Reflecting on Structural Sin and Suffering

Growing up as a member of a Southern Baptist church in rural Alabama, I heard all about sin: smoking, drinking, partying, and the like. In my embedded theology, sin was an individual’s decision to disobey God’s commands and suffering was the intended consequences of these sinful actions. I began to question these ideas about sin and suffering as I visited places like Honduras where suffering was widespread but no one individual could be blamed. I realized that individual sinful actions were similar to the tip of an iceberg; a much greater evil was concealed in darkness below the water’s surface. This greater evil is known as structural sin.

The individualized focus of my embedded theology of sin is woefully incomplete. Since, as Clark Williamson notes, human beings are created as persons defined by relations to each other, God, and creation,[1] sin and suffering are always both personal and social. Alienation – “the refusal… to acknowledge the Creator and to love the neighbor” – is revealed as sin’s essential quality when human beings are properly situated within God’s communal vision for creation.[2] As Serene Jones has argued, this alienating sin is not merely individual acts but a comprehensive state of being that orients the life of all people and societies in opposition to “God’s will for our flourishing.”[3] Enveloped in this sinful reality, we grossly distort every dimension of our created nature and form “interlocking structures of various forms of oppression”[4] that transform our good diversity into evil division. All created things involved in these sinful structures suffer from the loss of God’s abundant life offered to all creation.

In order to understand and faithfully respond to the suffering caused by the evils of structural sins, I must examine this suffering as it occurs in specific historical contexts among specific individuals and groups.[5] I have witnessed this suffering most distinctly in the life of my friend Bob.[6] He is a poor, African-American man in his early sixties with mild schizophrenia. He lives in rural Sumter County, Alabama, only a few miles from my hometown. When I met Bob, he was living in a dilapidated mobile home with no electricity or running water. As I came to know him, I discovered an interwoven triad of structural sins – poverty, racism, and the stigma of mental illness – that caused immense suffering in his life. He was trapped in deeply rooted poverty: 2010 US census data reported a startling 35% poverty rate in Sumter County.[7] His humanity was degraded by the force of what Delores Williams calls “white racial narcissism.”[8] He was treated as if he were violent, incompetent, or immoral because of his illness.[9] These evil structures alienate Bob from his community, his family, and even from his own talent. He is a creative man who loves to write poems but the multiplicative forces of these structural sins utterly devalue Bob’s creative ability and deny him any opportunity to share his work with others.

This plurality of suffering in our world demands the kind of prophetic response that Walter Brueggemann describes as a criticizing “rejection… of the present order of things” and an energizing “anticipation of the newness that God has promised.”[10] However, the criticizing work of the prophet must begin in silence, as Dorothee Soelle has argued, in order to respect those who have suffered.[11] In this silence, sufferers are given the freedom and space to grieve and bear witness to their pain on their own terms. This grieving functions as potent criticism because it announces that “things are not alright” in the world.[12] According to Abraham Heschel, the prophet takes up this grief and amplifies it in order to express God’s rage on behalf of those suffering in “silent agony.”[13] Through the prophet, God condemns the suffering of the status quo and calls the church to repent from their idolatry and subsequent refusal to live and work towards justice and mercy for the oppressed.[14]

While criticism is the starting place for prophetic ministry, Heschel notes that nearly every prophet “concludes with a message of hope.”[15] Because God is faithfully involved in creation, prophets proclaim that God’s mercy and love will have the final say – not sin and suffering.[16] They sing new, hopeful songs in anticipation of the alternative reality promised by the God who is present in suffering.[17] In these songs, prophets give voice to a new moral imagination that envisions “new ways of living and loving.”[18] As faith in God is renewed, resources for survival and building a new quality of life are revealed in the midst of suffering.[19]

As a person answering God’s call to ministry in the US, my first response to the reality of structural sin is to see clearly my own participation in it. I lived the first 18 years of my life in a small, rural town in Alabama where white racism towards the majority African-American population was an everyday reality. However, I have never considered how this racist “social body” may have influenced my own “assignment of meaning and significance” to racial others.[20] I have failed to see this sin clearly because I have refused to see it in myself.[21] As a result, I have remained “unstirred” and therefore unable to raise a prophetic voice that criticizes the racist consciousness and imagines alternative, subversive ways of being that dismantle racist structures and embody God’s communal vision.[22]

My complicity in a racist society calls for confession. “In confession,” Bonhoeffer writes, “the breakthrough to community takes place.”[23] Racism, like all sin, has desired to keep me isolated and unable to engage in full fellowship with the African-American community.[24] It has taught me to fear and belittle racial others. Racism has led me to believe that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to Caucasians, are always looking for an excuse to avoid work, and are unable to manage responsibility. This socially-mediated pedagogy of racism has led me into the sin of homogeneity that seeks uniformity over unity-in-diversity and the sin of apathy that blinds me to the suffering of my African-American brothers and sisters. As a result of participating in a racist society, I confess that I am a racist.

