Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Social Dimension of Sin

ALL over the front pages are two rather related stories: the possible filing of charges against the so-called ‘Moscow generals’ for the allegedly illegal possession of millions of taxpayers’ money as well as against Mr. ‘Jocjoc’ Bolante and his co-conspirators for the alleged misuse of public money meant for farmers’ fertilizers. “What a team effort by these people,” I said to myself. Then I remembered. I was showing a group of high school students some areas of the seminary where I was assigned as a new priest. At one point one of them, a female sophomore, saw the television room and the refectory of the Fathers. She exclaimed, “Wow, sosyal!”

It was the first time I heard that word which even then I understood to be a part of teen lingo. I knew, by reading her approving look, that ‘sosyal’ meant something people (“Don’t they constitute society?” I could only imagine her saying) like or find appealing, a bit like “cool”, such as a ‘sosyal’ television room or a ‘sosyal’ dining room. ‘Sosyal’ reminds us of how important it can be for us Pinoys (or for human beings anywhere for that matter) to have the approval or support of others on anything we do or say, have or are. The downside is that it does not by itself guarantee God’s approval, which is all that matters for a Christian.

Still, the social dimension of sin does not merely mean a team of co-conspirators applauding a person’s every wrongdoing or egging him on (could you imagine the beneficiaries of an act of malversation saying to Mr. B, ‘Wow, what a ‘sosyal’ act you did!”) Nor does it just mean that the wrong that I do affects others in the society or Church community where I live. This one is the most obvious sense. People know, for example, that if, as a priest, I get drunk and challenge anyone to a fistfight, that certainly would scandalize the community and, hence, illustrate the social dimension of my unethical behavior.

But the social dimension of sin is not exhausted in that sense. It also means that a whole body or group of people can, by their attitudes and concrete acts, offend God and alienate themselves from him and from other members of the community or society at large. One example from Genesis 11:1-9 is in point. The whole body of human beings during scripturally ancient times is sent by God to spread themselves across the earth. Instead, they choose to settle in a city and build a tower, later known to be the Tower of Babel. Their sin lies not in deciding to settle in a city (that would make living in Metro Manila a sin, which is unthinkable) or even in deciding to build a tower. It lies in their disobedience and the pride that push them to seek glory for themselves apart from God. They refuse to accept and take their rightful place as creatures under God. Here we see sin in its roots: selfishness that leads to disobedience; pride that leads to self-glorification.

On the other hand, Jesus in the gospel of Matthew 12:38-42 presupposes the social dimension of sin. It is not an individual he denounces but “a generation” who, as in the Tower of Babel, refuses to listen to him who is greater than either Jonah or Solomon to whom their own “generations” listened. The point is that when we, as a community or even as a whole society, alienate ourselves from the Word of God by refusing to listen and by choosing to be led by selfishness and pride, we end up with negative attitudes and destructive courses of action.
The Catechism for Filipino Catholics speaks of “negative moral attitudes and acts or failure to act that are common to a community or particular society”, resulting in “unjust structures”, such as “racial or sexist prejudicial structures, unjust economic taxation systems, established military and political customs and unfair immigration legalities” (CFC 1804). The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines speaks further of “structures of sin” or “social sins” which “consist of situations, collective behavior or structures that cause or perpetuate social injustices. Such structures are created by the accumulation of many sinful attitudes, ‘two of which are very typical: on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit, and on the other, the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one’s will upon others’” (PCP II 270).

Think of groups of people in public or private capacities conspiring to put or perpetuate someone in power by all means, including illegal and immoral acts. The same thing with groups and corporations doing everything to sell a low-quality or contaminated product or denying the truth collectively in public. Or consider whole offices, entire companies or associations of wealthy and powerful people buying favors from public authorities through bribery or worse to avoid fulfilling legal requirements. Or how about the most typical election scenario—a whole community of voters selling their votes. Think further of cabals of politicians buying them to get to power and, in consequence, shortchange voters and understandably so (“Haven’t we already bought them?” their body language so speaks) by irresponsible legislation (such as the Reproductive Health Bill) or negligence (such as bad roads, low agricultural productivity) etc.

The social dimension of sin must be met by our clarion calls and acts toward social and communal repentance as well as communal reparations. We the Church must show the way by the power of our example and not by the example of our power.

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