July 7, 2008

Social Sin

What can one family do to help end poverty and hunger in Africa? They can do a lot if they sell their house and give away half the money. That is exactly what Hannah’s family eventually did through their project, Hannah’s Lunchbox. In a video about the project Hannah explains what got things started: “There are always homeless men sitting at [that stoplight] holding up signs and begging for food. And right in front of us there was a Mercedes. And I looked at the guy in the Mercedes and I said, “You know, if that guy didn’t have such a nice car, the man over here could have a meal.””
Hannah's words reminded me of the quote I came across in college that challenged me immensely: “Live simply that others may simply live.” This quote makes a claim that individual life choices affect the livelihood of other people. For me it also makes a value judgment that says, there is something not right about living beyond the necessities of life while others lack the necessities to live. This realization dawned on me in my experiences with the poor in Peru. Hannah realized it through serving the poor at a food bank in Atlanta and because of the disparity she saw between a man begging for food and a man driving a Mercedes.

To understand that we play a role in affecting disparities is to recognize how our individual decisions directly and indirectly impact other people. From there we can accept responsibility for the welfare of others. My faith tradition teaches me that all persons are my neighbor and my brother or sister. When our actions, even inadvertently, cause harm to our friends, the beggar downtown, or the struggling widow around the world, I believe we sin. That does not necessarily mean we are bad people, but it recognizes that because of our interconnectedness--what we do matters.

This is also true because we are apart of and participate in a variety of systems and institutions. In 18th century England one of those systems was slavery. In the 1791 pamphlet, An Address to the People of Great Britain, the author argues that if persons “purchase the commodity” of sugar they “participate in the crime." The same logic applies our financial support of governments, churches, and corporations. If governments, churches, or corporations we support engage in practices that oppress, exploit, and/or harm others, (which they often do) we too bear part of the responsibility, and thus part of the guilt. If we are silent or complicit in the harm that the institutions cause we all even more to confess to God and to our community.

I am define sin as that which distances us from God and/or our neighbor. The “that” which I refer to can be either an act or a condition, both of which feed off of the other. Social sin occurs when we fail to love our neighbor as a community or fail to love our neighbor through our participation in institutions that cause harm. Often this takes places because of naivet’e or apathy. These sins of omission are also apart of social sin. On a practical level I think the fact that Hannah saw a homeless man is an indictment of the man with the Mercedes and the community.
I do not know whether Hannah or her family were ever thinking about sin. However they decided to live differently and to give up their former ways. Their personal decision to reside in a significantly smaller house will have a direct impact on the lives of hundreds of African people. Their willingness to sacrifice for something greater than themselves inspires me to do even more to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

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