September 2014

Attending to structures of sin and of grace

Our work for change needs to attend to structures of grace as much as structures of sin, writes Sandie Cornish.

BY Sandie Cornish

How can we make known the love of God in our world? The anger and fear in our society can’t be vanquished by more anger, not even by righteous rage. Our work for change needs to attend to structures of grace as much as structures of sin. There is a world of difference between being driven by anger or fear, and being called by love.

A personal journey

I first encountered the concept of structures of sin in the 1980s. It helped me to make sense of things. Into the 1990s I was concerned to identify and call out structures of sin, to try to extract myself from them, and to work actively towards dismantling them. Anger at injustice was at the heart of much of this action.

By the mid 1990s I was convinced of the importance of proposing positive alternatives – we need structures of grace to replace those of sin. Then I began to understand that co-operating in creating structures of grace calls for different skills, attitudes, dispositions and capabilities than denouncing and pulling down structures of sin. It led me to quite different inner work, and different outer work too. Only love can build up structures of grace that give expression to the justice of God’s reign.

What are structures of sin?

Things, such as structures, can’t really sin. People sin, but our freedom to choose what is good can be influenced or conditioned by social structures, processes and institutions. Structures or situations can be described as sinful when they reflect, reinforce or even encourage personal sins. They make it harder to do what is right and good, and easier to choose another path. In the Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Saint John Paul II explained it in this way:

“Whenever the Church speaks of situations of sin, or when she condemns as social sins certain situations or the collective behaviour of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations, she knows and she proclaims that such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world, and also of those who side step the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of a higher order. The real responsibility, then lies with individuals.” (RP, 16)

I believe Australia’s immigration policy is a structure of sin; it reflects and reinforces the fear and selfishness of many people. It makes it harder for us to see the humanity of asylum seekers and respond to their needs. Electoral popularity – the views of people – keeps it in place.

Because social injustice has a structural dimension and is not simply the result of the personal behaviour of ‘bad people’, both personal and structural change are needed. It is not enough for us to be welcoming towards any asylum seekers we happen to meet – the policy needs to change.

Working for social justice requires awareness of how structures, processes and institutions create or maintain situations of injustice by influencing personal and collective behaviour. Social analysis and critical thinking are important skills for social activists. They help us to understand how we may be implicated in or benefit from structures and processes that create or maintain injustice and thus have a responsibility to work for change. But often knowledge alone is not enough to motivate structural change or personal conversion.

Structures of grace

Our mission is not to simply critique our world but to act within it to transform it. We offer not just a critique, but also a positive vision – the reign of God. It is a vision of right relationships with God, others, and the whole of creation.

If structures, processes and institutions constructed and maintained by human choices can reflect, reinforce or encourage sin, they can also reflect, reinforce and encourage right relationships – they can mediate grace.

Working for social justice requires the imagination to place ourselves in others’ shoes, to dream of something better for all. It requires humility and openness to encounter and dialogue with other people, cultures, faiths and ideas. It requires the will to witness to the possibility of more just relationships by modelling alternatives.

Soul work

Grace is a gift, not an achievement. We receive and co-operate with it rather than constructing it – it is inherently relational. We can only be drawn into right relationships by love.

We can analyse issues, and critique structures and policies in a cognitive way. We can denounce and demolish structures out of anger at injustice. But building up structures of grace cannot be driven by anger, and establishing right relationships is not a cognitive exercise.

If we wish to co-operate with grace, we need to attend to the movement of God’s spirit in the world and in ourselves. Working for social justice requires personal and social discernment. It is a spiritual endeavour – soul work. Where and how is the love of God drawing you to act?

This article was first published on

Sandie Cornish

Sandie Cornish is a practitioner in the field of Catholic Social Teaching and has worked in faith-based social justice and human rights organisations at the diocesan, national and Asia-Pacific levels. She is currently Province Director of Mission for the Society of the Sacred Heart in Australia and New Zealand, and is a doctoral candidate in the School of Theology at Australian Catholic University. Sandie blogs at She is also on Facebook and you can follow her on Twitter @SandieCornish.

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