Today, some colleagues and I sat on a panel for a conference full of high school students. The panel was part of a week-long experience for these students discussing theology and its relationship to culture and society, specifically concerning wealth and poverty. Over the course of the panel, we were asked questions about the Christian response to these issues and these students had the chance to engage with questions of their own. It was a fresh reminder for me in several ways.
Societal Sin is Complex
As we talked about poverty and injustice, a realization settled into the room. Societal sin is complex. Each of us told stories of situations that demonstrated this point. My time living in Africa painted a vivid portrait for me of systemic poverty, abuse, and wickedness. I lived in a military state and pulled through checkpoints every few kilometers, being asked for bribes at every stop along my route. I lived in a village where people made less than one dollar a day. I saw real hunger and real sickness in places. One colleague told stories of an individual at his church who is stuck in a system of government entitlements. Both the individual and the system are preying off of each other, perpetuating a seemingly unending cycle.
The question was posed, “Who is to blame for all of this?” Do you point your finger at the government as the guilty party? How about the individuals who are quick to take advantage of situations? What about the culture of society in general that allows these things to take place? Is it the greed of specific individuals? Is there one place, one object, that can be blamed? The answer is of course no.
Symptoms vs. Cause
The Bible gives a better answer than mere finger-pointing. Poverty, injustice, and societal ills are all evils, but they are ultimately symptoms. In Genesis we are made aware of the root issue, the disease that lies behind the problems of injustice and poverty. God’s good creation was ultimately misdirected by the curse of sin. All the created order, all that God had created as fundamentally good, was warped by the effects of the fall.
Often, we think of the effects of sin in individual terms, and that is certainly true. Sin resides in me and my heart; its curse affects my thoughts and desires. It colors the way I see the world and want to respond to it. I cannot escape that truth in this present age. Unfortunately though, we do not exist as independent entities. People are part of a society, and sin is more than a personal problem. Sin-sickness extends past your heart and my heart into the very institutions that we establish. Society is sin-sick just like you and me. No institution, no government, no non-profit, no initiative is free from the warping, corrupting effects of sin. In this age governments will always deal with corruption, the elite will always deal with oppression, and the wealthy will always deal with greed.
The Gospel as Cure
For any true relief we must look past the symptoms to the root of the problem, to the sickness itself. Fortunately, there is good news. While no manner of coordination on our part will alleviate the ills of sin-sickness, God provided its cure in atonement through his Son. The curse of sin is broken through the shed blood and powerful resurrection of the Christ. In him death is defeated, evil is conquered, the blind receive their sight, and justice comes to the oppressed. This reality is true spiritually. Those who are spiritually blind receive their sight, those who are spiritually poor receive the riches of grace. However, it is not merely spiritual. When the gospel works on dead hearts, it makes them alive and begins to reverse the effects of sin. It awakens desires for godliness and the restoration of God’s good created order. It awakens a longing for righteousness and purity. It is not content with the way the world is and rolls up its sleeves to seek justice.
My little village in Africa does not ultimately need more money; it needs more churches. It needs more witnesses of the gospel. The same is true in your community too. The gospel has the power to save, and it has the power to remove the sting of sin. All our efforts today at correcting society’s ills are, at best, temporary solutions because we can only treat the symptoms. And we should. We should treat the symptoms of poverty and injustice, because it serves as a preview of the radical change that comes in a restored creation when Christ claims his seat on the throne. But ultimately our first and primary concern is proclaiming the cure to sin itself.