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The Gospel: Just for Sinners or Just for the Sinned Against?

The Christian gospel is a message of salvation from sin, liberation from oppression, emancipation from patriarchy, deliverance from evil, redemption for enslavement, enlightenment from delusion, healing amidst pain and suffering, restoration from ecological destruction, reconciliation amidst violent conflict, (new) life amidst the forces of death, offering a way forward amidst moral anarchy and so forth. This list of notions of salvation may be incomplete but it is obvious that different branches of Christianity and diverse theological schools would wish to put the emphasis on one more than the other. Each, then, has to explain how God in Jesus Christ and through the Spirit brings about such salvation.

These diverse notions of salvation each responds to diverging perceptions of where the problem lies. Is the problem best understood as sin, or as pain, suffering, anxiety, death, injustice or oppression? These predicaments are typically intertwined. Take suffering for example. There are at least five main sources of suffering; namely suffering induced by one’s own sins, suffering induced by the sins of others (being sinned against), suffering as a result of structural violence (policies, laws, institutions, practices for which no one individual can be held responsible), random suffering (accidents that occur simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time or random mutations going wrong), and “natural suffering” that Christians would need to admit forms part of God’s good creation – including pain, death, predation, the extinction of species, volcanoes, earthquakes and so forth. These sources of suffering can seldom be clearly separated but should also not be conflated. Being raped is for example a clear case of being sinned against, while the psychological trauma suffered by torturers is quite another matter.

There is ample room for confusion here. This is aggravated by widely diverging notions of what sin entails. Some would focus on sin as guilt and then attend to things that individuals do. Others would focus on sin as power and then attend to how individuals are influenced by forces beyond their locus of control. Consider this list of conflicting interpretations of sin:


In this contribution I wish to highlight one underlying and unresolved tension in contemporary Christian discourse on sin, namely regarding the so-called universality of sin. Are we all sinners before God so that there is an underlying equality of sin? Or is a distinction needed between perpetrators and victims, between sinners and those sinned against?

In churches of the Protestant reformation it is customary to insist that all humans are sinners, that no one sin is bigger than another, that we all stand guilty before God, that we are beggars, that we all need forgiveness and grace. In the words of Question and Answer 7 (Lord’s Day 3) of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. From where, then, did man’s depraved nature come?

A. From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, for there our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.
Contrary to much of public opinion, there is something profoundly liberating in such an emphasis of the universality of sin. In a world in which there are so many ways in which human inequality is reinforced (financial assets, academic grading, sport achievements, promotion, beauty contests, ecclesial hierarchies) any emphasis on equality before the law based on equal human dignity is deeply counter-intuitive but constitutes the core of constitutional democracy and any bill of human rights. This equality is radicalized in ecclesial communities through the evangelical affirmation that members of the body of Christ are nothing but forgiven sinners. To allow for gradations of sinfulness in such a community would open a can of worms in terms of levels of holiness, self-justification, hypocrisy, envy and the like.

A recognition of the universality of sin may allow for human solidarity: we are all in this mess together. Guilt is, in most contexts, mutually implicated so that a confession of sins may help to stop a cycle of mutual accusations. In distorted marriage relationships, between parents and children or between neighbours or business partners it is often necessary to reach a point where it is acknowledged that guilt is shared. Even if guilt is not shared equitably, it becomes futile to quantify the proportion of guilt, to engage in a bookkeeping of injuries and injustices. Instead, open confession is good for the soul and for the sake of community. In his classic work Life Together (Fortress Press, 1996) Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the relief when sinners no longer need to pretend that that they are “holier than thou”. Beyond individual and communal relationships, an emphasis on the universality of sin also has social and political significance, especially in contexts where evil is always blamed on someone else or on some system of oppression (apartheid, colonialism) and where no one seems to be willing to accept responsibility for the destructive legacy of sin.

The radical universality of sin also implies that evil cannot be attributed to only one group; stigmatizing and scapegoating others can be avoided. Evil is not merely something out there that has to be overcome or defeated or escaped from – since evil cannot be located somewhere outside ourselves. Moreover, moral exhortation and evangelical appeals for conversion remain insufficient to overcome an addiction to sin that is widespread, pervasive and delusional. At best, the universality of sin serves as a protocol against any easy answers or quick fixes to eradicate evil. There may be stations on the road to sanctification but there are no easy seven steps to holiness or degrees of sainthood. All believers are both saints and sinners, as Martin Luther would say: simul iustus et peccator.

By contrast, various contemporary theological discourses highlight the way that this emphasis that “we are all sinners” ignores the need for a clear distinction between victims and perpetrators. This applies within feminist theology (the distinction between patriarchs and their families or rapists and their victims), in liberation theology (oppressors and the oppressed), black theology (white supremacists and the enslaved), indigenous theologies (colonisers and the colonised), Minjung theology (the shame or han of victims), postcolonial theology (Empire and the conquered) and ecotheology (the human and non-human victims of capitalist exploitation). For the sake of justice, such a distinction between perpetrators and victims should not be blurred. It would be obscene to equalize sinners and their sins in such cases. It risks blaming rape victims for being raped or slaves for being enslaved.

