Generic ‘cycle of sin’

Maybe I need to get over it, but a holy ghost has nagged at me the last couple of days.

I’m talking about three little words — “cycle of sin” — that were featured prominently in media reports this week about a senior Air Force enlisted man who pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct.

The top of The Associated Press story published by many newspapers and websites nationwide:

MASCOUTAH, Ill. — A senior Ohio Air Force base official pleaded guilty on Monday to sexual misconduct and adultery, blaming extramarital affairs he had with married female subordinates and inappropriate sexual advances he made toward others on getting “caught up in a cycle of sin.”

From the Air Force Times:

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — The former command chief of Air Force Materiel Command on Monday pleaded guilty to 13 of the 19 sex-related criminal counts against him, telling the military judge he was “caught in a cycle of sin.”

The Dayton Daily News saved the sin reference until the seventh paragraph of its report on Chief Master Sgt. William C. Gurney’s guilty plea:

“There were a lot of things happening in my life at the time,” Gurney said, responding to questions from the judge about the guilty pleas. “I was caught up in a cycle of sin. I was making a lot of bad decisions. My actions were wrong.”

Anybody care to guess what the religion ghost is?

Sin is not a military word, right?

Yet that simple phrase — “cycle of sin” — receives no elaboration or explanation in any of the media reports that I read. And that’s where the nagging part came in: I Googled “William Gurney” and words such as “church” and “faith,” curious to discover anything that might explain his choice of the term “sin.” But I found zilch. Zero. Nothing.

So am I criticizing the reporters who failed to address the holy ghost? Not necessarily. You’re dealing with a court hearing where I am quite certain no one gave the media an opportunity to ask follow-up questions.

Journalist: “Um, judge, could you please ask the defendant to tell us what he meant by sin?”

At the same time, it does not appear that the senior enlisted man has granted any media interviews.

So, in this case, reporters are left playing the role of stenographers. When the defendant uses the phrase “cycle of sin,” you must report it even if you can’t fully explain it, right?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • dan crawford

    My gosh, what is a “cycle” of “sin”? When we confess, do we go through a “rinse” cycle and are we then spun righteous?

  • Jerry

    “cycle of sin” to me is what happens when a theologically bad habit gets formed by repetition of sin. Breaking a bad habit that can be hard. There is a saying:

    I have a drink.
    I have another drink.
    The drink has a drink.
    The drink has me.

    Bobby, I agree with you: sometimes a reporter won’t be able to find out more. But, even in this case, perhaps a reporter could ask someone else that question although I recognize that space limitations makes that exploration not very likely.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    But, even in this case, perhaps a reporter could ask someone else that question although I recognize that space limitations makes that exploration not very likely.

    Agree with you, Jerry. I wish I knew whether the reporters tried to find the answer or if they didn’t even recognize the need to ask it.

  • Suzanne

    The circumstances of this story make it uniquely difficult to cover. The proceedings had been moved to another state, where it would be difficult to track down his local church.

    And most importantly, the whole thing took place within the military community, which is extremely difficult to access. His lawyer was in the military, and may well have felt uncomfortable talking to the press. Military “spokespeople” are notoriously uncooperative. You can’t simply go to someone’s house to ask questions, since it’s likely located on a military base and access is restricted. He may or may not have gone to church on base as well.

    I, too wanted to know more about this “cycle of sin” when it was first reported, but I also realized at the time that it would have been near impossible to fully report this story.

  • Dave

    An interesting phrase, cycle of sin. It sounds like a euphemism for doing it over and over again because it’s fun. But under those circumstances the person is likely to persuade himself that it’s not really sin. Not an easy nut for a reporter to crack.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    It refers to the idea that once you have given in to a temptation it is harder to resist it the next time. So you past sins prevent you from saying No to future sins. This why Christians say you need grace to break the cycle.

    I don’t agree with the idea that explanations need not be sought if they are not easily acquired. A follow up question is the simplest way to get someone to expand on a phrase he used. But there are others. You can ask friends and family. It is work. But if you want to be reporter and not a stenographer then you need to make an effort.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I don’t agree with the idea that explanations need not be sought if they are not easily acquired.

    That wasn’t my point. Certainly, the reporter should seek the answers. My point was that there are hurdles here that open the possibility that even a reporter seeking the answers would have come up short.

  • Suzanne

    I was not suggesting that a reporter shouldn’t try to pursue a difficult story. But the assumption in the case of many GR “ghosts” is that the reporter was either ignorant of religion or couldn’t be bothered to follow up on the religious aspect of a story. And I don’t think that assumption can be made here, based on the circumstances of the reporting.

    If you’re determined to put the worst possible construction on the reporter’s work, then consider this: This whole story was about sex. Don’t you think the reporter would have at least gotten more details about that if it were possible?

  • CarlH

    Maybe it’s just me, but I find the statement–and the fact that it was quoted in a news article, without a big to-do about it—a little refreshing, even if I don’t know exactly what the guy meant by the phrase “cycle of sin.”

    No namby-pamby “I made some poor choices”–but an actual (and, one might hope, heart-felt) acknowledgment of personal sin, and one that the phrase in question suggests was not just an isolated instance of a “regretted lapse in judgment”–the other quintessential 21st century “mea culpa lite.” In a culture that increasingly suggests that the whole idea of “sin” is an outmoded way of thinking, such statements are rare, especially in a the context of a court proceeding.

    Frankly, I think there was a time when no one would have expected wanted a full exegesis of the phrase he chose to use in the courtroom. I’m also pleased to know he’s not making any personal statements to the press. I’m one who doesn’t believe that the press is a good substitute for the public stocks and pillory.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    No namby-pamby “I made some poor choices”—but an actual (and, one might hope, heart-felt) acknowledgment of personal sin, and one that the phrase in question suggests was not just an isolated instance of a “regretted lapse in judgment”—the other quintessential 21st century “mea culpa lite.”

    I see what you’re saying, but I still wish I had more information on this sergeant’s background to know where he came up with the term “cycle of sin.” Did he come up with it on his own based on his own religious background or beliefs? Or does he have a good attorney who came up with it?

  • CarlH

    Did he come up with it on his own based on his own religious background or beliefs? Or does he have a good attorney who came up with it?

    To me, that seems to be a pretty cynical reaction, especially given the phrase in the fuller context that the Dayton Daily News story used. But I can see how the AP story’s characterization of the phrase (suggesting that Gurney was “blaming” his conduct on the “cycle of sin”, rather than the actions being part of it) could lead to such a question. That angle seems to reduce the statement to something like “the devil made me do it” or a Saturday Night Live parody of religious views on evil and sin. The officer’s acknowledgment that “his actions were wrong” (which to me sounds much more like what a lawyer would have told him he needed to say) makes it hard for me to believe that the “cycle of sin” phrase was just clever lawyering.

    Perhaps the better “Get Religion” angle on this is how the AP writer, especially in comparison to both the Dayton Daily News and Air Force Times reports, chose to handle the quotation.

    I’m not sure how we as consumers of news are more than marginally served better by delving into the background of the phrase in question. Do we then speculate on whether he has a “correct” view of “sin” and what needs to be done about it? Or even if we are willing to see him as a penitent or a just a slick opportunist looking for cheap worldly grace? Ultimately, I don’t think we really want to “go there”–unless there’s reason to believe it’s enough of a story to be informative, rather than simply an exercise in something akin to witch-dunking, by which we insist on having something to show whether the religious invocation is bona fide or not.


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