Eco-Sin Series: Recovering a Collective Understanding of Sin

March 7, 2013 § 10 Comments

In this post I want to talk about how the sin-salvation paradigm, with its focus on the individual, misses the basic reality of ecological crisis, and how we need a new, collective understanding of sin against ecosystems.

With its moral lens, Christianity traditionally focuses almost exclusively on the individual, on individual sin and salvation. The sins it cares about the most are the sins that individuals commit. Think of the ten commandments and the moral teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and the sins that Paul catalogs in his letters.

Thus the solutions to the problem of individual sin also focus on the individual: preaching and evangelism, confession, and the sacraments. These vehicles for forgiveness are all about the individual.

By contrast, the real “sinners” in the ecological sphere are not individuals primarily. Oh, I suppose we might be held accountable by the Creator for neglecting our recycling, or destroying a lot of trees so we can read just three sections of the Sunday New York Times, or working on a boat that is overfishing the blue fin tuna, or lobbying against the signing of the Kyoto Accords. But the real culprits are collective entities—at the smallest and simplest end of the scale, domestic households; but much more importantly, corporations (and, yes, nonprofits, congregations, denominations), communities, nations, societies, and civilizations, plus the facilities, infrastructures, and the other systems, economic, social, and political, that give these collective entities bodies, as it were—hands and feet, eyes and ears, mouths and tools with which to act in the world and have an impact on our ecosystems.

A religious ideology that seeks to guide or even control only individual human behavior fails almost utterly to address these more important sources of our problems, which are collective. It fails to deal with collective sin.

Effective faith-based, Spirit-led earthcare witness in a Christian milieu like ours needs to recover the reality of collective sin. 

We have Paul (as usual) and, to a lesser extent, Jesus himself to blame for this.

One of the under-recognized innovations in Jesus’ religious thinking is his focus on individual sin. We take this for granted now, but all the other prophets and the whole religious framework of redemption and salvation in ancient Judaism had focused primarily on collective sin—Israel sinned and Israel would be punished. Hence the destruction of the ten tribes by Assyria and the Exile of the remaining two tribes in Babylon, just to name the two main biblical examples. Individuals sinned, of course, but the focus of the prophets was on the collective.

Hear the word of Yahweh: Stand up, plead your case before the mountains and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, O mountains the indictment of Yahweh, listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth, for Yahweh has a case against his people, he is lodging a charge against Israel. (Micah 6:1-2, 13-14)

This began to change somewhat around the time of the Maccabean war, roughly 165 BCE, with the emergence of the Pharisee and Essene movements, though we begin to see hints of the shift even in Ezra, maybe 450 BCE. But Jesus brought this new emphasis to a new level.

The stories told by and of Jesus in Christian scripture are unique in Hebrew tradition in their personal poignancy, intimacy, and relevance. His encounters with real people are unlike anything in the earlier prophets of Israel. But he did not altogether abandon ancient Israel’s self-identity as a tribal, corporate entity. He talked about leaving the flock to find the one lost sheep, yes, but the sheep was still lost without the flock. So Jesus extended the collective understanding of sin, judgment, and redemption to include the individual, without wholly abandoning the sense of Israel’s collective identity and culpability.

Then along came Paul. Paul did utterly abandon his tradition’s collective understanding of sin. He focused exclusively on the individual. His Gentile converts had no connection to the collective identity of Israel and no tribal consciousness of that sort at all. In this, we are their descendants and, as in so many other areas, our religion has been impoverished by the Pauline legacy as a result.

We need to recover the kind of collective understanding of sin that Micah had.

But what if we did recover a collective understanding of sin? How would we bring the prophetic case of an earthcaring God to the collective entities of our own time? To the corporations that would release the vast stores of carbon in the tar sands and gas shale deposits of North America, for instance? With what forms of judgment could we threaten them?

For this is another weakness of the sin-salvation paradigm, that it has no concrete, real-time, real-world consequences to raise up as divine judgment. Almost all we have to work with is hell. Individuals can go to hell. But can a corporation go to hell? And even hell is not a realistic deterrent, unless the threat is reinforced through emotional trauma. Fear of hell can make you depressed, repressed, and neurotic, but it doesn’t seem to stem the tide of sin very effectively. In fact, when people become severely infected with the fear of hell, the trauma tends to make them a problem rather than a solution.

