By David Barr
With football coach Dabo Swinney in the news so much due to Clemson's victory in the national championship game earlier this month, I was reminded of the time he was asked his opinion of football players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racist police violence. As part of his answer, he blamed the problem of police shootings on the moral failures of individual cops. He said, “It’s so easy to say we have a race problem, but we got a sin problem.”
Swinney is not alone in thinking this way. Christians, especially evangelicals, often explain problems like poverty, violence, and prejudice in terms of sin, rather than attributing these specific problems to specific causes that we might address. I regularly hear people say things like, “The problem isn’t X; it’s sin.”
This is a problem. Pointing out our general condition of sin often does very little to illuminate the roots and remedies of particular problems. If we ask a plumber why a faucet is leaking, the answer “we live in world of corruption and decay” is a true statement of fact, but completely unhelpful. If we ask a child why a vase is in pieces on the floor, the answer “the universe tends relentlessly toward entropy” is just as true and just as unhelpful. In the same way, if we ask why unarmed black men and boys in America are too often victims of police violence, the response “we live in a world of sin” is true, but it doesn’t really answer the question. Knowing that we live in a world in which objects corrode, systems tend toward chaos, and humans tend toward sin helps explain the general existence of leaky faucets, broken vases, and racism, but it does not explain or excuse the fact that this faucet is leaking, this vase is broken, or this law enforcement system is killing unarmed black men. It certainly doesn’t tell us what to do about it. Often, answering a question too profoundly is just a way of not answering the question.
I’m not saying it is always unhelpful to talk about sin. While it is the case that a general truth cannot substitute for a specific explanation, we still need general truths. We go wrong when we ignore or misunderstand the general context of particular problems. In doing so, we can pursue aims that are unrealistic, even counterproductive. It will lead to serious problems if we don’t anticipate that our homes will need repair, that playing children will produce disorder, or that sinful human nature tends toward prejudice. Swinney is, of course, right that we have a “sin problem,” and we do well to remind ourselves of this. It is important that we keep in mind those factors that resist our best efforts, lest we fall into utopian optimism and the disaster or despair which often follows it. We have to remember that our lives together are secured against forces hostile to our aims. We live by keeping temporarily at bay inexorable tendencies toward disintegration and decay in the physical world and injustice and violence in the social order. To forget the hostile context of collective human life on earth is to take for granted the vast systems and enormous effort that make possible the lives we live.
Because of this last point (the need to keep in mind those factors which resist our efforts), Christianity has a real contribution to make to thinking about society and politics. We humans are weak and sinful, prone to self-interest and self-deception: this is an important reminder for anyone trying to make a difference in the world. It helps us to focus on what will work and what we can do better, not just what would be perfect. It cautions us that we should not expect people with power and privilege to relinquish them. It can help us be realistic and prudent.
That said, recognizing sin as the context of our problems does not mean we can deal with them by just going after sin, instead of its particular manifestations. We shouldn’t think we can make people less sinful as a pragmatic strategy to make complex social problems go away. Christianity doesn’t allow us to leap over political solutions and attack the problem at the root, like the weed killers in the commercials. Jesus tasked us with a mission of evangelism, telling us to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, and he told us to confront challenges like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Nowhere does he promise us that success in the first mission will remove the challenge of the second. We can preach a gospel of repentance successfully, but there will still be hunger and poverty to confront. It’s not the case that Christians’ faucets don’t leak, that Christian kids don’t break vases, or that majority-Christian societies are never plagued by systemic racism. The Christian doctrine of sin provides insight into the perennial challenges of life on earth; it does not remove them.
If we shrug our shoulders at profound systemic injustice and just say, “we got a sin problem,” we haven’t named the cause, we’ve given an excuse. Sin is not a reason to avoid confronting a problem; it is why we have problems to confront. Sin means we should expect injustice, but it does not mean we simply accept it for ourselves and those we love. What would it say about us if we were to explain injustice borne by others on the grounds that it occurs in a world of sin, when we expect and demand justice for ourselves in that same world?
Dabo is right: we got a sin problem. It is precisely for that reason that we must do the hard work necessary to fix leaky faucets, to teach our children to be careful, and to confront prejudice, violence, and injustice wherever we find them.