Damn it, sin, what are you?
I find myself in a strange situation. I’m called as a pastor to proclaim the forgiveness of sins. I’m also a Lutheran pastor, and one hallmark of our tradition, grounded as it is in Luther’s Reformation discovery, is a focus on repentance (of/from sin, ostensibly) specifically for the sake of the absolution (we’ll come back around to this in a bit).
We focus on sin in our liturgy. Like tomorrow at Ash Wednesday services we’ll offer time for individual confession (of sin) and absolution in Christ’s name.
We focus on sin in our prayer. One of my deep-seated pious practices is to pray one of two prayers, either the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or the Rosary, which concludes with the petition, “Pray for us sinners and at the hour of our death.”
It might just be my personal piety or formation in the church, but so much of this helps me. It unburdens the conscience, frees me up, offers new life in the face of death.
But I also know two things about this talk of sin, maybe three, that have put me off preaching about sin much at all, or encouraging reflection on it in the Christian life.
First, a lot of talk of sin has been conducted in a shaming frame, an abusive frame, a genuinely traumatizing way, so that individuals have been burdened with such a high level of guilt concerning their sinfulness that they find they struggle to love and accept themselves.
Often, this is because they’ve been told something deep (like their sexuality) is inherently sinful. As a result, they do not think they have sinned and need forgiveness. Instead, they believe they are indelibly sinful and forgiveness is unavailable.
Add to this the labeling of something in their life as sin that isn’t such, and you can see the burden this lays down. Sin to the bone.
Second, a lot of talk of sin focuses on damnation, as if the primary thing about sin is that it sends you to hell. Then some take this even further (TULIP Calvinists being the worst of the lot), and think they can identify who is more of a sinner, and who is less (always, without exception, the one in the judging seat seeing the sin in the other) and you get a double whammy of “sin sends you to hell” and “we know we’re not the ones going to hell.”
Nevermind that the Scriptures are pretty clear on this point. Check out Romans 3:23, where Paul says all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. Or later Roman 11:32, a thoroughly complex text that probably deserves multiple of its own blog posts, “For God has imprisoned all over to disobedience [sin] so that God might have mercy on all.”
There’s also a third issue here… a lot of sin gets oddly defined, as if sin is only or exclusively pride (whereas many critiques of that definition have been levied), or sin is mostly about personal wrong-doing, rather than systems and powers. So inasmuch as sin is poorly defined, and the critique of it inequitably applied, it tends to burden some consciences more than others, and gets used in “sinful” ways.
Okay, so far I’m laying out a mix of my own reactions to a theology of sin, and also trying to articulate what I think theology around sin (hamartiology) might be.
It is obviously in one sense wrong-doing. But clearly in biblical perspective, it is “falling short of the glory of God.” In this sense sin, whatever it is, is distance, estrangement, not-God-ness. Opposition to the love of God. Turning away from God. Turning into the self. etc.
Thinking About Sin Is Such a Waste
But is this helpful for nowadays? Does a concept of sin get us any closer to God? I think we can answer this in multiple ways. I’ll try first in the Lutheran frame. In our tradition, the call to repentance, the invitation to confession, is never for the sake of listing sin itself. Far from it.
Confession of sin is for the absolution. We confess sin in order to hear, “You are forgiven.”
I kind of think this is the heart of the thing, even if some other contemporary critiques of sin also apply. Inasmuch as sin focuses on sin, it’s a waste of energy and breath. It sends us down a spiral of guilt and enervation. We’re just abject sinners, you know. Hand me a whip.
This is huge. this is not unrelated to issues around white fragility, where those of us who are white fear naming our racism and privilege because we think it’s about that exclusively, and it’s guilt all the way down. But when we get over it, and realize getting over our fragility frees us up for new action, then a whole new world is promised and given.
Keeping this first point front of ind, we can also see where perhaps contemporary secular imaginaries don’t handle the concept of sin very well. Sin is too tied to a directly acting and judging God. It’s no wonder in our imaginary that the concept of sin shifts to other issues, and implements other words. In this sense, we still talk about sin without using the word.
Sin is injustice. Sin is prejudice. Sin is bullying. Sin is systemic racism. Sin is Islamophobia. Sin is misogyny. Sin is grossly hoarded wealth and the use of that wealth to avoid taxes. Sin is a nativist border wall.
And so on. I think you get the point. We actually do believe in sin, articulate a wide range of hamartiologies, but simply do so in other terms.
And third, we’ve gained some new equipment to think about the relationship between our theologies of sin, and issues of shame and trauma. And thank God, because many of the ways Christianity has talked of sin in the past and right up the present are sinfully harming people in our own communities.
Getting a Sin-se of the Whole
All of this being said, we need to ask. How much of this language, how much of the concept of sin, should we retain in our liturgies, in our preaching, in our hymns, in our prayers? We haven’t even yet addressed how we think about sin and Christ’s atonement, what it means that God intercedes in Christ and “takes” our sin or applies his blood to sin or whatever it is that Jesus did there on the cross and how it relates to our sin.
I can recommend three ways forward.
First, let’s stop using sin in ways contrary to the gospel. When sin is used by us to judge, when sin as a theological concept gets implemented to exclude, control, judge, shame, then it is not functioning in the right way. In point of fact, that’s a sinful use of sin, if we can say it that way.
James Alison, in The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes: “In this story then we watch a revolution in the understanding of sin, and a revolution that takes place around the person of Jesus, but is actually worked out in the life of someone else. The structure of the story is the same as is to be found time and time again in John: that of an expulsion, or proto-lynching, one of the many that lead up to the definitive expulsion of the crucifixion, which is also the definitive remedy for all human order based on expulsion. The revolution in the concept of sin consists in the following: at the beginning of the tale, sin was considered in terms of some sort of defect that excludes the one bearing the defect. At the end of the tale sin is considered as the act of exclusion: the real blindness is the blindness which is not only present in those who exclude, but actually grows and intensifies during the act of exclusion.” (p. 121, h/t to my colleague Paul Neuchterlein for the quote)
Second, we need to get back to sin in its whole sense, the sin-se of the whole. Remember, sin, whatever it is, is what we’re hoping to be freed from in order to abide more deeply in the love and glory of God. I think this makes sense to most of us. Most of us want this, and get it. Our marriage isn’t all it can be, and we know we’ve got some things to confess, not so we can then wallow in guilt and judgment, but because then we can (though this is hard) trust in forgiveness and new life. The absolution.
And third, we need much better power analyses as they relate to sin. I honestly think the dominant application of the term sin in our culture is around small, personal sins, when in fact the sin of the world is embedded in large systems of injustice and oppression. It’s not until we bring these kinds of powers and principalities into the equation and refocus there that we will have any chance of really thinking through sin creatively enough to combat it.
As Paul notes in another place, “ For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).