Thoughts on individual and corporate sin

The church I was raised in gave me a particular idea of sin. It was something you did as an individual. You could sin through taking a wrong action, or through having recurring wrong thoughts (if you entertained those thoughts and didn’t shove them away). You could also sin through not doing something, such as not going on a mission trip out of fear or not giving your tithe to the church.

In this individual conception of sin, I constantly felt guilty. I frequently introspected about what wrong thoughts I’d had and how I had fallen short of the glory of God. Looking back on it, I didn’t have any of the common large sins to feel guilty about and repent for (sex or drugs) so I spent my worry on things like not being charitable enough to my siblings or not helping my mother enough or being too shy to witness to my non-Christian friends.

Fast-forward to now. Every week in church I kneel with the whole congregation and pray a prayer of confession that begins like this: “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone.” In one way, this idea of sin as possible both through presence and absence sounds like the sin of my childhood. But there’s one major difference. “We confess” is not the same as “I confess.”

In my Education for Ministry class last year we discussed how sin can be both individual and corporate. In my evangelical upbringing we never focused on corporate sin. Or if we did, it was the sin of “the world” that the church wasn’t part of. But here’s the thing. We are part of the world. Everyone is.

I’m a human who lives on planet Earth, in the part called the United States. I’m a part of multiple communities. I’m a Christian, an Episcopalian, a feminist, a queer woman, an organic gardener, a writer, an academic, a teacher, a consumer, a homeowner, an entrepreneur, an American. And these groups have sinned. We’ve oppressed people of other religions. We’ve stripped the planet’s resources. We’ve taken too much and not given to the poor. We’ve ignored the stories of others in order to center our own experiences. We’ve left out women of color. We’ve pursued our own careers to the detriment of the larger pursuit of knowledge. We’ve sought short term profit over long term good. I could go on.

This sense of corporate sin isn’t less heavy than individual sin. It’s equally impossible to get away from. But for me, it’s freeing. It takes away a lot of the stupid arguments I see people getting into on the internet. Like #notallmen. Sure, if you look at sin as individual, you can say that you bear no guilt for the sins of rape and sexual harassment. But if sin is corporate? Then we live in a culture with gender dynamics that still repress women’s stories and make it possible for men to abuse their power. We all are part of that sin by being part of the culture, and we can all corporately confess it, and then repent and try to make a change.

It’s the same with the outrage right now about the treatment of immigrants. Some white people are saying, “This is not America,” and being rightly called out for it by others who point out the separations of Native children from their families and whole African-American families from each other through slavery. It’s as if white people want to say, “I don’t feel like I’m racist. I don’t sense that individual sin in myself. Therefore I’m not at fault.” But wait! Corporate sin. I am part of a group, white people, that has sinned. Instead of getting defensive, our faith calls us to confess our sins against God and our neighbors. And then go out and work to make things better.

A conception of sin only as individual lets people get away with doing nothing about government or the environment or societal structures, because if they fix the sin in their own heart, they’ve done everything that is necessary. John Boles, in The Great Revival 1787-1805: The Origins of the Southern Evangelical Mind posits that this focus on individual sin is what allowed white Baptists and other evangelicals in the South, before the Civil War, to defend slavery. If the slaveholder and the enslaved person both dealt with their own internal sin, then everything would be great, and God’s kingdom would come on earth. Right? But it didn’t work out that way. Individual repentance did not end the societal sin of slavery.

Being able to conceive of sin as corporate allows me to see sin constantly at work in the world, but not be overwhelmed by it, because it’s not located solely in my heart, eating away at me, just me, in the dark. It’s everywhere. And I, and others, can work against it in ways both large and small. Looking at sin as corporate lets us do something about the world, not just our little corner of it. It takes away artificial hierarchies of who is a greater sinner and what sins are worse and who has to do more work of repentance. We all have to repent. We all have to fix it. Let’s do that together.

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