Joliet Cops and Structures of Sin

Here’s a story that broke in the past couple days:

Steven Greydanus offered a summary over on the Book of Face:

As with the brazenly casual slow-motion murder of George Floyd captured on bystander video, what’s so appalling about this story is not just what the Joliet Police Department is doing, but the fact that they’re deliberately taking these actions knowing the scrutiny they’re under.

Two months ago USA Today launched a series, “Behind the Blue Wall,” on how retaliation and intimidation are used to punish whistleblower officers who speak out against misconduct in their departments.

Featured in the story was a whistleblower cop, 27-year veteran Sgt. Javier Esqueda, who in July 2020 leaked video to a reporter capturing officers mistreating a handcuffed Black man named Eric Lurry who was in medical distress due to a drug overdose.

Hours before Lurry’s death, a team of cops slapped him, shoved a baton in his mouth, and restricted his airway. A sergeant called him a “bitch.” One officer turned off the sound on the recording. He received the harshest punishment of anyone involved: a six-day suspension. All officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

Since the story ran in USA Today, the Joliet Police Department has come under investigation by the Illinois Attorney General’s office. Chief Dawn Malec was fired. But that didn’t stop the Joliet Police Officer’s Association from voting 35–1 to expel Sgt. Esqueda, or department officials from charging him with four counts of official misconduct. He now faces up to 20 years in prison. This isn’t a few bad apples. It’s an institutional culture that is hell-bent on protecting bad apples at all costs and crushing anyone who breaks the code of silence.

This is a classic example of what Catholic Social Teaching calls a “structure of sin”. I discuss this in The Church’s Best-Kept Secret: A Primer on Catholic Social Teaching:

Structures of Sin

The mention of the “dark side” of Solidarity brings us to another idea that we must touch on: Structures of Sin. The Compendium (119) describes them this way:

These are rooted in personal sin and, therefore, are always connected to concrete acts of the individuals who commit them, consolidate them and make it difficult to remove them. It is thus that they grow stronger, spread and become sources of other sins, conditioning human conduct. These are obstacles and conditioning that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual and interfere also in the process of the devel­opment of peoples, the delay and slow pace of which must be judged in this light. The actions and attitudes opposed to the will of God and the good of neighbour, as well as the structures arising from such behaviour, appear to fall into two categories today: “on the one hand, the all-consuming desire for profit, and on the other, the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one’s will upon others. In order to characterize better each of these attitudes, one can add the expression: ‘at any price.’”

In short, sin begins in the heart, but it does not stay there. It gets expressed in what we do. So the things we make reflect, among other things, the sins that live in our hearts. This isn’t true merely of artists who make pornog­raphy or manufacturers who make shoddy products. It suffuses everything we make, and especially the gigantic, globe-spanning political, social, and economic systems we create to dominate the world.

A Biblical Example of a Structure of Sin

To give an example of what is meant by a Structure of Sin, see Acts 19:23-41. When Paul went to Ephesus to preach the gospel he did not simply threaten a religious system that worshipped Diana, the Moon Goddess. He threatened an entire socio-economic and political system organized around her temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Consequently, it was not just a gaggle of random members of the cult of Diana that attacked him. It was a mob organized and spurred on by the silversmiths of Ephesus, who made their living selling Diana trinkets to pilgrims. The gospel threatened (and in good time would eventually dismantle) a religio-economic-socio-political Structure of Sin in Ephesus that stood opposed to the Kingdom of God.

Now we—to the degree we all sin—are all idolaters just like the Ephesians, since sin is the disordered attempt to get our deepest happiness from something other than God. Our Big Four in the pantheon of idols are (and always have been) Money, Pleasure, Power and Honor. And, just as the Ephesian silversmiths did, we too create political and economic systems to support our idols.

This results in the creation of idolatrous political and economic systems that fight against those trapped within them, especially against those who are genuinely trying to do the right thing—just as the political and economic structures in Ephesus fought against Paul. So, for instance, we see just such a conflict in the early United States when the Founding Fathers who fought (sincerely enough) for the proposition “all men are created equal” nonetheless were trapped in the Structure of Sin known as a “slave economy” and could not find a way to get rid of it. Result: Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and said of slavery, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever,” never freed his own slaves.

