Up to now, we have almost entirely emphasized personal sin, with little notion of what John Paul II rightly called “structural sin” or “institutional evil.” There has been little recognition of the deep connection between the structures that people uncritically accept and the personal evil things they also do.
The individual has usually gotten all the blame, while what Paul called the powers, the sovereignties, and the principalities (Romans 8:38, Colossians 2:15, Ephesians 3:10, 6:12) have gotten off scot-free for most of Christian history. These were his words for institutions and social systems. They have a life (and death!) of their own that is usually above normal understanding and thus eludes any honest critique. In fact, we tend to worship them as mighty and strong, and therefore always good. “Too big to fail,” we now say. We tend to demonize the individual prostitute, but not the industry of pornography at many levels. We tend to hate the greedy person, but in fact we idealize and try to be a part of the system that made them rich.
For example, people tend to support and even idealize almost all wars that their country wages. In fact, few things are more romanticized than war, except by those who suffer from them. At the same time, we rail against violence in the streets, the violence of our young people, and the violence on the news every night. We are slowly learning that we cannot have it both ways. If violence is a way to solve international problems, then it is a way to solve problems at home too. We can’t say “it’s bad here but it’s good there.”
We know how to name individual sin and evil, but we do not know how to name corporate sin and evil. We have ended up with a very inconsistent morality, which few take seriously any more or even know how to follow. That is why we need a consistent ethic of life.