In recent news, I’ve heard gross moral failings repeatedly described as resulting from “a culture of” some particular type of undesirable thing or another. Most recently, the Secret Service scandal has prompted questions about the Secret Service being a culture of partying and debauchery. Before that, the NFL bounty program was explained as existing in a culture of violence. In the wake of soldiers posing with the dead bodies of their enemies and videoing torture scenes in military prisons the military was described as harboring a culture of violence and the abuse of authority. The Catholic Church, following the sex abuse scandal among priests, was called a culture of secrecy. Pretty much every facet of both the hip-hop and rock-n-roll industry has been described as a culture of sex, drugs, money, power, or violence (or all of the above) at one time or another. Wall Street breeds a culture of corruption and greed. Fraternities establish cultures of alcohol abuse and hazing. There are cultures of racism, cultures of sexism, cultures of hate, cultures just about anything.
To be sure, the “culture of” language is helpful in several ways. First, the “culture of” language admits that there is a massive problem that is inherent to the existence of various entities. We know that the problems we explain as a “culture of” something or another can’t exist because of one or two bad apples. Second, there is an implied acceptance of a general morality. When things go wrong on a large scale, we hang up our moral relativism pretty quickly. Third, when we describe cultures of problems, we are also longing for a culture without those same problems. We know things can’t be right as they currently exist.
Nonetheless, this language also falls short in several ways. First, describing the NFL bounty program (just for example) as resulting from a culture that accepts and celebrates violence distances the real people involved from the issue. The people are not the issue, the culture in which they exist is the issue. In other words, the players who were willing to attempt to hurt other players purposefully are only that way because of the culture in which they exist. It can’t be the case that the players are failing to love their neighbors as themselves. It can’t be an issue of sin. Of course, there is often a fall guy(s), but, it seems to me, the fall guy is generally viewed as the cultural figurehead taking the rap for the culture. The fall guy is someone we can point to in order to prove our disdain for the identified problem and feel like we are actually making progress in our attempts to clean things up a bit. A second issue is related to the first. Describing sin in terms of a “culture of” allows us to distance ourselves from the actual, particular sins that exist in that culture. If there is a culture that we can identify from the outside, then it is a culture we are not part of (or at least can choose to no longer be a part of). However, if I say that the issue is people, who are very much like me, are sinful, then I may have to deal with the fact that I am growing from the same root. The distance we create allows us to judge the situation without feeling like we are judging anyone in particular, and this helps us keep our own hands clean. Third, the “culture of” language points to the fact that it often takes large scale wrong, or particularly egregious wrongs, for us to start caring. In our decries of cultures of this, that, or the other, we overlook the fact that we are operating within a (dare I say) culture of apathy that allows us to say, “Who am I to judge?” when it comes to individual issues (or issues that we may benefit from by not judging). Our overlooking of individual sins betrays our outrage at corporate, communal, and particularly egregious sins.
The problem with various pockets of humanity is not that they exist within a culture of something bad. The problem with various pockets of humanity is that they are filled with humans, sinful humans. Cultures of violence exist because we despise, deny, and therefore are willing to deface the image of God that all people necessarily bear. Cultures of sexual exploitation exist because we are adulterers. Cultures of secrecy exist because the truth is not in us. Cultures of racism exist because we long for a permanent identity and need some way to define it. Cultures of greed exist because we want security and will do anything to attain it. Of course there are complicated combinations of reasons why these cultures exist, but the base issue is, we are sinners. In the end, we all exist together in a “culture of sin”, and we are all pulling our weight in shaping that culture.