It is not surprising that a hyper-individualistic culture would reduce sin and salvation to the personal. For many Euro-American Christians, sin is an action, or omission, committed by an individual who now stands guilty before God. This individual action (or lack thereof) creates alienation between the individual and God. Sin becomes universal with sin being defined by those in power.
The sin of those privileged by the prevailing social structures becomes normative for all humans, ignoring that power relationships mean different groups are tempted in different ways. For example, what is considered a sin for a white male with economic class (i.e., pride) may be a needed virtue for a poor black Latina woman.
Salvation is also reduced to an individual act. The act needing remedy is the sin committed by the individual, and the act providing the remedy is Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. It is therefore common to hear sermons and religious admonitions within Euro-American churches that focus on and encourage personal piety.
Yet sin always manifests itself socially, through laws and regulations that permit the few to live in privilege and the many to live in want. Laws, customs, traditions, moral regulations and so-called common sense are constructed by society to normalize and legitimize the prevailing power structures. By making sin a private matter, little is done to challenge or change structural sin. Those benefitting from how society is structured may recognize that sin may have been individually committed, but ignore that because we are communal creatures; it affects other humans.
Individual biases against those of a different gender, economic class or race and ethnicity become the collective biases of the society. These biases are codified, institutionalized and legitimized by the government, marketplace and church. In this way, the social structures are designed to be oppressive toward marginalized communities, which include Latinas and Latinos, so that the dominant culture can exist within its privileged space.
For many within the dominant culture, a failure to recognize their complicity with structural sin exists. Sympathy with the plight of oppressed Hispanics is meaningless if those who society benefits remain ignorant of how structural sin maintains and sustains poverty, violence and oppression within the nation’s barrios. Even if individuals repent their biases, society will continue implementing oppression in their stead. Complicity to structural sins, regardless of the beliefs and practices of the individual, makes everyone a sinner who benefits by how society is structured, for all sins have individual and communal dimensions.
Hispanics’ understanding of sin and salvation is more communal, recognizing that all sins have a social context. While not minimizing the importance of living a moral life as an individual, Latinos and Latinas also recognize that sin is not limited to the personal. Sin also exists within the social structures of society. The consequences of oppression and violence can be caused by the acts of an individual as well as by the normal and legitimate policies, laws and moral regulations of the social order. These structural sins exist in the economic policies, the cultural traditions and the legal codes of the society.
To simply concentrate on personal piety ignores how sin, in the form of social structures, is designed to privilege a minority group at the expense of those disenfranchised by the social order. Hence all sins, as relational, not only create alienation between the individual and God, but also between the individual and his or her neighbor, the individual and her or his community, and the individual and God’s creation. Recognizing the social dimension of sin leads to an understanding of sin not from the perspective of the sinner, but from the perspective of the one sinned against.
Structural sin cannot be redeemed by individual atonement. Atonement ceases to be limited to Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. His life and resurrection are just as salvific. For Christ, salvation from sin is not limited to the individual, but also to the community. Individual repentance of sin may be welcomed, but remains insufficient as long as structural sins remain. Individual repentance is insufficient because it fails to change or challenge the status quo. The society as a whole requires redemption, a moving away from structural sins toward a more just society.
Hispanics are not the only ones negatively affected by structural sins. Those who benefit from the status quo are also negatively impacted, and thus in need of salvation. Members of the dominant culture must live up to a false construction of superiority that justifies why they are privileged by the social structures.
This false construction requires a complicity with structural sins that usually results in a loss of one’s humanity. Not only are those oppressed by structural sin in need of salvation from oppression, those benefiting from structural sins are also in need of salvation – of regaining their humanity. The danger of reducing sin simply to the personal masks the causes and consequences of structural sin and the need of both the privileged and the disenfranchised for salvation.
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice and Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.