The system of slavery helped enslave Jefferson to what his own conscience told him was the grave sin of owning slaves. This does not absolve Jefferson of his sin. After all, others of his time did free their slaves. But it remains the case that Structures of Sin can both blind and bind us from seeing and acting on evil that later generations (and some­times even we ourselves) rightly regard with repugnance. They exert enormous pressure on people to acquiesce to sin while providing them with countless excuses, often against the cries of their own conscience, to do so.

Similar situations apply today concerning a host of human institutions. A person who works, for example, for a corporation where an increase in profits is the only measure of success, will be pressured and even compelled by fear of losing his job to act in certain ways that may not be in accord with the gospel. Institutions provide structures that guide decision-making and set up systems of rewards and sanctions. The question is whether these systems reward the good or do the opposite. That is why the Tradition insists that, in addition to confronting our personal sins, Structures of Sin must be battled as well, since they exert pressure on us to not repent our personal sins—and they often blind us from even seeing that the Structure of Sin exists. This is a dynamic that applies in all institutions and must be confronted in all institutions–even the Church, as the clerical sexual abuse scandal abundantly illustrates.

The Gospel Calls Us to Challenge Structures of Sin

The gospel has done this many times in history from ending murderous games in the Roman Colosseum, to the abolition of slavery, to reforming unjust labor laws, to enacting the Civil Rights Act. Such a process nearly always occurs with agonizing slowness, since it takes human beings centuries to grope toward pulling down such structures, especially given that huge amounts of money, power, and the sheer dead weight of human habit oppose such change. Still, dismantling Structures of Sin can be done and the leaven of the gospel has repeatedly been kneaded into soci­eties in order to do it.

When that has happened, the gospel has usually changed these Structures of Sin by means of a combination of moral suasion and the help of the state. So, for instance, the barbaric Games in Rome ended when Christian monks confronted the cheering mobs with their own consciences by entering the arena—where for centuries people had been forced to kill each other or be mauled by wild beasts— shouting, “For God’s sake, forebear!” The brutality was outlawed by the increasingly Christianized state because citizens’ consciences could no longer endure it. For the same reason, crucifixion was banished by that same state because it could no longer bear to inflict on other human beings what it had once inflicted on the Son of God.

In the 19th century, the great English Evangelical William Wilberforce likewise made the slave trade morally unbearable to the English conscience and, with the help of the state, abolished it. In the United States, Christian aboli­tionists likewise made slavery intolerable to the consciences of many Americans before the state abolished it by force of law. A century later, the Civil Rights movement continued the unfinished work of the Civil War abolitionists through the moral appeal of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who again worked against the Structure of Sin called “Jim Crow” both via citizen protests and with the state to pass the Civil Rights Act.

Again, this does not mean the state itself cannot be a Structure of Sin. It obviously can. But it is also the case that the state can be an instrument for healing Structures of Sin—and that on many occasions such healing would have been impossible without the help of the state since it alone has sufficient power to back reform with the force of law.

So, for instance, take the examples of abusive priests and brutal police. Instead of either denying the problem or issuing a blanket condemnation of priests and police, the wise approach is to face the fact that predators go where prey is, whether on the African savannah or in human institutions. Those predators attracted to violence will seek out professions where it is permitted, such as police, security, and the military—because that is where the prey they seek are to be found. Likewise, sexual predators will naturally gravitate to institutions that put them in contact with the prey they seek, whether in schools, day cares—or the priesthood. Institutions seeking candidates to fill those necessary roles must confront that fact and create mecha­nisms for both screening such predators from entry and (since no such mechanism is perfect) for expelling and punishing them when they manifest.

It is crucial to understand that all institutions, like all machines, do not do what we want them to do: they do what we design them to do. If we design institutions to do this work of screening and removing predators, we will have far fewer predators. If we do nothing, we invite into those institutions predators who will turn those institutions into machines that will protect and even create more predators.

