In The Other Journal, Gerald West discusses structural sin, the idea that there exists a larger, social dimension of sin beyond individual wrongdoing. Structural sin proposes that we can have corporate responsibility for sinful actions that originate from social systems. West provides a simple illustration of how systems work to perpetuate sin:
“Give a man a fish”, the saying goes, “and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will always eat”. The problem with this saying, we in South Africa have discovered, is that even when you teach a man to fish, there are still signs that say, “NO FISHING”. So, in addition to teaching a man to fish, we also need to take down the “NO FISHING” signs! There are systems in place that prevent people from fishing, whether they know how to fish or not.
The existence of these "No Fishing" signs is a sin of the entire society, not just a few individuals. West especially considers this concept from a South African perspective, examining the structural sin of apartheid. Under apartheid, the white South African minority that benefitted from the systematic oppression of blacks was complicit in structural sin, even if many of these whites did not commit individual acts of injustice against black South Africans. West's article explores Biblical attitudes against structural sin, focusing particularly on Jesus' condemnation of the religious, economic, and political system of the temple.
The notion of structural sin may seem foreign to Americans with a strong streak of individualism. Our focus on personal responsibility for our own sinfulness creates an atmosphere where an individual's personal relationship with God can flourish. Yet our ease in defining sin in primarily individual terms also allows us to miss the larger systems that foster sin.
The real danger of structural sin is that we usually do not recognize it. In order to see structural sin for what it is we need those who are the victims of particular structural sins to teach us. For example, women will teach us about the pervasive structural sin of patriarchy; black people will teach us about the enduring structural sin of racism; ...and the poor will teach us about the structural sin of global capitalism.
In a culture of individual responsibility, it can be sometimes difficult to see the effects of sinful systems, but they do exist here in the U.S. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year, we caught a glimpse of how the sins of structural racism and classism work: the brunt of the suffering was borne overwhelmingly by racial minorities and the poor. These groups were sinned against not by individual acts of prejudice, but rather the cumulative effect of generations of "No Fishing" signs - those systems and policies that create injustice. (I wrote about this previously here.) West doesn't offer any easy solutions to tackling structural sin - indeed, there aren't any - but learning to read the signs and think about sin in a different way is a start.