Countering the concept of sin (and that event where it all started, known as ‘the fall’) were front and centre in the Christian theology of my childhood and youth. Regularly spoken about in sermons at church, bible studies at youth groups and talks at camps; sin was the barrier that was blocking our relationship with God.
As evangelicals we knew all about acknowledging and repenting of sin before we could receive the forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ – “the Euangelion” – the Gospel. Sin was a key part of the package and it was easy to understand.
Looking back, I now see that this perception of our sinfulness was almost completely personal and individual. Both sin, and repentance from it, largely concentrated upon personal vices.
Sin was never related to wider subjects such as: discrimination, the arms race, poverty, homelessness, apartheid and environmental destruction. While these issues were becoming increasingly topical in the 1980’s, they seemed to be of no consequence when it came to acknowledging and repenting of sin.
Moving to Sydney to study at Moore Theological College (Sydney 1978 -80), I found the reformed conservative evangelical theology’s spin on sin and “the gospel” probably even more personalised.
My subsequent work, however, caused me to start grappling with the structural deprivation and poverty that profoundly affected people’s lives. This developed into a growing tension between my experience and observations of these societal problems and the highly individualised faith that I was trying to practice. Nonetheless, being a good evangelical, when I was invited to participate in Billy Graham’s International Congress for Itinerant Evangelists (in 1986 in Amsterdam), I attended with great enthusiasm.
The major turning point came soon after that when I moved to Northam in the central midlands wheat belt (WA) in 1987. I began working pretty much exclusively with Noongar young people. Then and there I started to understand something of the nature and devastating impact of structural sin.
I was shocked by the multi-level, multi-agency interactions that the State had with Aboriginal young people and their families. It was so different from my own life experience; it was institutionalized and ran through generations in familial experience.
I came to an understanding that; to be born Aboriginal in Australia, is to be born political.
The work in Northam was both informative and life changing. Many memories stand out from the years that I spent there; especially memories the young people I worked with who consistently challenged the dominant paradigm with their lifestyles. I will always remember the feelings of hopelessness and deep spiritual poverty that pervaded the experience.
Nevertheless, I will also never forget the terrible design of social services that made real community virtually impossible and the incompetence and neglect of the ‘powers that be’ to manage things or even communicate effectively with those they were charged to work with. The difference between working for disadvantaged people and living among them never came across more strongly.
It was abundantly clear that there was something profoundly sinful about our society that went far beyond the individual acts of bad behaviour by some. The situation had become entrenched as an result of dispossession and poverty as well as years of ongoing neglect, insecurity, violence and fear which meant that sin was (and remains) well and truly embedded in our history, society and culture.
I understood that some Christians were right: Satan truly did and does have a spiritual stronghold. However this stronghold was deeply social, economic and structural, and, it still is!
Within this environment, I found the individualistic theology that only recognized sin in terms of personal behaviour to be profoundly inadequate and judgmental. Inadequate, in its understanding of the forces at work in the local community and broader society and judgmental of its victims. And, totally inadequate in its ability to respond to them.
While there has been an encouraging increase in social engagement (post Lausanne) over the last 20 years by some evangelicals, there also remains a damaging individualism that refuses to shift within so much evangelical theology and popular faith.
In his study of Old Testament ethics, Christopher Wright has written of the need for a “reorientation in our habitual pattern of ethical thought” because of our tendency to “begin at the personal level and work outwards”. Wright is at pains to stress that the “primary ethical thrust of the Old Testament is necessarily social” and that even the personal ethics within the Bible are “community shaped”.
In short, we read the Bible completely anachronistically when we read it through the individualistic glasses of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Individualism is so strong within our culture that we struggle to even recognize the effect that it has upon our world-view and our faith. This doctrine and theology of individualism that has chosen to focus exclusively on the personal while ignoring the systems and structures that corrupt and oppress could be viewed as a pious heresy.
Individualism is a hermeneutical filter that effectively neutralizes the power of Scripture to speak to our social and economic structures, even though the Bible has so much to say on these matters.
