Structural Sin and Moral Complexity

An interesting post at the Quixote Center takes a look at a recent falsifications of mortgage documents by banks in the context of structural sin:

When I am faced with dishonesty and fraud on a systemic scale, I ask questions of God. But as I trace the origins of injustice, I am directed back towards humanity.

Do click through and read the whole thing – it’s not long, and there’s a lot to like about it: the analysis of structural and institutional injustice, the exhortation for Christians to live out our gospel values even in the face of powerful institutional pressures to do otherwise, to have the courage to do so even when it will cost us, because that’s what it takes to change those systems. I especially liked Kierkegaard’s vilification of officialdom:

“Nothing, nothing, no error, no crime is so absolutely repugnant to God as everything which is official; and why? Because the official is impersonal and therefore the deepest insult which can be offered to a personality.”

But there is something missing in this analysis, and that is the acknowledgment of the complexity of these situations of moral decision-making. It’s true that when a person is faced with an unjust or immoral request by her employer, she has a moral responsibility to refuse the request. But she may also have other moral responsibilities: what if she refuses the request, loses her job, and can no longer feed her children? It sounds very heroic for an individual to take a stand for justice, even at significant cost. But is it just for her to force the people who depend on her to pay that significant cost, too?

I don’t mean to suggest that such a compelling competing interest absolves the individual of culpability for participation in a system of injustice. But it’s a hard problem, and it will always be a hard problem. This is where all the action is in moral theology, and this is where we all, every one of us who tries to live a good and moral life, are inevitably functioning as moral theologians.

Cherrypicking this or that specific issue, and negotiating with the state for legal exemptions to specific laws, is a short-sighted approach that attempts to short-circuit this difficult general problem that will always be with us. I don’t advocate a withdrawal of the church from the world, far from it: but there are some problems that need to be addressed from within the church. Christians need to be equipped to make those hard moral choices in ways that acknowledge the reality of, and grapple with the complexities of, legitimate competing moral claims.

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2 Responses to Structural Sin and Moral Complexity

  1. Jeremy John says:

    Thanks for the repost! You make a very good point. We do live in a matrix of competing moral complexities and one must take care of one’s family.

    But the real question is, when is the line drawn? In all situations of oppression, when your work at your job is part of a system of robbery, fraud, or exploitation, where is the Christian moral conscience?

    Family is always used as a lever to coerce participation in regimes, from El Salvador to Germany. The question is when must a Christian make a stand?

    In fact, I’ve heard drug dealers make this same argument, “I’ll tell you one thing, I spent more time bandaging up skinned knees and quality family time when I was selling drugs than when I had to work 50 hours a week for $5.75 an hour (conversation with a man in prison).”

    I believe Jesus speaks directly to the temptation of taking care of families through exploitation in Luke 14:25-27, “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

    Hard words, especially when they meet the popular faith of our day which believes that you can live a Christian faith and hold any licit job in our economy.

    • Hi Jeremy – thanks for stopping by! I don’t actually mean to single out family for special consideration, and certainly not as a “get out of culpability free” card — it’s just the easy, common go-to example of legitimate competing moral claims.

      I agree with your very well phrased comment (that I’ve already quoted once in conversation today) challenging the belief “that you can live a Christian faith and hold any licit job in our economy.” That is very well put.

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