Therefore, just as we need a new collective definition of sin, so we also need a new formula for collective judgment. We need a new understanding of collective judgment because, unfortunately, we already have an old one and it is a total disaster—literally. I am referring to eschatology, the theology of the Endtimes—the belief that God will destroy all of creation as one of God’s last saving acts. Besides being a horrific religious ideology, the idea is virtually an oxymoron.

Moreover, the collective actor in the Endtimes is all of humanity, as it was in the story of the Flood. And the punishment is the annihilation of the very thing we earthcare witnesses are trying to save, the earth and all its creatures. I will return to this theme in a later post. Here, suffice it to say that “humanity” may be destroying creation all on its own, but this is a less than worthless way to think about changing human ecological behavior.

So the sin-salvation paradigm fails us at both ends of the spectrum of ecological action. The individual is too small an actor in ecological terms and “humanity” is too meaninglessly large an actor to talk about without becoming silly.

The real actors, the real locus of our problems, lie in between. The real focus of our prophetic witness should be the corporations and other collective entities with power to effect policy and impact ecosystems on a massive scale. It is they who sin. It is they whom we should condemn with our prophecy. It is they who should suffer judgment.

With corporations, this is theoretically not so hard. We have some legal tools to work with. Since incorporation confers legal personhood on a collective of humans, let’s treat corporations the way we do individual criminals (although, in fact, we should not be doing many of the things we do to accuse and punish individual humans, including especially capital punishment). I say let’s treat corporations like the “persons” they claim legally to be. Let’s define capital crimes for corporations and then exercise capital punishment as one of our options. Let’s start executing companies for crimes against humanity.

(Of course, executing a company will hurt innocent people, so we will need another set of laws that protect them, something along the lines of the laws the FDIC uses to dismantle a failed bank. The whole thing will get complicated, I admit. My point is to begin thinking in new ways about corporate accountability in a religious framework.)

Of course, not all crimes are capital crimes. We need less extreme measures, too. These could include more avenues for criminalizing the behavior of the executives who execute corporate crimes against the ecosystems their organizations are destroying.

And there are other things we might try. For example, I would favor requiring all executives above a certain level in charge of public safety and operations of nuclear power plants to live next door and downwind of their plant. I would require mining executives to get their water from the groundwater near their own mine’s tailings piles, waste disposal ponds, and extraction sites. You get the idea.

In the meantime (and of course, that “meantime” will probably approach eternity as a limit), religious communities that still ascribe to sin as a key element in their theology should take a new look at how they define sin and how they will respond to it, how they will raise a new kind of prophetic voice against our collective sinners.

If we’re going to believe in sin—in ecological sin—let’s get real about it. And let’s do it where it matters, in the sphere of collective human activity.

. . . Of course, many Liberal Friends do not “ascribe to sin as a key element in their theology”. But that’s another post.

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§ 10 Responses to Eco-Sin Series: Recovering a Collective Understanding of Sin

  • tastytabloid says:

    Something I think about a lot is how, when people organize in groups, finding the cause of wrongdoing becomes completely confusing. This is partly because individuals simply don’t understand the power of numbers (both human and monetary). We underestimate ourselves, and so when it comes time to find the cause of some problem, we’re reluctant to believe that it’s something we may have personally contributed to by participating in groupthink, groupact, or corporateact.

    For example, someone very close to me works for a standardized test company. She enjoys her work and there’s nothing perceivably harmful about her individual job. She doesn’t know about the broader ethical issues surrounding standardized tests, but then again, by working as an editor, is she really participating in the cultural wrongs of the company? She’s helping the company run, but she’s not making any big decisions. But who is making those decisions? In some cases, that question leads to an individual or a few individuals, and that makes accountability a little easier (if anyone or any group with enough power actually feels like pursuing such a thing). But sometimes decisions within a company or group are made in such a piecemeal way that there’s a whole other level of confusion in finding the cause of a wrongdoing. I think a prime example of this is gentrification.