The church’s response to God’s vision for justice in the world should also begin with a confession of complicity. Unfortunately, this response is problematic for many Christians in the US because they have reduced the social sin of racism to overtly racist individual actions. As a result, many claim no responsibility for “causing” racism and therefore see no need for confession. These people deny their participation in what Dr. King called the “inescapable network of mutuality.”[25] However, once racism is understood as a social sin, Christians of all colors move beyond blame and create safe spaces for confessing their complicity in racist structures. This communal confession can empower prophetic ministry in the church that overthrows sinful structures and embodies God’s vision of justice in creation.

[1] Clark Williamson, “What’s Wrong with Us?: Human Nature and Sin” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 165.

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Serene Jones, “What’s Wrong with Us?: Human Nature and Sin” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 149.

[4] Eleazar S. Fernandez, Reimagining the Human: Theological Anthropology in Response to Systemic Evil (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2003), 35.

[5] Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1986), 51.

[6] I have used a fake name to protect the identity of my friend.

[7] “Sumter County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau,”, (accessed November 9, 2012).

[8] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 88.

[9] Corrigan, Patrick W., Amy C. Watson, and Victor Ottati,”From whence comes mental illness stigma?,” International Journal Of Social Psychiatry 49, no. 2 (June 2003): 142.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 3.

[11] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 69.

[12] Brueggemann, 11.

[13] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 5-6.

[14] Kyle D. Fedler, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 119.

[15] Heschel, 14.

[16] Felder, 136.

[17] Brueggemann, 68.

[18] Felder, 137.

[19] Williams, 203.

[20] Mary Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: body, race, being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 8.

[21] Williamson, 161.

[22] Heschel, 31.

[23] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper Collins, 1954), 112.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Martin Luther King, Jr., Trumpet of Consciousness (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 68.


2 comments on “Reflecting on Structural Sin and Suffering

  1. jmw says:

    Good essay, Joe. I appreciate that you practice what you preach by actually writing an essay that begins with confession. Hence, it is a great piece to get conversations going about structural sin and, namely, racism. It seems to me that subsequent conversation will require digging deeper at the specific manifestations of structural sin such as racism: Where does this play out in education? In finance/loans/etc.? In politics? In employment? I’m no expert so I can offer little to answer those questions, but it seems to me that a mere glance at SES trends indicate that structures of racism apply to such Q’s.

    What do you mean when you wrote in the conclusion that “once racism is understood as a social sin, Christians of all colors move beyond blame”? I think I understand but am curious for more. Are you implying a kind of reconciliation in which oppressors confess and oppressed forgive so that there is no longer a person to blame? I was just taken aback by this statement because it seems to me that there are, in fact, people who are “more”(?) responsible for propagating structural sin. Or maybe I’m wrong? Maybe that is the evil illusion of structural sin?

    • joe d says:

      josh, thanks for your comments. i appreciate the discussion!

      you’re absolutely right about the need for more specifics. in fact, they are essential. unfortunately, i didnt have much space to dig in to that with this assignment. but, this is something i will be engaging all the time if i end up back in the south. have you read “The New Jim Crow”? racism is alive and well in the criminal justice system.

      you’re understanding correctly about what i meant when i talked about moving beyond blame. i was imagining what would happen if i brought up racism to basically any white person back home. inevitably, the conversation goes to “well, i didnt cause this to happen. why are they so upset with me?” i think that’s what i was trying to answer. i do worry that “moving beyond blame” ignores or somehow dismisses the suffering of racism. but, i also believe that the sin of racism, and all structural sin, causes suffering for all people because we are “inescapably bound in a network of mutuality.” im not calling for a just “sweep all that stuff under the rug”/turn a blind eye to 200 years of history and move on together. the history, the suffering, all of it needs to be heard. but, i dont see any constructive value in trying to figure out who is to “blame.” maybe that’s because im a white guy and those fingers would be pointed at me.

      i think South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission is a good example. however, that occurred after structural/political changes that seriously damaged (not quite dismantled) the structures of apartheid. so, i think this leaves us back at your original question about specifics. maybe confession is inappropriate while the sin is still functioning “structurally” but you would need specifics to know if this is the case. but, maybe seeking some grand, national solution is not the way either. maybe it starts with reconciliation within local communities that will be specific to those communities’ experience.

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