Historical social structures

In recent years a new emphasis has been put on sinful social structures, or structural sin. This comes from the recognition that there are evil institutional and cultural patterns of economic and political injustice and oppression, of racism and sexism, which have determinative power, with dehumanizing outcomes for people and communities. They serve the interests of specific groups to the exclusion of the dignity and the fundamental human needs of others.

Perhaps the root sin in this view is injustice, which takes a variety of forms: failure to respect the dignity and full basic humanity of all people regardless of their specific racial, gender or other characteristics; exploitation of others for personal or corporate gains; violation of the rights of others by using subtle as well as overt tactics; victimization which results from this and often is interpreted so that the victims are responsible for their plight; unfair exclusions from access to social and economic power which are the conditions for people and communities to determine their own destinies; wanton destruction of the natural environment for economic gains which has deleterious outcomes not only for the environment but also for the long-term well-being of humans and other life forms.

Theologies of political and economic liberation, feminist theologies, black theologies, dalit theology in India and its counterparts in other parts of Asia and elsewhere all are fuelled by the fundamental perception that concentrations of power, backed by ideologies or cultural custom, demean people who under these conditions are not responsible for their conditions of poverty and discrimination. The tools for the exposure of the structural sins are social, political, economic, and psychological analyses developed from the perspective of their victims. Christian social ethics' first task, in this general perspective, is one of prophetic indictment not only of current realities all over the world but also of those aspects of the Christian tradition which have explicitly or implicitly sanctioned them. For example, natural law ethics has tended to justify existing orders of society as expressions of the natural moral order; harmony between people and parts of the social order has been its tacit norm and conflict has been judged aberrant. Conflict models of society, based upon the striving for forms of justice, is the alternative. Patriarchalism is held up as a heritage of the biblical and Christian traditions which have legitimated male dominance, and still dominate life in churches as well as society in spite of appeals, made by Pope John Paul II and others, for respect for fundamental human dignity.

The practical antidote to sinful structures is radical social reform, and even in some cases violent revolution. The redeeming and salvific purposes of God are not only, or even primarily, directed towards the eternal well-being of individuals, but must penetrate the ways in which economy, politics, and social relations are structured and conducted in present historical circumstances. The kingdom of God is not just a future reality, but must be actualized more and more in history. Its symbol is the basis for radical relativization of all current social arrangements, as in the theology of J├╝rgen Moltmann as well as Roman Catholic and other theologians.

Accountability for sinful social structures is more diffuse than views of sin which are focused on individual people, their acts and the consequences of them. These structures are the effects of many choices and processes over long periods of history, and of institutionalized centres of power within which accountability is also diffuse. Systems, and not just individuals, are at fault. Rarely, if ever, in the traditional ideas of Christian ethics has such analysis appeared. Indeed, this view of sin might well be the major innovation of moral theology in our time.

Some personal acts of traditional sins are conditioned by the powers of domination which are not under the control of individuals. For example, divorce, considered sinful by much of Christian tradition, is set in the context of the repressive effects of certain traditions of marriage and of the wider social factors which make commitments to lifetime marriage more tenuous. Thus divorce does not have the same blameworthiness that was attributed to it historically. The sins and crimes that are committed in conditions of racial segregation and poverty are interpreted in the light of those conditions, and thus a moral indictment of society becomes prominent. Violence, traditionally justified by just war theory in relations between states, can now be justified as a last resort within political communities and societies. Human actions in pursuit of justice, motivated by the sense of injustice, and in Christian contexts seen to be a violation of dignity of the human and the justice of God, are the means of redemption.

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