    The interface between individuals (with varying degrees of power and participation), groups, and corporations makes for a complicated story of personal and corporate responsibility. I think it’s near impossible for any person or group trying to get to the bottom of things to strike the right balance between individual and group. On the one hand, it’s important to hold a decision-maker accountable. But on the other, it’s important to acknowledge that a wrongdoing may be the result of individuals’ unknowing participation in wrongdoing (or something seemingly harmless that adds up to wrongdoing when it’s organized or enough people do it). For the latter, the solution must have a broader, cultural component.

    • Thanks so much for this great comment. I think about this a lot, too, but I’ve never come at it from quite this angle. The very purpose of a corporation is to relieve the individuals in it from personal liability for their actions, to a degree. This applies primarily to financial liability, but there is a moral component, too, and you have described it in action.

      Your thoughts also touch on the aspect that I have thought about the most—the way so much of the evil we have to deal with in the world is structural—it’s built into the way things work in ways that make it almost impossible to avoid doing bad things. Your acquaintance needs a job, she’s doing something she’s good at, that expresses her God-given gifts, but there is this other side of what she does that is out of her direct control.

      We can raise up the example of John Woolman, who wore clothing that hadn’t been dyed because of the industry’s complicity in the slave trade and who gave up his notions business because it was so successful it was cutting into his ministry. But the corporation had not even been invented yet in the early 1700s. Our world is little more complicated than his was.

      • I cannot help but quote Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” Some cultures do live this ideal, even some in the U.S. If the rest of us did so, even in some limited fashion, it could have a profound and positive impact on things like the environment.

  • Patrick Nugent says:

    Beautifully written and articulate, but so sorry you descended into the favorite liberal sport of Paul-bashing.

    NT Wright, in his two books on Paul as well as his longer works, has argued definitively that Paul’s understanding of both sin me justification were entirely collective in nature, and both were rooted in his understanding if the covenant if Abraham. Individual dimensions are crucial but derivative. One doesn’t have to follow some of Wright’s more controversial ideas to follow him on this point.

    The hyper-individualizing of Pauline theology is a product of Luther, Calvin, and Wesley and the broad vangelical tradition.

    Wright’s understanding of Pauline Covenant theology could provide a powerful ally to an understanding of collective sin as it relates to creation care. But it is very hard to let go f the hyper-Wesleyan Paul, both for evangelicals who find it indispensable (and can’t bring themselves to change their thinking) or for liberals who find it indigestie (and who can’t bring themselves to change their thinking.) A little theological flexibility all round and we could find a Paul who feels “all creation groaning” under the weight of human rebellion against God, and all creation yearning for a new order in which creation itself is reconciled to God and renewed in its goodness along with the whole human race.

    • Thanks, Patirick, for the gentle eldering. I do have a habitual tendency to bash poor Paul. But it’s not a thoughtless liberal Quaker sport for me. I have studied Paul enough to have pretty well developed criticisms of the direction he turned the early church. I haven’t read Wright and now I’m intrigued. And reading your comment reminds me how important the church community was to the gospel Paul preached. I have studied (and I’m a big fan of) Paul’s writings on the gifts of the Spirit, and, of course, his theology of the church as the body of Christ and as the proper framework for expressing the gifts of the spirit, is a truly sublime presentation of collective religious life.

      In my post, however, I was really focusing on collective sin and collective judgment, not on the nature of Christian community, and complaining that Paul focused on individual sin to the neglect of the collective—I guess I’ll have to read Wright to be disabused of this idea. And Paul is, of course, an apocalypticist when it comes to collective judgment, and I do think that apocalypticism is a real threat to spirit-led earthcare witness. I think I’ll get into that in my next post.

      As for why I’m so ready to bash Paul, that has mostly to do with the way he abandoned the core of the gospel as Jesus taught it. That, too, is another post. But I think Paul preaches a radically different gospel than Jesus did. One way to express this, for me at least, is that Paul proclaims Christ and Jesus as the Christ proclaimed good news for the poor and the kingdom of God.