Indeed, there is nothing equal about sin’s consequences and talk of the equality of sin can be used to disguise the suffering of victims and to muddy human evil. Moreover, there seems to be a self-centeredness in traditional discourse on sin in that the focus remains on the sinner rather than on the wounds of the victim, on the consequences of sin. Whereas confession may be the cry of the sinner, lament is the cry of the victim.

Where guilt is collectively, even universally assigned, it conceals the ones who are truly responsible. Worse, any emphasis on the universality of sin can easily be used for condoning the world as it is, rejecting the possibility of radical change, and undermining the struggle for justice. Worse than suffering due to the sins of others is being punished for the sins of another and hence to be regarded as the perpetrator of that sin oneself. This is what horrifies many about imputing the guilt of Adam on all of humanity.

There is, then, a need to distinguish between sinners and their victims, who should clearly not be held accountable for their own victimization. Likewise, if evil has become deeply embedded in social structures leading to structural violence and a subsequent spiral of revolutionary and repressive violence, there is a need for a distinction between oppressors and the oppressed. For the sake of justice, the distinction between victim and perpetrator should not be blurred. It may be true that perpetrators are affected by their own actions, but it would be obscene to suggest that Jack the Ripper should elicit our deepest sympathy (as if what was really wrong about his killing all those women was that he radically undermined his own flourishing). On this basis, those marginalized by oppressive social structures may be regarded as the more-or-less innocent victims of forces beyond their control. This is especially important given the tendency for perpetrators to minimize the significance of their acts and for victims to maximize such significance. Where some may talk about sin as depravity, others realize the sociological and psychological impact of deprivation. In situations of long-standing conflict (e.g. in failed marriages, family feuds, civil wars) an acceptance of the rough equality of guilt may prove to be liberating at times, but in the South African context that would, to put it bluntly, deny the long-term impact of imperialism, colonialism and apartheid.

Of course, the victims of history often become perpetrators. This is already evident from the subsequent history of the people of Israel, a nation whose identity was allegedly constituted as a group of runaway slaves who experienced God’s grace. A victim does not become virtuous by being victimized. That victims may become perpetrators comes in different forms, including cooperation in one’s own subjugation, collaboration with oppressors in order to secure favors, or lateral forms of violence to others in positions of inferiority. For example, white, privileged women seeking emancipation may oppress children or domestic “servants.” In a patriarchal society, women not only endure evil but may be responsible for it in their own way. Likewise, men who are the victims of racial subjugation may come to express their frustration and anger over the violation of their dignity through domestic violence. As Willie Jennings recalls in The Christian Imagination (Yale University Press, 2010), sailors on slave ships, recruited from the impoverished proletariat, were beaten and tortured and, in turn, took out their anger on black bodies by beating, torturing, and raping slaves. Another example is that of gangsters who are clearly victims of socio-economic conditions but who are also horrendous perpetrators of theft, drug trafficking, rape and murder.
In addition, there is the psychological danger of neurotically clinging onto victimhood in order to legitimize claims to justice, refuse responsibility, and sustain desires for attention and sympathy indefinitely. Those who were previously marginalized but then included in God’s household may well wish to exclude others. The marginalized may therefore have to be called to conversion if they are unwilling to accept others who are also being marginalized. The righteousness of a cause does not assume the righteousness of those who champion that cause. Ironically, an exclusive emphasis on victimhood undermines the agency of victims. We are never merely victims but are also called to act upon injustices. We are always both accused and accountable, not only the subject of pity.

For perpetrators, there is also the psychological danger that an emphasis on collective guilt may overburden an individual’s conscience as if the full weight of the burdens of history has to be carried by that individual. This is not to deny the possibility of collective guilt, but such a collective understanding of guilt may, inversely, also be used to exonerate the individual. One needs to reckon with the strange experience of passivity at the very heart of doing evil; namely, that human beings feel themselves to be victims precisely when they are also guilty.

From the discussion above it should be clear that there are strong arguments to support a notion of the universality of sin and perhaps even stronger ones to reject that. How, then, does one proceed?

One option is to suggest that the gospel contains two distinct messages, one for sinners and one for those sinned against. This option has support from the ministry of Jesus, at least according to the gospel narratives. There is an obvious concern for the marginalized, the sick, the lepers, the prostitutes, the lepers, the people of the land (the ‘am ha’aretz), and those who are declared sinful (impure) according to the religious authorities of the day. There is an equally clear message for the rich, the powerful, the oppressors in those texts.

