Corporate Sin

“The world is ending… Honestly … So, uh, you better get right with God!”

As an Atheist/Agnostic, I don’t believe in God or an afterlife or any of that, but I do think there are better and worse interpretations of original Christianity. I am of the interpretive school of liberal Christianity, rather than conservative Christianity. For example, the latter has a baffling understanding of sin as primarily individualistic, which seems to be the exact opposite of the original Christian message. Here is a quote that was being discussed on the blogosphere a few years ago:

  • Samantha Field says:

Framing racism or other systemic social problems as a “heart issue” accomplishes a few things. First, it centers Christianity in the conversation. If racism is a “heart issue,” then the solution is conversion or repentance– all the individually racist person needs to do is repent and allow Jesus to change their heart. If a racist person accepts Jesus into their heart and once they’ve done so, follows the Spirit’s guidance away from prejudice and towards acceptance– then racism is solved with the Christian religion. Saying racism is a “heart issue” means that we don’t need affirmative action, we need Evangelical Jesus.

Second, it allows people and their communities to escape any feeling of responsibility or guilt. If racism is truly a single person’s heart issue, and the resolution is for that person to repent, then there’s nothing that Bob or Susie is responsible for when Jim is a racist turd. If Jim is a Christian, then Jesus and the Holy Spirit will handle it. If he’s not, then there’s nothing more for Bob or Susie to do– they just have to continue being Jim’s friend so they can be a “good witness” for Christ in his life. What good would it do to tell Jim that he’s being racist, if it’s a heart issue? No, we just need to “love on him” more and “be the only Bible he’ll ever see.”

Lastly, if racism is an individual’s “heart issue,” then it’s not systemic. An indiviudal’s heart issue does not require a church, as an institution, to change. Heart issues do not ask the Church to examine itself or shift course; in fact, if racism is a heart issue than most Christian churches are doing the exactly right thing by harping on a “personal relationship with Christ” and telling its members to repent of private, individual sin.

If we were to communally acknowledge that racism or sexism or ableism is systemic, then we’d have to commit to a massive undertaking. We’d have to take a hard look at how our seminaries and ordinations and denominations and alliances and conventions operate and be honest with ourselves for the first time in history. We’d have to overhaul power structures, ordination tracks, and hiring processes– and everyone who currently enjoys all the cultural power, who wield all the political influence, would lose their access and prestige. The leadership would have to admit that it’s not God who brought them to the position they hold, not their commitment to the faith, not their hard work, but systemic, structural practices that marginalize anyone who isn’t a cis, white, heterosexual man.

It’s not coincidence that the people who stand to lose the most power, influence, and money are the ones claiming that sins like racism are an individual problem and the solution is to maintain the status quo.

The problem of sin for the conservative Christian is birthed out of the conservative Original Sin interpretation of Paul and Adam, and, comically, the imminent apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus’s message. Let’s consider why:

Clearly, the cross of Christ was about uncovering and disrupting societal sin. With Plato’s interpretation of the noble Socrates wrongly being put to death for being a Gadfly/nuisance, society has a mirror held up to itself and there is an opportunity for society to grow – which it did, and we now see the charges against Socrates as silly. The same is true of the wrongful death of Jesus, which I have outlined in essays and posts shared on this blog.

So how did the sin problem get framed on a wholly individualistic way by conservative Christians? The issue seems to be in confusing the message of Jesus with the message of Jesus’s mentor John the Baptist.

Separating the 2, Crossan says:

That Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is as certain as anything historians know about Jesus. It is somewhat clouded, however, in our present texts by the fact that later followers of Jesus thought it was not appropriate that the Messiah should be baptized, and apparently inferior, therefore, to John the Baptist. Jesus was baptized by John, and therefore he had to accept John’s message, at least when he was being baptized, whether he changes is another question, later. But, he accepts it when he was being baptized, and John’s message is, “God, very soon, imminently, any moment, is going to descend to eradicate the evil of this world in a sort of an apocalyptic consummation….”

One of the earliest statements we have… is a statement by Jesus that John is the greatest person ever born on earth, but the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John. Now, it’s a marvelously ambiguous statement. The first half lauds John to the heavens, the second puts the least person in the Kingdom…. [ahead of him] But that means exactly what I would expect. It means Jesus is changing his vision of God and the Kingdom of God from what he has taken from John. He’s not really denigrating John, but he is saying the Kingdom of God is not exactly what John was teaching.

The difference I see between John the Baptist and Jesus is, to use some fancy academic language that, John is an apocalyptic eschatologist. An eschatologist is somebody who sees that the problem of the world is so radical that it’s going to take some kind of divine radical solution to solve it. One type, for example, is John. God is going to descend in some sort of a catastrophic event to solve the world. There is another type of eschatology. And that’s what I think Jesus is talking [about]. I’m going to call it ethical eschatology. That is the demand that God is making on us, not us on God so much as God on us, to do something about the evil in the world. In an apocalypse, as it were, we are waiting for God. And in ethical eschatology, God is waiting for us. That’s, I think, what Jesus is talking about in the Kingdom of God. It’s demand for us to do something in conjunction with God. It is the Kingdom of God. But it’s the Kingdom on earth of God.

As I read it just a tad different from Crossan, there seems to be 2 levels this is operating on. Mark 4:11 specifically says the message to the masses is different from what is being told to the inner circle. It seems that while a scary apocalyptic message was being preached to quickly turn and win converts, the real message was one of personal and societal transformation on a systemic level.

Crossan says further:

Eschatology is not about the destruction of the earth but about its transfiguration, not about the end of the world but about the end of evil, injustice, violence—and imperialism. I think of the eschaton as the Great Divine Clean-Up of the World. It is clear, I hope, that the kingdom is 100 percent political and 100 percent religious altogether and inextricably intertwined at the same time. It is ultimately about who runs this world and how, therefore, it should be run. (Crossan, 2009, p. 109)

It has long perplexed interpreters, clearly, if Jesus believed the end was imminent, there would be no reason for the heavy emphasis Jesus puts on love and ethics because the only thing that would be needed is personal repentance in preparation for imminent judgment, which is exactly what many conservative Christians think is the cornerstone of their faith: saying the sinner’s prayer and believing it. On the other hand, scaring people with a message of the imminent end would plant people in a fertile soil to begin transforming their lives and society. In a time for the Jewish people where God was obviously not in control and they were successively under the thumb of conquering nations (Babylonia, Greece, Rome) …

I have to posit this twofold noble lie message of Jesus because while Crossan is clearly right about the ethical/political transformation message, there are too many imminent end time messages in the texts to ignore (“firstfruits” in Paul; “some of you will not pass away;” etc)

For more on the Noble Lie theory of Christian Origins, see my essay here: