Can Systemic Sin Exist?
Our world is talking theology. They probably aren’t aware of it, but theological conversations permeate the air. One such conversation that has persisted over the past several years has been about whether or not America is a racist nation. How would you answer that question: is America a racist nation?
I’m aware that the question itself likely creates a strong emotional reaction in you. But, if we can lean in together to listen to scripture, there is much we can learn from the question. Before we can answer the question, “Is America a racist nation,” we have to ask an underlying question: does systemic sin exist?
In other words, is sin just an individual problem or are there elements of sin that are corporate in nature? Does the way a country organizes its government, for instance, have sin imbedded in its design? Can local ordinances be sinful? Is it possible for sin to be part of the fabric of a club or even a church?
To speak in theological terms: what does the doctrine of depravity mean for groups of people??
When Christians talk about depravity, we are referring to the Bible’s teaching that human beings are not born as morally neutral agents. In chapter 5 of his letter to the Romans, Paul explains that Adam’s sin against God marred every one of his ancestors. He explains that “…sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” (Rom 5:12). In this passage, Paul carefully balances the entry of sin into the world with our shared culpability. In other words, we are all born with the death-mark of sin, but we also bear the responsibility for our sin, because we have each decided to sin. Paul reiterates his point, explaining that by Adam’s disobedience, “the many were made sinners…” (Rom 5:19).
David reflects on this in a Psalm, where he says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps 51:5). In other words, there is no point in time where we began to choose wrong over right. No, from the womb, we are sinners in need of God’s rescue.
This is what theologians call depravity. What exactly does depravity mean? Biblically speaking, it means that we are, from birth, enemies of God, and spiritually dead. If a picture of a zombie comes to your mind, you’re hearing this properly. We are physically animated, but morally broken. Without Christ, we aren’t the good guys.
Now, to be sure, depravity is not saying that we are as wicked as we could possibly be. Certainly not. But, biblically speaking, there is no pure intention, thought, or action in us. Our natures are corrupt. Many have used the analogy of a single drop of poison squeezed from a syringe into a glass of water. The glass is not purely poison, but there is no part that is without poison. And thus, the entire glass of water is unfit to drink.
To make matters worse, in the Bible we learn that sin has a cascading impact generationally. My children will feel the weight of my sin. Jeremiah cries out in Lamentations 5:7: “Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities.”
And our sin is often far worse than we think. It seems as though Israel was more aware and repentant of their lack of faithfully offering sacrifices than they were of the corporate injustices they were perpetuating on the poor, the widowed , and the foreigners of their land. God used many of the prophets to expose this systemic sin. Isaiah, for instance, says this,
Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
and that they may make the fatherless their prey! (Is 10:1-2)
One thing is certain in the Bible when it comes to our sin: it is manifold. Whenever we think we have weeded the garden of our hearts, the Spirit reveals to us another overgrown bed we haven’t even noticed.
Perhaps, though, you aren’t yet convinced. “What about after Jesus?” you might be wondering. Perhaps systemic sin existed in Israel because they were the chosen nation that God called to himself, but corporate sin ceased to exist after Israel. Let’s take a look at the early church in the book of Acts. In Acts 6 we find that because of the way in which the church’s structure of benevolence had been created, the Gentile widows were being neglected. Luke writes, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1). The leaders of the church apparently completely agree with this assessment and immediately go about making amends for the structural organizational sin.
The fact is this: depraved human beings cannot create any law, institution, business, or government that is untainted from sin. The church itself, as we see in Acts 6, is not exempt from this reality.
Systemic sin exists. Every culture perpetuates certain sins. Our culture has perpetuated the sin of the murder of the unborn for decades. Our culture perpetuates the sin of sloth, greed, lust and violence.
Before moving from the question of systemic sin to the question specifically of racism, allow me to provide a caution and an encouragement.
First, the caution: on the final day of judgment, we will stand before Christ alone. It will not be our nations or churches or organizations that will stand before the Judge, it will be the individual. I will stand alone in front of the Son of God, no one on my left, no one on my right. I will be judged and be found innocent because of the Son’s blood shed for me. It is proper, then, to prioritize the call of gospel repentance on the individual. The question will be whether we have put our individual trust in the atoning work of our gracious Savior.
Next, the encouragement: the power of Jesus’ work is not merely for the individual. In Ephesians 2, Paul speaks of the vertical (between us and God) and horizontal (between us and our neighbor) efficacy of the work of Christ. He says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility …” (Eph 2:13-14). In other words, Jesus Christ’s blood is sufficient to repair our relationship with God and with one another. Jesus died to obliterate the walls between us! The church can step into thorny topics like racism, because Christ’s blood is at work there as well.
And so now we turn back to our original question: is America a racist nation? Certainly. America is also a greedy, slanderous, lustful, slothful, and violent nation. Why? Because we are all individually and corporately “deceitful,” and “desperately sick,” (Jer 17:9). Which of our sins is the greatest? Only God knows that. America, like every other nation, is corrupt.
How do you react to each of these statements?
Systemic injustice exists in America.
Systemic violence exists in America.
Systemic racism exists in America.
Systemic greed exists in America.
Systemic lust exists in America.
All are true. Let’s not allow the politics of our world to shrink the truth of where we stand before the Almighty.
Our hope is in Christ Jesus alone and in his coming Kingdom. Our hope is that our repentant hearts would be transformed by the work of Christ and that Christ would mold us individually and corporately to reflect him more and more. Healing structural sin through human means is not our hope, our hope is in the work of Jesus Christ.
We are called to care about manifestations of sin. We are called to seek the welfare of the cities and nations in which we live (Jer 29). But it is only the atoning work of our Savior that can produce new hearts.