This strategy is followed by Andrew Sung Park in The Triune Atonement: Christ’s healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole Creation (Westminster John Knox, 2009), one of the best expositions of the contrast between sinners and those sinned against. He shows how the doctrine of atonement best makes sense if this is not understood in terms of punishment and retribution for sinners (all of us), but as a challenge to repent for sinners and oppressors and as healing the wounds (the shame or han) of the oppressed victims of society. One may say that the gospel is not just for sinners or for victims, but it does entail justification for sinners and justice for victims.
This approach remains unsatisfactory for various reasons. Is it really possible to make such a sharp distinction between victims and perpetrators in all cases? Is it intellectually plausible to seemingly develop two doctrines of atonement, one for sinners and one for the sinned against? How would one make sense of the call to conversion in the inaugural sermons of Jesus in Galilee (Mark 1:15), presumably aimed at the ordinary people, marginalized by the religious authorities, the Romans and the government of Herod alike? It is one thing to be included in Jesus’ inclusive and affirming ministry, but how does one include those who wish to exclude others? Zealots and tax collectors? Prostitutes and lepers? Beggars and the mentally ill?

A second option is to grade sin in terms of its consequences. In the Catholic tradition, this is done through the distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sins (with far reaching implications in terms of purgatory, indulgences, sainthood and so forth). Such grading of sin can be done in crude or less crude ways, but almost always runs into trouble in ecclesial communities. For example, it misses the liberatory potential of the Lutheran conviction that we are all nothing but forgiven sinners. Moreover, such an option fails to get at the social impact of sin in society. How does it help us address structural violence, the pervasive depravity of entire socio-economic dispensations?
A third option would question the binary distinction between perpetrators and victims in order to call for a more differentiated analysis. In this context, the distinction between perpetrators and victims obviously needs to be maintained for the sake of justice. However, there is also a need for a more differentiated analysis that recognizes the distinct roles and plights of the architects, implementers and enforcers of sin, the role of beneficiaries, spectators, bystanders, collaborators and traitors, various kinds of victims, and their grieving relatives. What this suggests for a discussion of the universality of sin is not immediately clear but it certainly favors a notion of sin as power. One may say that sin is a mess in which we find ourselves together with other living beings—a mess to which we (humans) have all contributed, albeit not equally and under which we all suffer, but again not equally so.

For instance, in the context of an assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (TRC) it is often suggested that the work of the TRC remained limited because it focused exclusively on gross violations of human rights. The proceedings of the commission addressed applications of perpetrators for amnesty and for compensation from victims or their relatives. Although the hearings were moving and provided a moment of catharsis for many others, it served the purposes of endorsing the negotiated settlement(s) that led to the establishment of the current constitution. It did not address the need for restitution for victims, while horrendous perpetrators would receive amnesty if only they would tell “the truth” and could show that their deeds were politically motivated. It also did not and could not address many minor violations of human rights in the history of apartheid having to do with racist comments, offensive body language, racial discrimination for jobs, scholarships and other opportunities, and so forth. It also did not address the systemic problems around the conquest of land, exclusion from property rights, the social disruption caused by migrant labor, pass laws to prevent migration, or social benefits allocated in terms of job opportunities, education, housing, health, pensions and service delivery. All these injustices extended over several generations which meant that they became both more diffused and more aggravated. Moreover, the TRC did not address the problem of the so-called beneficiaries of apartheid, namely those who benefited in countless ways from the same system that oppressed others. In policy discourse in South Africa, the inequalities associated with the legacy of the past is being addressed in successive programs such as the Reconstruction and Development Program (1994) and, most recently, the National Development Plan (2012).

A fourth option is based on the distinction between sin and guilt. Is it possible to affirm the universality of sin and still speak of the “proportionality of guilt”? According to this option, humans are all entirely and radically sinners but more or less guilty and penalties have to be determined in proportion to culpability. This would to acknowledge that guilt and pain are both unequally distributed. While we are all capable of evil, we are not equally responsible for it. Can one then speak of the inequality of guilt alongside the equality of sin? Besides the ultimate judgment about the universality of guilt, there is a need for more provisional judgments in history that acknowledges such proportionality.

However, talking about the proportionality of guilt may easily become spiritually empty. If there is room for retrieving the universality of sin, it has to focus on the pervasive and over-powering reality of systems of economic injustice, ongoing conflict and ecological destruction that all forms of life are trapped in. This is best regarded as the shadow side of an emerging ecumenical vision for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. It is only possible to detect the radical pervasiveness of sin on the basis of the equally radical transformation needed to overcome this bondage to sin. This ability to see—and to discern—the coming reign of God is best attributed to God’s work, not ours.

Ernst M. Conradie is Senior Professor in the Department of Religion and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. His research interests lie in the intersection between ecotheology, systematic theology and ecumenical theology. His most recent publications include The Earth in God’s Economy: Creation, Salvation and Consummation in Ecological perspective (LIT Verlag 2015) and The Church in God’s Household: Protestant Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ecology (co-edited with Clive Ayre (Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications, 2016).

1 This may even apply to the human species as such. In early hominid evolution we have often been prey to large cats so that we have a deeply ingrained understanding of what it means to be victims. However, we have become not only predators but have managed to destroy large ecosystems