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Sinners, all: The Universality of Sin as the Ground for Transformative Justice

Ernst Conradie illustrates well the tensions that can be present between the concept of the universality of sin and the distinction between perpetrator and victim. He conveys even more clearly the consequences of dissolving the tension in either direction: if we place too much emphasis on universality, then we risk losing the capacity to name sins for what they are and to differentiate between victims and perpetrators in any given situation – it too easily silences victims and negates the demands of justice. If we emphasize the inequality of our participation in sinfulness, then we essentialize the categories of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” bifurcating the gospel call and dehumanizing both groups. Must we, however, view these as two poles in tension with each other, or can the universality of sin powerfully contextualize the task of properly naming particular bad acts, actors and the larger forces that shape those acts?

Building upon something akin to Conradie’s “fourth option,” I wish to contend here that if our understanding of salvation revolves around redemption and the reconciliation of our relationships (both with God and each other), then the universality of sin is the necessary theological ground that gives us the capacity to authentically identify perpetrators and victims in any particular situation, name systemic injustices, oppressive conditions and inequitable distributions. In doing so, I argue that understanding sin as a “power” and being attentive to individual actions are not mutually exclusive, but complimentary. The primary reason for this is that affirming the universality of sin does not imply that all sinful acts are equal. Similarly, I will argue that affirming this universality allows us to differentiate the oft-conflated concepts of the guilt we bear in relation to God and the guilt we bear in relation to each other. This conceptual framework allows us to identify perpetrators and victims without ossifying or reifying these identities. Instead, it holds them as purposeful in leading us to redemptive justice.

It is critical at the outset that our conception of sin describes our lived reality in meaningful and tangible ways, conveying some sense of what exactly it is that has “gone wrong” with our humanity. While professor Conradie notes that sin is sometimes conceived as power, I would add some nuance to this broad definition: sin itself is a primal, corrupting, distorting force that undergirds and influences our individual, personal trajectories and our communal life together. In other words, it is a malevolent power that not only expresses itself in alienating classist, sexist, elitist, homophobic and xenophobic ideologies, but directly and formatively causes them as well. It not only comprises individual acts of wrongdoing or idolatrous ideas but nurtures and forms them both individually and collectively. This is in keeping with the way in which Paul describes sin in Romans, as he articulates the ways that the powerful force of sin enslaves and deceives even our attempts to act justly and our desires to do well. The first scriptural mention of sin in Genesis 4.7 also envisions sin as an influential entity itself, as God warns Cain that sin is “lurking at the door,” a force with a desire of its own to corrupt and bind which goes on to infest God’s good creation with violence and chaos.

Augustine, of course, conceives the idea articulated in the Heidelberg catechism that sin binds humanity universally in a radical way through the fall of Adam and Eve. While we are created with the ability to evaluate options and choose our own actions, Augustine argued that our will, as the locus of that agency, follows that which we desire or understand to be good. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve’s desires were oriented towards that which was truly good: God, the “the light by which it [the will] can see and the fire by which it can love.” . The fall, for Augustine, occurs at the level of the will, as Adam turns away from the will of God and towards his own understanding of that which is “good.” As such, Adam became alienated from God and divine and true goodness in such a profound way that all humanity that sprung from him inherited this alienation and disoriented will – by virtue of being human, we all inherit this universal brokenness. Augustine argues that we retain the ability to exercise our wills in the choices we make, because our will is not an independent and neutral organ. Rather, as a part of who we are as unique persons, it is inseparable from the experiences, goals and ambitions that make up our identity. Just as we are as individual people, those very goods and desires we pursue are deeply vulnerable to external forces that form and condition us in pathogenic ways.

This contextualizes our view of guilt and responsibility in two key ways. First, though our wills are bound in distorted desires or patterns, Augustine does not view this as an “excuse” for bad behavior, or particular instances of sin. We are individually responsible for our actions, and thus for the harm they do. Yet it does mean that we are not exhaustively responsible for them, as they are never committed in a hermetically sealed environment, but always influenced by our personal histories, cultural values, and societal pressures. Indeed, Augustine bristled at the idea that we bore absolute blame for our actions, arguing that we were indeed responsible for them, but that they could not be understood apart from the distorted world in which we live and the ways in which the myriad forces condition and narrow our field of choices at critical moments. These conditioning forces are often pathogenic and need to be named as such. For example, a slaveowner in the antebellum American south was indeed personally responsible for reprehensible and monstrous behavior. Yet that slaveowner did not exist in a world with undefined roles and boundaries and suddenly decide to enslave and degrade others. He was influenced deeply by the local history, cultural accretions and values that were distorted by the pathogenic force of slavery itself. It is critical for a nuanced understanding of guilt and responsibility that this force must be named as such alongside particular deeds and acts in order that it can be resisted.

Second, because our willing is still active even when our choices are greatly constricted by forces larger than ourselves, we internalize those decisions, understanding them to be a part of our very being. In other words, when we act, that action, along with all the others we have taken, becomes a part of our character. This aspect of our psyche can be deeply distorted and preyed upon. Interpreting Augustine’s notion of human willing, Alistair McFadyen, a police officer as well as professor of theology, argues that in situations of child abuse, where there is an unequal responsibility and an inarguably clear delineation between adult perpetrator and child victim, the child’s active willing proves to be a pernicious element that binds the perpetrator to the victim in the act of abuse. He notes that many perpetrators will often entice the child into allowing abusive actions, which the child certainly does not desire, by offering a reward that the child certainly does. Though greatly deceived in a horrific way, the child’s own desire and choice is used against them, and as McFadyen notes, the child effectively becomes confused, often believing that because they wanted the reward, they effectively wanted the abuse. They experience a profound sense guilt for it, as the victims often desire and indeed act to keep the abuse hidden and secret rather than expose what they believe to be their own complicity in it.