The point is this: Structures of Sin make it hard to be good and often punish us for trying while blinding us from even being able to see the good. Healthy institutions, in contrast, make it much easier to do the right thing and even reward us for trying. Structures of Sin are usu­ally reformed—or, where necessary, dismantled—through good actions by each person, together with good statecraft and just laws so that, by the grace of God, his Kingdom can come and his will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Reforming Structures of Sin Involves Both Personal and Communal Effort

The Compendium (193) is clear about what is required to change Structures of Sin:

They must be purified and transformed into structures of solidarity through the creation or appropriate modification of laws, market regula­tions, and juridical systems [emphasis mine].

In short, non-state efforts to effect change (e.g., boycotts of corporations who support abortion or use child slaves, or mass marches against police brutality) are wonderful, but very often it is necessary to change legal, political, social and economic structures by the force of law as well. Here, not just the citizen but the state bears a responsibility.

This does not relieve individuals of responsibility for Solidarity or the Common Good. Indeed, attempts to effect change merely by force of law without winning the consciences of most of the citizenry can often be doomed, as Prohibition demonstrated. Therefore, since the state neither can nor should do a great deal of moral formation, the responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders as good citizens, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, workers, employers to make it our personal and hands-on business to love our neighbors by teaching them. This is particularly true under a system of government where citizens elect representatives who create the laws. After rendering his taxes unto Caesar, Jesus (who was so poor he had nowhere to lay his head) still found plenty of opportunities to go about doing good. We should do the same.

For Christians, this unbreakable bond between our private thoughts and our public acts is what St. James is getting at when he says, “[F]aith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).


8 Responses

  1. It’s tragic that “Defund the Police” became such a politically toxic slogan, because defunding the police is exactly what is needed in many, many communities. Shut down the Police Department and start over with a completely different system of public protection.
    What would that new system look like? It would mean not sending armed personnel to deal with most situations where people are in distress: drug overdose situations should be handled by medical personnel; mental health episodes should be handled by psychologists or social workers. Armed personnel should respond only to those situations where intentional violence is likely.
    And, most importantly, those armed personnel should be at-will employees of the city – meaning they can be fired at any time for any reason or for no reason. Giving job security to people who are authorized to be violent makes them way too powerful. I’m all in favor of union protections for the vast majority of workers, but NOT for police.

    – joel

  2. “ This results in the creation of idolatrous political and economic systems that fight against those trapped within them, especially against those who are genuinely trying to do the right thing—just as the political and economic structures in Ephesus fought against Paul. ”

    As I have said many times, and on these very pages, structures of sin is really a matter of who’s ox is getting Gored, who’s going to have authority, who is going to decide what for other people and on what basis. Slavery was not a sin, until it was. The gospel did not condemn slavery, until it did. A Civil War was fought, the purely political reason for it being whether a state could secede from the union. Bible believing Christians fought on both sides, and one need to only read uncle Tom’s cabin to understand exactly how entrenched the Bible was on both sides.

    The point is, the gospel never changed. WE DID. In any case, slavery was on its way out, at least in the west. Most of South America had banned slavery before our Civil War. Peru, for example, if I remember correctly, banned it in 1834. Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere, in 1888. It is true that the most Christian monarch of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, was behind its abolition 23 YEARS LATER.

    Change happens. That is indisputable. In many ways, we as a species get better, and in many ways, we get worse. As our current crisis shows, religion is pretty much irrelevant to the process. Former guy politicized what should have been only a public health issue, and in concert with Pox News and Qonservative Qhristianity, the latter with its loud fecal braying about a precious Right to Life, contributing mightily to 750,000 deaths that didn’t need to occur. They turned a simple public health decision into a culture war issue. Right now, the prediction is that there will be 1.2 million deaths in this country alone by next March. My own guess is, that will be under reported by at least 10%, but the reality is going to be much higher.

    Once again, like slavery, religion is on both sides of the issue.

    1. And yet, if you look at the history of the anti-slavery movement, it was largely thanks to religious pressure that there were two sides to the issue at all. The notion that religion is “irrelevant to the process” of how our species has become unrecognisably better in how we treat each other in the last 2000 years is only sustainable if you have no knowledge whatsoever of the “process” or what it was, or how it happened. It is a delusion of wilful ignorance.

