Social sin is collective, an aspect of our society which does not resemble the Kingdom of God. It is easy to see why mainstream Christianity focuses on individual rather than social sin. The latter is more difficult to understand. It is obvious that I am harming my neighbor rather than loving him when I punch him in the nose. But I do not directly, immediately and exclusively cause poverty when I buy a $4 latte. Moreover, social sin often results from selfish blunders rather than selfish acts. But our contribution to social sin is no less sinful than our individual misdeeds. Indeed, social sin, as the sum of countless selfish actions and omissions, is actually more destructive and damaging than individual sin. It may be helpful to “translate” social sin into the language of individual sin to make my point. Consider the following hypothetical question. You are about to enter a coffee shop to buy a $4 cup of coffee. You notice someone lying weakly outside the shop, begging for food. By the looks of her, you can somehow tell that if you do not give your $4, she will starve. Would you blow it off and buy the coffee anyway?
Most people would give an emphatic “no way.” What is hard to get people to realize, though, is that we make the decision to blow it off and buy the cup of coffee every day. Although there is not someone physically sitting outside the coffee shop, there is always someone, somewhere in life-or-death need that could be saved with a small act of charity. The ease with which money can be donated to good causes, via the internet, telephone, mail, etc., means that our ability to help and refusal to do so is almost as direct and immediate as a refusal to someone at the coffee shop door.
Although the conversion of the small indulgence in coffee into a direct choice between life and death is artificial, our contribution to poverty by making repeated similar decisions is very real. Poverty is very prevalent throughout our society. More and more, people are finding themselves dropping down the social ladder into this growing marginalized community of people. It is here, amongst other places, that the church could have a profound impact upon how society views these people. What often seems to be the case is that churches along with communities do not wish to associate themselves with these marginalized communities simply because it goes against their own social identities. Sure, we can send them some money and perhaps volunteer at a soup kitchen, take on a shift at the homeless shelter for a night, maybe even invite someone to stay in our house. But this is the extent of our hospitality; too often we feed our own selfish desires… it makes us feel “good” to help someone. But more often than not these glimpses of hospitality are used as a “fix”. Something holds us back from fully investing in these people, these humans like us. I would argue that we too often hold a subconscious thought in the back of our minds: these people are below us, there is a reason they are poor, they are lazy. We think them in sin simply because society views them as below us.
We must first marginalize ourselves by admitting we are no different than anybody else. There is no community, no matter what its particular social or economic status, that is safe from the danger of reflecting on sin in a way that profoundly marginalizes others. We’re all in this together people.