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.

Sin — A Series on Sin and Spirit-led Earthcare Witness

March 6, 2013 § 9 Comments

Introduction to the series

In the early 1980s, I was active in the bioregional movement, a movement that sought to make deep ecology the foundation of all human systems, believing that you should design, manage, and live as though the place you lived in mattered, and that bioregions* had no right to exceed their carrying capacities or to colonize other bioregions to sustain themselves.

The spiritual godfather of the movement was Thomas Berry, creator of the New Cosmology, and he lived in New York where I was active. One evening, a bunch of us in the New York City group were having dinner together after going to a lecture and I happened to be sitting next to Thomas. For some reason I said that I didn’t see what the idea of sin had to offer to our work as environmentalists and bioregionalists and he responded quite strongly that no, sin was really important, sin was at the very heart of what we were doing.

This took me by surprise. Berry was a Catholic Passionist priest, so he knew a lot about sin, but he hadn’t mentioned sin even once that I could remember in all the monographs I had read that eventually became his landmark book The Dream of the Earth. (The Church had prohibited him from publishing his ideas and he was still abiding by the silencing at that time, so his graduate students at Fordham had published his essays themselves in the kind of bindings that dissertations often have. There’s no entry for “sin” in the index of The Dream of the Earth.) So I was surprised that he felt so fervently about sin when he hadn’t mentioned it in his writings. I wanted to get into it with him but someone else joined the conversation at that point and it moved off in another direction. I have been thinking about what Thomas Berry said ever since.

In this and future posts, I want to pursue these thoughts. I want to explore the idea of sin in general, but also specifically as regards our earthcare witness.

I still am not comfortable with the idea of sin. Not that I don’t believe in sin. Certainly people sin. And certainly harming creation is a sin. What I have been rejecting is the value of the whole religious ideology for which sin is the linchpin. I call this ideology the sin-salvation paradigm, the belief that sin is the basic human problem (certainly the basic religious problem), that sin incurs divine judgment, and that Christ’s atonement is the (only) salvation from that judgment.

This has been the basic message of the Christian tradition for a couple of millennia and today it still informs the political ideology of powerful people who either don’t see how their religious beliefs should turn them toward earthcare, or it actually turns them against earthcare.

Now, as in the early ’80s, I still resist the idea that sin and the sin-salvation paradigm are useful ideas in the struggle to reverse our ecological downspiral, or that they can help humans, or at least Western society, turn towards ways of thinking and living that foster and embody Spirit-led earthcare. More negatively, I find I often want to struggle against this gospel message as one of our ideological enemies in our attempts to cure Western society of its ecological insanity.

And yet my respect—my love—for Thomas Berry runs so deep that I feel I cannot ignore his perspective. I feel I must be missing something. So I want to explore my resistance and my counter-arguments with my readers, to see what kind of way might open. I know that for many of my readers—and many of my f/Friends—sin and salvation are at the heart of their religious lives and I trust that they will join the conversation. Together let us see what love and truth can do.

So this post has been a brief introduction to a series of posts in which I plan to explore sin and its possible role in Spirit-led earthcare. In the next post, I want to talk about how

the sin-salvation paradigm misses the basic reality of our ecological crises with its focus on individual sin and the individual sinner, rather than on collective sin and collective actors like corporations and communities and societies and the ecological sins that these collective entities commit.

* Bioregions are geographical regions defined by their physical and ecological features, often by the boundaries of watersheds, and also by culture, to the degree that a culture is defined by, or related to, or has impact on, its bioregion. New York City, for instance, has always been defined physically and culturally to a degree by the bays it has turned into harbors and by its relation to the Hudson River. The lower Hudson River valley (some would say all the way up to the falls in Troy, New York, since the Hudson is a tidal river to that point) could be considered a bioregion. Richmond, Indiana, lies in the watershed of the White River—a much smaller bioregion, perhaps too small to be useful in thinking about the human systems it supports. But it would be interesting to break out the maps and take a look.

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