Recent discussions regarding racism have prompted an important question: What is the primary source of human sin? Is it individual human beings or is it human institutions, organized collectives of human beings? Or perhaps this is a false dichotomy. Might sin somehow reside neither in individuals nor in institutions in any “ultimate” sense but rather arise simultaneously in both individuals and the collectives we make up? This is essentially the old debate over the relationship between individual and social sin, which might be seen as a variation of the question regarding the chicken and the egg.
In the Christian theological tradition there has been a tendency to see the individual human heart as the primary locus of sin, while also recognizing that individual sins have social ramifications which, in turn, exacerbate and compound individual sins. It is a vicious cycle. As Gregory Baum puts it, “Personal sins . . . generate social sin. Conversely, social sin multiplies personal sins. Marginalization creates conditions that foster resentment and despair in the victims and thus easily provoke irrational responses. More than that, since institutionalized injustice affects all members of society, it creates conditions that facilitate personal sin on all levels.” Baum goes on to note that “because unjust structures are created by sinful humans, it is possible to speak of “sinful structures” and “social sin” in a derived and secondary sense.”
I believe Baum is correct in noting that individual sin is primary, while social or institutional sins are derivative and secondary in nature. This is not to diminish the significance or essential evilness of institutional sins but simply to identify the locus of the root of human evil. But what good reasons can be given in defense of this view? Here are four, mostly theological, arguments for this view.
First, Adam and Eve were both “fallen” individuals before any institutions existed. As individuals, they each succumbed to the temptation to eat the fruit of the tree, as described in Genesis 3. This was prior to any formal human institution. Now one might claim that the institution of the family existed at that point, though only consisting of these first two humans. But even so, Adam and Eve committed their sins as individuals. Their sins were not institutional or systemic in nature. So the Fall itself was not institutional in nature but a matter of individual choices.
Second, we may appeal to the biblical doctrine of original sin, according to which human beings are innately sinful, born into this world with a natural propensity to sin which precedes their entry into institutions. The Psalmist declares, “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). So not only did the human sin problem begin with the wrongful choice of an individual person, but this basic moral corruption is perpetuated by each of us as individuals at our very conception.
Thirdly, institutions are themselves collections of individuals. The parts precede the wholes. You can’t construct a building without first having the components from which to construct it. And so it goes for human systems and institutions. You can’t create a legal system, an educational institution, or a civil society without first having individual humans. And whenever any people enter into such institutions, they are already sinful. Of course, any such institutions may be poorly or unjustly constructed, but this only compounds the sin problem already infecting those social structures that is a consequence of the fallenness of the individuals involved.
Lastly, Jesus tells us that human defilement originates from within a person, not outside of them:
“Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:15-23).
Jesus illustrates this teaching in terms of food, but his broader point is unmistakable. Evil arises out of the human heart. We are not originally corrupted or defiled by things outside of us, and this includes the systems or institutions of which we are a part. Our sinfulness is surely manifested within institutional contexts, and these contexts often occasion more temptations and forms of sin. But the source of that evil is ultimately each individual fallen human heart.
Again, none of this diminishes the significance of unjust institutions or systemic evils. It simply demonstrates that the origins of all such evils ultimately lie in our moral corruption as individuals. Moreover, this implies that any corrections or improvements we make to our social institutions will never achieve perfection. There are significant limits to what we can achieve in our efforts to make our various institutions more just. Even a perfectly designed human institution—if such were possible—would still be flawed, so long as it is composed of fallen human beings.