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Benefiting from sin

1.3. 2018 Posted By: The Mennonite 1,036 read

I benefit from sin every day.

Sin, as I have always understood it, is any action or inaction that breaks a relationship with God, others, self, or all of creation. When I first began to grasp the concept of sin beyond just disobeying my parents, I understood that sin was a word synonymous with harm. When I commit harm or don’t stop harm, whether it was polluting the earth from driving my car or not telling the truth, I am not living into the glory God has envisioned for all of creation.

As things typically do with age, my view of sin has become much larger. I benefit from sin everyday as a White, middle-class citizen of the United States. The genesis of America began with the violent genocide of first-nations people, which was then quickly followed by the exploitation of people of color to take care of fields, build railroads, and construct municipalities. Though slavery and segregation formally ended years ago, the effects are still felt to this day due to policies that discriminate against people of color such as redlining, mandatory minimums, and extreme vetting of immigrants. These realities, too, are exacerbated by the compounding of wealth over time, meaning that individuals (white individuals) who started with more wealth or capital become wealthier as their resources grow exponentially.

Internationally, America has been able to prosper from military coups, the harvesting of natural resources at the expense of native peoples, and inciting conflict in tumultuous regions. In other words, the American dollar is worth more because government action has kept developing countries from becoming economically stable. The American demand for cheap products has also led to the outsourcing of slavery to other countries where foreign workers make their living on pennies from the factory at the cost of their own health and the pollution of their land.

There are a lot of fancy names for all these things: the military industrial complex, climate change, white privilege, but they are all one and the same: sin.

I did not personally enslave people nor sign the bill that gave white families the opportunity for better home loans, but I am where I am today because of those sins, and I have to own up to that. I’m benefiting from sin, which is why especially for people like me-white Americans-Christianity has to be about social justice.

Social justice-the pursit of equity of wealth, resources and opportunities among people (one definition via Wikipedia)-has been criticized by some Christians as a liberal agenda that ascribes to the theology that salvation can only be obtained through works. Given the magnitude of sin that many of us engage in over many years, salvation surely can’t be achieved without the grace of God, but grace alone cannot atone for everything. Like in Exodus 20: 1-17, grace is given first, but law must follow.

I recognize, too, that there are a lot of people who may not feel like they have not been given a fair hand in life. For many of my fellow Anabaptists, our history is one of persecution and suffering. Our suffering, however, does not negate the suffering of others nor liberate us from our sins.

The work we must do for social justice, work to right sins, heal harms, and restore relationships, is as much an internal process as it is an external process. Faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26), but we cannot do goods deeds without also laying down our pride and being honest about our downfalls and shortcomings.

So what does faith in action look like to end years of harm? Here are some ideas.
  1. Giving money to organizations that are led by and support people of color and indigenous groups and that protect the environment: Money is power, so be intentional about how you give. Wealth tends to circulate within homogeneous social groups (people give money to people of similar background/income level) and can often go to organizations that are not good stewards of their funds, making it imperative to do good research on organizations before we give.
  2. Getting involved in current events: The bystander effect occurs when people do nothing because they believe someone else will do it. Avoid being a bystander to sin and get involved with your local, state and national government to advocate for policies that ensure the most vulnerable are protected.
  3. Reflecting on responsibilities: To whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48). Perhaps it is an extra coat or food. Many of us have more than enough to meet our needs and would do well to share it with others.
  4. Learning and unlearning cultural biases and untruths: We are creatures of our environments and as such, we have learned to believe many toxic things about our brothers and sisters. Take time to learn about how your views and habits affect other people.
  5. Listening to and following the lead of women of color: Time and time again, women of color are the ones who suffer the most from unjust policies (there are too many articles to add just one hyperlink here), often making them the first to advocate and speak out for change, as well. Follow where women of color are going and leading.

Just as a I benefit from sin, I also suffer from sin. Without justice for all, violence will continue to permeate our world and our daily lives. Our world is a web of connections of people and my negligence to own those sins will not save me. If sin is harm, justice has to look like healing.

Elisabeth Wilder is a recent graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. 

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