I am trying to work through the notion of tension, that is holding two seemingly opposed ideas/views as mutually true, as a help for the problem of individual and social sin. Typically evangelicals have a high value on the belief that individuals need redemption from their sins. That they are in need of salvation that at the very least removes the guilt over personal sinfulness and in the very best cases calls the individual to move towards a more just (that is less sinful) way of living. What this focus has led to is the belief that societal problems are ultimately addressed by individual conversions to Christianity. While there is something profoundly true about conversion opening up the possibility of a more morally beautiful way of living - it is not evidently true that every Christian convert chooses to move away from sin and sinful patterns.
On the other side there are schools of thought that want to locate sin entirely in social contexts. That is sinfulness is injustice that affects us all. While this also is true, movements towards a more just society - especially those without explicit Christian roots - are often viewed with suspicion by evangelicals who feel such an emphasis undermines the goal of individual religious conversion. The evangelical vision of a more just world then is a world with more Christians. This seems inescapable for an evangelical theology, but is it?
Certainly it is true that individuals need to change for society to become less sin-filled. And it is equally true that individuals often participate in patterns of sinfulness that exceed their own culpability - what is often called structural sin. Therefore, can it not also be true that society needs to change for society to become less sin-filled? I am convinced that it is so. And this is the classic problem for evangelical theologies of social engagement - how and when do we participate in social movements?
I think tension, holding both individual and social sin as in need of attention, is a helpful way forward. It keeps us from the fundamentalist trap of exclusively focusing on the individual, as if the individual is all that God is concerned for. And it also keeps us from the classically liberal trap of minimizing the need for individual salvation. Tension is also an apt term in that tension seldom leaves us settled, and I think that to default on either side leaves us settled in ways that hinder the move towards justice and righteousness.
If we reconcile the tension in the need for individual conversion as the primary and only means of social transformation then we can easily care little about other measures of this project. This is a classic evangelical problem. When evangelism becomes our ultimate concern we can even develop responses to injustice that amount to little more than hypocrisy, such as engaging in eco-justice as a means of having a better witness amongst the growing public awareness of our current ecological disaster. (I think we need to shift our view from converting individuals to Christianity, to converting them to a particular view of the Kingdom. But that is beyond the scope of this post.)
If we reconcile the other way, that social movements are the primary and only means of social transformation then we can easily miss the individual's role in all of this. Evangelicals, like Carl Henry, bemoaned the insufficiency of the social gospel to promote individual conversion. Indeed the social gospel, as a good example of a social reconciliation of this tension, sets out to build the Kingdom through social projects. While these are definitely necessary - it cannot be ignored that social structures are ultimately populated by people. So we risk the Augustinian crisis of doing the good we think we know, yet making matters worse in our doing. What is needed is a conversion at the individual level - towards justice and righteousness - that awakens us to the need for conversion at a societal level towards the same goals.