On Corporate and National Sin

For not forever will the poor man before forgotten,

the hope of the lowly not lost forever.

Arise, O LORD, let not man flaunt his strength,

let nations be judged in Your presence.

O LORD, put fear upon them,

let the nations know they are mortal.

Psalm 9:19-21 (Robert Alter translation)

Back when I attended Quaker Meeting, I frequently worshipped with a professor of social work. He was a former Mennonite with a strong background in consensus work. One day, when discussing with him the then newly circulating term “white privilege,” he commented on a concept that was largely unfamiliar to me: corporate sin. “I think corporate sin is harder to cleanse than individual sin,” he said. “We’re less willing to take responsibility and repent for sins we don’t feel we’ve individually committed. But when we are held to account for our actions in life, we’ll have to grapple with societal sins in which we’re implicated, and that’s difficult for most people to accept. Those will be the last chains that fall.” Part of me was aghast—I am, after all, an American with a Protestant background, so I prize the concept of individual responsibility—and part of me was fascinated.

The Calvinist theologian Millard Erickson described a kind of sin that “is prevalent in our society and exists alongside individual sin. Persons who oppose sin on a personal level may be drawn into the corporate nature of sin through the evil acts of government, economic structures, and other forms of group identification” (Christian Theology 584). Even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible reveals that God frequently, in fact predominantly, deals with sin on a national level. Throughout the New Testament, sin is associated with nations, cities, churches, and groups. Individual members of these categories may be exempt due to their personal righteousness (Noah, for instance, or Lot), but such cases are rare. Most of us are deeply ensnared in corporate sin.

Today, the adjectives systemic and institutional, usually adjoined to the noun racism, are highly politicized. Many on the Left view these terms as usefully descriptive of processes and injustices that cannot be reduced to the racism of one or a few individuals. Many on the Right view these terms as nonsense, an effort to evade individual responsibility and condemn whole groups of people in one sweeping gesture. My personal view is that, while individual responsibility, personal culpability, and free will are verdant and salient concepts, much of the good and evil that occurs in our lives is dependent on broad, social forces over which we have little control. I believe this is just a fact of being human and not something we should deny or feel threatened by. Much of my success and good fortune is bound up with the fact that I was born into an upwardly mobile family in the United States. I was lucky in my birth, gender, race, et al. It stands to reason that my sinful nature will be bound up in that particular geo-social situation, too. I am not merely who I am, I am also where and when I am. God created me in a particular time and place, and He approaches me on those terms. This is not cheap cultural relativism, it is merely an acknowledgment of the social sphere as something real, tangible, and consequential.

Conservatives frequently admit the existence of something like corporate or national sins. Take Billy Graham’s startling condemnation of the United States, published in a letter on his website:

Some years ago, my wife, Ruth, was reading the draft of a book I was writing. When she finished a section describing the terrible downward spiral of our nation’s moral standards and the idolatry of worshiping false gods such as technology and sex, she startled me by exclaiming, “If God doesn’t punish America, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”

She was probably thinking of a passage in Ezekiel where God tells why He brought those cities to ruin. “Now this was the sin of … Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (Ezekiel 16:49–50, NIV).

I wonder what Ruth would think of America if she were alive today. In the years since she made that remark, millions of babies have been aborted and our nation seems largely unconcerned. Self-centered indulgence, pride, and a lack of shame over sin are now emblems of the American lifestyle.

Graham condemns not merely individual Americans and their actions but “the American lifestyle,” a corporate or national entity. The defensive question that arises in many Evangelical minds—”Does this mean that all Americans are going to Hell?”—is less interesting to me than the more serious question: is corporate sin really sin? Again, a perusal of the Scriptures seems to reveal that not only is corporate sin real, but it is the standard of sinfulness itself. God condemns and forgives whole nations in broad gestures. He addresses Nineveh with the voice of one prophet. Anyone who is comfortable with the Western doctrine of original sin is, after all, comfortable with a version of corporate sin, one that extends much further across time and covers humankind more widely than does systemic racism.

One needn’t look far to find tirades against abortion that verge on the concept of national sin. One needn’t search far to find the implication that, in a democracy, a person is responsible for the moral, if sometimes unintended, consequences of his or her vote. Can we then do away with this idea that national sin is somehow an affront to our foundational ideals, that belief in individual freedom is somehow incompatible with the existence of large societal structures?

The arguments against abortion are by now well-known to all. Less well-developed is the argument for the dignity of the lives of the elderly, so much so that one almost exclusively hears the term “dignity” applied to the lives of the elderly when the topic is physician-assisted suicide. Today, as I write these words, our culture of death reveals itself in the discourse surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Political leaders and commentators argue that the lives of a few (hundred? thousand? more?) elders and people with compromised immune systems may be a worthy sacrifice to maintain ridiculous 2019 levels of production and consumption. I believe the pressure to choose between these lives and a thriving economy is artificially constructed, and both Right and Left are implicit in that construction, but that’s another topic altogether. My concern here is what our discourse reveals about our national soul.

Right now, men have armed themselves with rifles and stormed a state capitol; cities have rescinded orders that masks me worn in public because enraged customers threatened helpless service workers; millions console themselves with the thought, frequently expressed, that this plague only takes from us the old and the impaired; a protester in Nashville held a sign emblazoned with the slogan “Sacrifice the weak—reopen Tennessee” and barely stood out from the crowd (a photo of another protestor with a sign reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” can scarcely be believed); would-be militants are amassing in ever-growing Facebook groups that call for “the Boogaloo,” their term for a second American civil war; prominent Republican politicians have signaled their willingness to die for the economy, with the suggestion that others should do the same; and the prominent conservative Christian journal First Things argues that the preservation of “life” has become a Satanic preoccupation—human life is sacred even as a zygote or in a vegetative state but not, it seems, when the economy is endangered.

My suggestion is not that most Republicans suffer from rank hypocrisy or that the Democrats are any better when the dignity of life is concerned. I suspect that the Republicans I described above are following a logic that they have faithfully maintained all along, a logic that Democrats, who do not currently enjoy the luxury of executive power, simply haven’t had the opportunity to exercise: that the dignity of human life is inviolable except at the expense of our wealth. Everyone is pro-life when their bank accounts are full.

There is a reason it is far worse to be poor or sick in the United States than in any other Western-style democracy. We repeatedly sacrifice the welfare of the widow and the orphan in order to maintain ever lower marginal tax rates. Greed, sloth, gluttony, indolence: these are our national sins. Ease, comfort, autonomy, individual license, libertinism: these are our national idols. We cannot tolerate a year without continued and unprecedented economic growth for the same reason we cannot tolerate another nation (Russia, China, Japan, Iran) exerting even the most meager displays of power within its own sphere of influence, not because (or not merely because) we have deeply held core values such as universal human liberty and economic liberalism, but because such events disrupt the global hegemony, the financial dominance, and the influx of cheap consumer goods on which our easy way of life depends. We cannot tolerate returning (as we have) to 2012 levels of production, about which very few people complained in 2012. Something must be done! Punish China! Sacrifice the elderly! Do whatever it takes—this cannot go on!

We are what historian Stephen Kotkin calls a “providential nation,” which is just another way of saying we are a nation that suffers from the delusion of its own chosen-ness, its own special status before Almighty God (Russia is another such nation). But we are not chosen. We are not special. We are a people sick with sin. Perhaps God will send us a new Jonah or Malachi to provoke our repentance. In the meantime, however, we are making a spectacle of ourselves in the streets and our virtual communities, waving guns and obscenities, still consuming as much as we can, living on our reserves of fat, and complaining that we cannot indulge our every whim.

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