In the spring of 2010, I bought a Spanish language theology book, El Principio Misericordia (The Mercy Principle) by Jon Sobrino, at the bookstore of the Universidad de Centroamerica (UCA) in San Salvador. I’ve been reading it off and on for the past three years, and I finally finished it in my most recent trip to the Dominican Republic (my Spanish reading tends to happen when I’m actively thinking in Spanish). So I’ve decided to do a series exploring some of the concepts Sobrino introduces in his book. This first post has to do with his definition of sin.
Sobrino offers the following definition of sin (in my imperfect translation into English):
Sin is “that which causes death.” Sin is what caused the death of the Son of God, and sin is what keeps causing the deaths of the sons and daughters of God. You could believe or not believe in God, but the thing you cannot doubt is that there is sin, because there is death. 17
First of all, even though Sobrino doesn’t proof-text himself the way that some evangelicals are accustomed, he’s basically restating what Paul writes in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin… so death spread to all because all have sinned.”
I’ve had some debate with a reader in the context of my recent sermon on the Garden of Eden regarding the question of whether Paul’s use of thanatos (death) in this context refers to physical mortality in a literal sense or some sort of spiritual “death” or decay. I don’t want to be too quick to say that all the intricacies of biological decay are literally and only the product of sin, because the physical death of plant life that happens in my compost pile every moment is integral to the life that God provides in the new plants that are nourished by this compost. Without sin, would there be no compost? If we imagine a perfect, sinless created order in which there are no natural life cycles, what we’re imagining is a non-physical world in which plants no longer need the nitrogen of other rotting plants to grow. So I’m not sure what to do with that.
In any case, I don’t think Sobrino is trying to say that only actions which directly cause death are sinful. Murder isn’t the only sin. I interpret Sobrino to mean that sin is any action that contributes to a culture of death, even if it is one of a billion indirect contributing factors (e.g. The lust of men addicted to pornography creates a market for sex trafficking which involves physical abuse that has led to death). Most other sins contribute to a culture of death in a less obvious and seemingly miniscule way (e.g. A thousand stressed-out, anxious drivers who are greedy with their time and angry at other drivers for existing create a flow of traffic that is unsafe and results in a fatal accident that isn’t entirely the fault of any of the parties directly involved).
Sobrino’s definition of sin only makes sense if we recognize that none of our actions happen in an individualist vacuum; they are always interconnected with other peoples’ actions. We create synergies and traffic jams and mobs and echo chambers and blogospheres. Avoiding sin is not just a matter of avoiding the “Thou shalt not’s” in the Bible. They are indispensable guides to creating a harmonious social order, but they do not anticipate all the possible ways that we can contribute to a culture of death.
Now the other aspect of this is that under Sobrino’s definition, systems can sin. In our increasingly mechanized world, many of the forces that cause people to starve and lose their homes and die from treatable illnesses are impersonal powers and principalities for which no single person is entirely culpable. Sobrino argues that many of the same impersonal forces that cause death for two thirds of the world are the basis for the privilege and convenience of those of us who are affluent (which includes anyone who has the resources to read this blog post). So when the privileged choose to ignore the fruit of these powers and principalities which is easy for us to do, we are participating in their sin by our inaction even if we aren’t actively violating a “Thou shalt not” from the Bible.
Many privileged Christians get defensive at this point, but the whole point of our justification through Jesus’ cross is to eliminate our defensiveness, so that when we learn about the ways that we are contributing to the suffering of others even without actively willing it, we can change our actions accordingly. Obviously, there are a number of problems in the world that we legitimately can’t do anything about, but Sobrino would challenge us to make the problems that the poor face our problems before we throw up our hands and shrug them off.
So what do you think about this definition of sin? Does it seem valid to you? What alternative would you propose if not?