Individualism tears the guts out of the socio-economic challenge of prophets like Amos, Micah and Isaiah, it dilutes Jesus’ critique of his contemporary society and ignores the social justice at the heart of the Kingdom of God. It equally distorts the doctrine of St Paul by separating personal faith from social witness and activism and completely de-politicises the powerful biblical critique of economic oppression.
In short, the heresy of individualism sucks out of the Bible just about everything that it provides for addressing and responding to structural sin. So, it is rather ironic that evangelicals claim to be “people of the Bible” who take sin seriously.
Effective witness against structural sin, however, is simply impossible when Christianity continues to be seen as something that is essentially private and personal. If we can undergo the “reorientation” that Christopher Wright asks for, then evangelicalism can once again become the progressive movement for justice and righteousness that it was in the nineteenth century.
The fact is that there is no such thing as non-political theology. All of our thinking and teaching about the nature of God and his call on our lives has an effect on our neighbours. As Kenneth Leech has written: “All Christians are political, whether they recognise it or not, particularly when they do not recognise it”.
We have seen the worst cases of “the politics of evangelicalism” in its implicit and explicit political support for institutional racism. It was deeply telling when the conservative evangelicals of Sydney did not welcome and host Desmond Tutu due to his “theology”; thus carefully sidestepping the prophetic witness he gave against apartheid and structural sin.
Today we are seeing a highly conservative form of evangelicalism having a powerful influence on the right wing politics in the both the U.S. and Australia. In the Howard years, we witnessed a political shift away from established churches and Christian advocacy groups that critiqued society and social policy to those pitched a more acceptable and personalized message.
But it’s probably more important to look at the large evangelical churches with their strong traditions of “biblical teaching” and see what they have to say about issues of corporate responsibility and social justice.
The conservative theological and political position largely fails to acknowledge structural advantage and corporate greed. It produces a kind of teaching that calls for a response in the hearts of businessmen and women while having hardly anything to say about their decisions in the boardroom, exposing the close alignment between conservative theology and political conservatism.
One of the most telling illustrations of this imbalance is when evangelical churches show the connection between sin and personal gambling, while the sin that is inherent in unjust financial systems goes unchallenged. This tacit approval produces an evangelical mainstream which is fundamentally a religion of the suburbs, a faith that makes sense in comfortable surroundings and which does not threaten the core interests of the powerful economic forces that underpin structural sin and injustice.
In recent decades the traditional relationship between church and community has been profoundly diluted by the tidal wave of social, economic and technological change in Western societies. In this context evangelicals do have a lot to offer this country but we have to decide what influence we want to have. Do we really want a Sunday Times theology focusing on personal morality and recycling fear? Do we want a religion that encourages the Christians of middle Australia to sit comfortably knowing they are “saved” without it making a scrap of difference to the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the jobs they do and the politics they advocate?
When we consider how wealthy and powerful we are as a nation, surely the prophets such as Amos have far more to say to us? As Tom Wright has said “it is not enough to say one’s prayers in private, maintain high personal morality and then go out and rebuild the tower of Babel”.
My social engagement has not led me to become a more “liberal” Christian. I believe in sin, both personal and structural, and my daily experience continues to reinforce that belief. So much of the Christianity of my upbringing was right – we need to be convicted to repent and struggle against the power of sin. But it must be a “holistic” sin that we repent of.
Christian social and political action will be ineffective without a robust doctrine of sin. Metanoia (or ‘repentance’) provides the impetus that we need to change direction and head God’s way; to change the wrong things we have done and the wrong things we have been quiet about. There is a war on loneliness to be fought in Australia. Communities are seeking alternatives to naked, selfish individualism. For too long the churches have largely been on the sidelines, uncertain of their role in a rapidly changing world. A renewed focus on better human relationships would enable a genuine revival in the role of the churches.
This is the struggle and walk of faith that really excites me. The kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated, his life, death and resurrection really does have the power to defeat all the sins of this world. If we truly are “Euangelion people” (Gospel people) then we are called to a radically orthodox Christian faith that takes on “the powers and principalities” and powerfully witnesses to the importance of both personal moral righteousness and social justice.
previously published 30/5/14