than a societal level. With individual sin, it is easy to determine the responsible party, whereas with social sin it can be difficult to identify the responsible party as well as the victims. In addition, social injustices impact communities even if the sins are committed unknowingly or unintentionally. Social sins are also more likely to have multi generational impacts, leading to cumulative disadvantage for the victims’ descendants and/or resulting in disproportionate advantage for the perpetrators’ heirs. Finally, innocent members and descendants of the offending group can inadvertently benefit from their group’s unjust actions. Although such people committed no sin, they possess unjustly acquired gains that need to be returned. Despite the challenges and complexities of social sins and their spiraling repercussions, God’s mandate to uphold the cause of the oppressed, redress wrongdoings, and pursue justice remains.