      Well, thanks again for a thought-provoking comment. More to come.

  • rightquaker says:

    There is a lot to love in this post (I especially appreciate the ties to sin) but I think it also suffers from some progressive biases.

    The US government, rather than any corporation, is acknowledged as the world’s greatest polluter. The US government also creates a regulatory structure, with the help of the EPA, that encourages corporate pollution.

    I am no fan of corporatism but neither am I a fan of statism. Both are the problem and the solution will come from neither. As always, it will come from below.

    I would encourage Friends to avoid entertaining solutions that are predicated on theft, coercion and violence. For example, the post says:

    “I would favor requiring all executives above a certain level in charge of public safety and operations of nuclear power plants to live next door and downwind of their plant. I would require mining executives to get their water from the groundwater near their own mine’s tailings piles, waste disposal ponds, and extraction sites.”

    What if these executives refuse? Will you fine them (steal)? If they don’t pay the fines will you arrest them (coercion)? If they resist the arrest in any way are you prepared to use violence to make them comply?

    Friends should consider the advice of William Penn who said, “A good end cannot sanctify evil means, nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it.”

    • I include states and governments in my catalog of collective actors and, you’re right, I had forgotten how bad the federal government, especially the military, as a polluter and enabler of other corporate eco-sins.

      And I had not thought about what you do if these hypothetical executives of mine refuse. Normally, if you refuse to do what the law requires, you get indicted and tried in court. I’m not saying necessarily that this is what should happen—only that we need to be much more rigorous and inventive when it comes to collective wrongdoing, especially when the wrongdoers are corporations, who usually get away with fines that they can just write off as the cost of doing business. I am arguing that the corporate punishment for corporate eco-sin should have meaningful impact, however we do that. And that religious communities that take sin seriously haven’t taken this level of sin seriously enough.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  • Tom Smith says:

    I should add, that I recognize “Quakers & Capitalism” might well be of interest.

  • Tom Smith says:

    Although I might respond more fully to some later posts, I cannot help but quickly comment with regard to what really got Jesus in trouble and some of the other “prophets.” Although Jesus addressed individuals, he also addressed a “crowd” when he said, those without sin should cast the first stone. His “judgement was that they were singularly and in my estimation collectively wrong in their judgement. However, he really got in trouble, capital trouble as it were, when he struck at the economic center of the society. In calling the religious authorities a “den of thieves” in their economic dealings he committed the unforgivable “sin” of opposing the economic plundering of the poor to feed the rich.

    It also seemed that ML KIng Jr. really only got in to trouble when he began to attack the Military-Industrial complex and the war being waged, but even more so when he began to speak of economic inequality as a major “sin.” (Poor Peoples March)

    I believe that we must work for the “spirit of,” if not the actual implementation of, the Jubilee and the doing away with economic inequality. In my opinion it is the “greed” of unrestrained “capitalism”(putting money before people) that underlies many of the ecological damage and certainly much of the social injustice that occurs.

    • Thanks, Tom, for responding. I am totally with you on the Jubilee. When the Great Recession spread to include just about all the over-developed world, I thought, why not just declare a Jubilee and relieve everybody of the debt burden they were carrying. Maybe not total, but something that would eliminate the debt for places like Ireland, Spain, Iceland, and of course, Greece, and reduce the debt for the US, the UK, etc. We could have written algorithms that would compute how everyone fared and throw something to the Germans for being so begrudgingly gracious. Though, I guess you can’t be begrudging and gracious at the same time. This is what Jesus did.

      Jesus declared a Jubilee in the first words of his public ministry in the gospel of Luke (Luke 4:15+, I think) and goes on, throughout the Synoptic Gospels and on into Acts, to elaborate on what economic justice really means. In that fantastic passage in Luke 4 (to me the most important passage in all of Christian scripture), he defines his role as the messiah, the Christ, as relieving the poor of their suffering: “The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me; he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor . . . to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors.”

      Thus, I feel that the definition of “Christian” that heels most closely to what Jesus actually taught is being a member of a religious community that makes ministering to the poor its highest priority, the way his first followers did in the first few chapters of Acts, before Paul came along.

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