      1. “it was largely thanks to religious pressure that there were two sides to the issue at all.”
        Please. Just about everyone in America was Christian back then. Anytime there were two sides to *any* issue you would find Christians on the two sides, both of them citing the Bible to justify their stances. (see ref.: the Indian Problem; women’s suffrage; etc.)
        The fact that the Bible gives no clear condemnation of slavery in either the Old or New Testaments is a glaring flaw in Christianity.

        – joel

      2. @ iain

        I’m not being willfully ignorant. My last sentence is pretty clear: religion was on both sides of the issue. Maybe there would not have been a second side were it not for religion. Or there might have been. Though I can’t cite any now, there have certainly been analyses to indicate that slavery very likely would not have survived for purely economic and political reasons.

        As I said, the gospel didn’t change. WE DID.

      3. @ben

        >>As I said, the gospel didn’t change. WE DID.<<

        A take on human nature to ponder for sure. With regards to the change or evolution of human nature, there seem to be at least three theories.

        1. Human nature does not change.

        2. Human nature changes, and to the objectively better. Presumably driven by communication and education (to include empathy).

        3. Human nature changes, but is driven and disguised by politics and economics, and can get objectively better or worse, and in different areas.

        All 3 sound reasonable to me, though the statements may be driven by different contexts.

        My understanding is you are proposing #3. Do I have you right? If so, #3, would seem to indicate that we should inject some sort of objective criteria to our politics and economics to improve human nature, would you agree? Who (as humans) would develop this objective criteria, and how to develop this objective criteria?

        Would be interested to hear your ideas if you have time.

        I'll let you know what I'm getting at. I believe in a a sort of

        1a. Human nature does not change. BUT with guidance, human behavior can be guided, with great effort, to benignity and benevolence. Hence a gospel. Hence philosophy, hence theology.

  3. @ work beastie

    Sorry, it is taking me a while to get back to you. I had plans to go see my godson today, so this may will have to wait until later. yes, I’m aware of the irony of an atheist with a godson. At seven, he’s rather an amazing boy. He wants to learn photography.

    The question you’re asking is not an easy one to give a simple answer to. Taco was asking the same question a month or two ago.

    I have to start with that I agree with number one, to the extent that it has any meaning as a statement. But “human nature“ is an aggregate of aggregate qualities of billions of people over thousands of years. I suspect that we are better IN THE AGGREGATE in some ways than people were 2000 or 3000 or 4000 years ago. But I’m not sure how one would know or measure it. It’s clear that 2000 years ago, people thought slavery was fine. I’m pretty sure that we as a species no longer think so, but one of the reasons that an iPhone cost $1000 instead of $10,000 is the amount of money paid to the people that produce those iPhones. Are they slaves?

    On the other hand, we have the Nazis, the atomic bombs in Japan, the genocide of Pol Pot, and overwhelming evangelical and radtrad support for the most incompetent and immoral man ever to hold the office of president.

    But why are we better IN THE AGGREGATE? This is where your number two comes in. Survival for most people is not as much a struggle as it was a few thousand years ago, so many of us live in relative safety and security. Education teaches you to appreciate other kinds of people, to understand more, to not be afraid of things and people that are new to you. As does empathy, which May correlate with education.

    So that brings us to your number three: “Human nature changes, but is driven and disguised by politics and economics, and can get objectively better or worse, and in different areas.” I basically agree, but can’t say whether the changing of human nature is disguised as politics or economics. I would say that these are the arenas which our far more complex, complicated, and overpopulated societies operate. And generally speaking, in economic terms, when one person wins, as in a bankruptcy, other people lose. It’s one of the reasons that I consider bankruptcy usually to be legalized theft. But then, I consider tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires to be legalized theft as well

    I would say that number three is indeed as close as your three propositions come to what I think. At the same time, I’m not sure that the question or the answers have much meaning. I would say that the best of our species are getting better, and the worst of us are getting worse, but the bulk of people are oscillating in greater or lesser orbits somewhere between the two. As a species, we have made great progress in some areas. Women are gaining equality, slavery as classically defined mostly is gone, gay people are losing stigma, for three easy examples. Except that there are people dedicated to making sure that women and gay people are kept in an inferior position. That’s not religion. That’s just plain bigotry and despite. And there are still those immensely powerful computers you can put in your back pocket the cost only $1000.