As in many situations of abuse, injustice and systemic oppression, there is an obvious and total imbalance of responsibility and, thus, guilt, that rests with the perpetrator in this case. Yet if we understand ourselves to always have a good choice that serves as a “way out,” then we risk muddying the waters of responsibility and assigning some blame to the victim for not “speaking out,” for not resisting, for not escaping.

Understanding morality in this way is certainly more difficult for those of us situated firmly in Western culture, with our assumed ideas about individual moral autonomy. We are more often more comfortable naming “monsters” and “innocents” than delving into messier and more entangled moral judgments. Our leaders, for example, portray the enemies of the United States in absolute terms: as an axis of evil, terrorists who hate freedom and who will always seek our destruction. In weighing out the demands of justice in our American system, we also have an obsession with determining victims to be “innocent” in order not to possibly confuse them with the “guilty,” and thus those worthy of blame. As feminist scholars have rightly identified, in rape trials involving a female accuser and a male defendant, a large part of the argument often rests on establishing her purity and innocence (or guilt and shamefulness) to the jury. Certainly, however, people do not have to be a horror-movie villain to commit a heinous and violating act, and people do not need to bear a sinless past to be able to credibly name a wrong done to them.

In fact, we can see with relative clarity in our contemporary world that these totalistic identities that have developed are inadequate in locating where guilt lies in any given scenario. We can observe myriad ways in which constricting forces, “good” intentions and the limits of human agency ensnare perpetrators and victims in a damaging dynamic. Modern combatants, particularly in an American context, are culturally conditioned to accept the “good” of military endeavor in a powerful way, then undergo intense training particular to the task. The training is so effective that their actions in combat, as some recent veterans have testified, become almost reflexive rather than deliberative. These actions certainly create many victims, both military and civilian. Many combatants suffer as a result from what is coming to be known as “moral injury,” as they become deeply conflicted as to the “good” of their participation in wartime violence. On the other side of the equation, the wills of victims are often twisted to serve perpetrators in heinous ways, such that the initial victims become perpetrators themselves. The abuse of children into becoming child soldiers in conflicts around the world is perhaps the most horrendous example of victimized and powerless children forcibly becoming perpetrators that victimize others.

So if we recognize that these forces condition our wills in powerful ways , that we are universally bound in sin through our vulnerability to and participation in these distortions, how does all of this help us understand and identify guilt in particular situations in a way that is transformative and not, to use Conradie’s term, “spiritually empty?” First, it enables us to differentiate between our shared guilt before God and the guilt we incur before each other in order that we may not dissolve the tension of our real and substantial responsibility to others in the abyss of our alienation to God. Illustrating the very problem of describing sin in the economic language of debt, this recognition does not allow us to diminish the real harm of our debts to one another by comparing them to an infinitely larger, collective debt to God. By virtue of inheriting Adam’s estrangement from God in our disoriented wills and enmeshment in sinful conditions of human life, we bear an existential guilt (in my view, better understood simply as alienation) in relation to God. This alienation can only be remedied by God. Our particular participation in those general sinful conditions, however, leads us to incur guilt in the ways we harm one another, damage other creatures and creation itself, and propagate the distorted and systemic forces that haunt us, and our responsibility to each other cannot simply be hoisted upon God.

Second, the recognition that the guilt we bear for harm to one another, while real and significant, does not rest exhaustively with us opens a path to more authentic and meaningful manifestations of restorative justice. Certainly, in the vast majority of particular, temporal instances of wrongdoing there is one who is harmed and one who has done the harming. As in the situation of child abuse, and even military conditioning, there are clear differences in responsibility between perpetrators and victims, perhaps expressed best as the capacity to resist the distorting force. Recognizing that these forces condition the choices we are able to make, we may recognize wrong acts without attaching unequivocal blame to the perpetrator. Likewise, in lieu of those conditioning forces and the moral humility that follows our vulnerability to them, we may be able to readily abandon the notion that victims must demonstrate their innocence by the righteousness of the consistently “good” choices. What matters, then is the testimony to the actual wrong act, which would legitimately name the perpetrator and properly demand his repentance as well as shine a light on a more pervasive force that produces it. The perpetrator may be able to accept responsibility for his or her actions, repent and work to make reparation for the wrong without accepting that his entire identity is bound in totality to the category of “perpetrator.”

At its best, this conception also allows for a view of repentance and reconciliation as not only reparation, but also the testimony to and resistance of the larger systemic sinful force. Militarization, racism, economic inequality, injustice all are forces that come to light in their particular and concrete ways as forces conditioned, created, and propagated by sin itself and can be most effectively resisted when we humbly recognize our vulnerability to them.


1 Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, ed and trans R. W. Dyson (New York: Cambridge,
1998), 14.13.

2 While I find Augustine’s view of the result of original sin in terms of human willing to hold significant explanatory power, I should note at the outset that his theodicy does not. The idea that all humanity deserves its entrapment in sin as punishment for the sin of Adam is morally repugnant, and thus I speak of how humanity incurs “guilt” in this manner carefully, preferring to speak of it as “alienation,” as I do later.

3 Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (New York: Cambridge, 2000), 61-67.