    This may go on a different tangent than what you were actually asking, but it’s the best way I can answer the question. I’m not sure that the proper question is whether we’re getting better or worse, but whether we are getting more tribalistic, with far better means of communicating our tribalism to our fellow tribe members. This becomes then more of a sociological question, rather than a moral one.

    Look at our current epidemic situation. Large numbers of people are saying that their right to be total a holes supersede other peoples rights merely to remain alive. It’s pretty much the same arguments the gun nuts offer. And the Supreme Court, both in terms of guns and the plague, is refusing to recognize that a part of its job is to assist in governing the nation. It has simply become yet another base of power, to force one point of view on to people who don’t share it, with no benefit to society.

    But it’s not just about this imaginary right to be a total a hole. It has left the moral realm. Now, their right to be ignorant, uninformed, downright stupid, or conspiratorily crazy also supersedes other peoples rights merely to remain alive. Their 30 minute google search is easily worth 40 years of immunological studies.

    So, what I see is that Ignorance, fear, stupidity, lack of reason, the ignoring of experience, lack of compassion, lack of caring for one’s neighbors – so much of this seems to be on the rise. But maybe it’s just getting reported more, and thus much more obvious, and that’s why it seems to be on the rise. They don’t care about their neighbors, they don’t care about anything except their own tribe, and if you read the comments at, it seems highly questionable that they even care about their own tribe as much as they care about harming other tribes, or what they perceive as other tribes. The ignorance and despite used to justify that harm is staggering.

    It’s well worth while, in my opinion, to go take a look at It’s basically a series of profiles of several hundred now very sick or very dead anti-VAX people. They are depressingly similar in the lack of cogency, the lack of information, the posting of Memes, conspiracy theories, loony tunes, whom they hate, what they are willing to believe. but above all, a very tribalistic outlook on this virus and the pandemic. In the end, it all boils down to tribalism: my tribe good, your tribe bad. The decisions about the virus and vaccination have become political, not medical, certainly not moral or educational.

    In short, they have become a culture war issue, our tribe versus your tribe. Mrs. Clinton had it so right when she talked about deplorable.

    So now, that brings me to your last point. “ Human nature does not change. BUT with guidance, human behavior can be guided, with great effort, to benignity and benevolence. Hence a gospel. Hence philosophy, hence theology.” As you know, I’ve never been of the opinion that theology makes people moral moral or better. It’s in the press kit; I understand that. But there isn’t a slightest evidence that it is true. People who are bad or not that way because of theology or the lack of it. People who have a moral or benevolent nature are not that way due to theology. As I’ve said many times on these pages, and will not go into the long argument again, no one reads the Bible and says, “I’m going to be that guy.“. Good or bad, They were already that guy, and read the Bible to justify it.

    But this is where it gets very interesting at Nearly every single profile personage is a religious person. They make it very clear frequently, just as frequently as they make clear that they don’t really give a small gloddam about their neighbors, demonrats, liberals, intellectuals, medical or political authorities, the stranger on the street their society, vaxxed people— really, pretty much anybody who isn’t them. But they will move heaven and earth to “save“ a clump of cells in a woman seven states over. And in each profile, there is certainly enough information to indicate that these people are pretty awful. It’s not too uncommon to see their postings about how the hospitals are getting paid a bounty by the pharmaceutical industry to use drugs that are killing people, or that Mr. Biden is seeking world domination.

    Theology isn’t making them better. It’s just another tribal marker. The objective criteria are simply not to be found in theology – or more accurately, theology isn’t producing that in the people who adhere to it. And they aren’t the only ones. The news stories are full constantly of evangelical Christians and radtrad Catholics finding reasons not to care about their neighbor, not to care about their society, but only to care about their own opinions and their own tribe. As Mark says over and over again, using the Unborn as their shield to justify any amount of sociopathy.

    This perhaps wasn’t the kind of answer you were looking for, but this is the best answer I have.

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