At a campus ministry conference I’ve been attending, a conservative evangelical speaker talked about the critical importance of the doctrine of original sin, basically saying that we cannot love God in the right way if we don’t know that we are hopelessly broken and lost without him. He contrasted this doctrine with the “new-agey view” that we’re supposed to “trust our feelings” because people are “basically good.” As I was listening to this speaker, it made me wonder how many conservative evangelicals like him see the movement for LGBT acceptance as a direct assault on the Christian doctrine of original sin and thus the whole of the gospel, because the basic struggle of LGBT people is to convince other people that the identities they experience are real, legitimate, and not inherently broken, while what original sin seems to teach is that every human identity is inherently unreal, illegitimate, and in need of Christ’s redemption and radical transformation.
Though I need to walk delicately here speaking as a straight ally, I think it’s important to acknowledge that there does seem to be a very real collision of values. It’s not just a question of how to interpret four controversial anti-gay clobber text Bible verses, but a clash between two seemingly irreconcilable accounts of human nature. Can we trust our intuitions about ourselves or not? Is our spiritual journey supposed to instill self-acceptance or self-rejection (or perhaps both in different senses)? As queer Catholic theologian James Alison writes in an essay for Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body, there are two very different ways to understand being obedient to the truth. Is truth a decree from an authoritative institution to which we must conform no matter how loudly reality contradicts it or is truth the reality which we’d do better to accept no matter how stringently authoritative decrees are written to deny that reality?
My defense of the legitimacy of LGBT identity is part of what I would call a doctrine of respecting the identity of the other, which forbids me from presuming that I can know the truth about other peoples’ lives or identities better than they do, particularly when their identities are different than mine in substantial ways, since I do not have clairvoyant access to their personal experience. Since this doctrine valorizes other peoples’ personal experience, it seems to be diametrically opposed to an account of human nature in which personal experience is suspect because of the inherent brokenness of humanity due to original sin. But ironically, it is precisely my submission to the truth of original sin that compels me to proclaim a doctrine of respecting the identity of the other as part of recognizing the specific form of corruption in my own sinful human condition.
This doctrine of respecting the identity of the other responds to a historical context in which my Western Europe people for the last several centuries have given ourselves the “white man’s burden” of serving as the self-appointed experts in the classification and categorization of the rest of humanity, a process which has included giving ourselves permission to conquer other nations, sell them into slavery, and colonize their land so that they too can become “civilized” like us. Though it is not my fault that my ancestors enslaved, slaughtered, and exploited millions of brown people all over the world, I have inherited from them the presumption that I am an expert (whether as a modern scientist or postmodern critic) who has the authority to tell other people what they’re really like. More recently as queer identity has emerged as a distinct category in our civilization, the expertise of my people in telling others what they’re supposed to be has expanded to include “civilizing” queer people into cisgendered heterosexuality.
Two of the basic flawed tendencies in the popular modern Western understanding of human identity over the past several centuries are its reductionism (all people are presumed to have the same basic human experience regardless of their cultural context which can be easily set aside) and ahistoricity (human nature is basically the same now as it’s always been). So in a modern Western reading of the consequences of Adam’s original sin in Genesis 3, every single human being is impacted by original sin in the exact same generic, ahistorical way as opposed to original sin having a specific, historically contextual shape that looks different for 17th century English people than it does for 19th century Samoans.
Because I was raised by an endocrinologist father, I don’t believe that the bacteria, fungi, and other natural biological processes that cause physical death suddenly came into existence as the result of a “curse” that happened at a specific moment in a time when two literal historical figures named Adam and Eve bit into a fruit because a talking snake said to do it. It seems clear to me that the story of Adam (whose name means “humanity” in Hebrew) is a parable that represents allegorically the tragically inevitable fall into sin that we all undergo in each of our human journeys in very particular, historically contextual ways. For me, a major dimension of the original sin into which I was born is the legacy of centuries of imperial presumptuousness on the part of my people, also known as white supremacy. I realize that term is jarring to many white people because we think it always refers to crazy skinhead Klansmen with swastika tattoos, but white supremacy simply describes the result of centuries of people living out with devastating brutality the assumption that Western Europeans had rationality and civilization figured out in a way that other cultures did not. White supremacy didn’t vanish into thin air when the US started celebrating Martin Luther King Day. The world order created by centuries of European imperialism is going to take many more generations to evolve into something else.
White supremacy is a cornerstone of the original sin that I must be delivered from. Other parts of the historically contextual original sin into which I’m born include the hyper-commodification of sexuality, consumerism, greed, workaholism, the myth of self-reliance, misogyny, queerphobia of all kinds, etc. All these social forces and others like them corrupt me in unavoidable ways before I can say no to them. They are the source of my sinful choices, which is not to disavow my personal responsibility for each and every choice. Original sin simply describes the default position in which I find myself before I choose to let God rescue me. It is the shape of the “world” to which I continue conforming (Romans 12:2, James 4:4) when I refuse the Holy Spirit’s invitation to deliver me into the secret kingdom where Jesus reigns.
While I believe that each culture and time has its own particular cocktail of original sin that people inherit, I would say that the nature of original sin’s corruption transcends time and culture. And I think the best understanding of the nature of this corruption can be deduced from studying the actual text of Genesis 3 instead of theologically speculating about generic dimensions of human nature that are corrupted by Adam and Eve’s choice. The road of theological speculation has produced the oft-stated assertion that original sin corrupts every aspect of human nature (total depravity as it’s often termed). But what does that even mean? Does my birth into original sin mean that I will see blue instead of green when I look at the grass? Does it mean that when I have a headache, it’s actually not the sign of any real malady like a fever or infection because original sin means that the physical sensations in my body are completely untrustworthy? Does it mean that the people I walk past on the sidewalk might not actually exist but could be figments of my corrupted imagination? I don’t think any Christian would answer yes to any of these questions, which means that the “everything about human nature” corrupted by original sin isn’t really everything.
So it seems more fruitful to base our understanding of original sin on what the Genesis 3 story actually teaches us about the fate of humanity after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Two things happen to Adam and Eve that build off of one another: 1) they become ashamed of their nakedness (Genesis 3:7) and 2) they blame other people for their mistakes (Genesis 3:12-13). This basic posture of shameful, fearful defensiveness is what Augustine and Luther called homo incurvatus in se (“humanity curved inward on itself”). Basically, Adam and Eve’s story illustrates the origin of humanity’s preoccupation with the thing we call a “self.” Our self-preoccupation is the disastrous glue that makes all of our bad choices stick to us instead of floating away like water under a bridge. Instead of being happily un-self-conscious living in complete trust of our benevolent, generous Creator, we are cursed through original sin with our self-obsession, our acute fear that our lives and reputations are constantly under threat which means that we must devote all of our conscious energy into defending and justifying ourselves. We sin to the degree that we center the universe around ourselves instead of God.
When a man hits another man, something completely existentially different has happened than when a dog bites another dog, because of how the two men will remember the experience of violence and relate to one another in the future as a result. The victim will seek vengeance or cower in fear while the perpetrator will seek to justify himself for his sin, which will in turn corrode his ability to perceive reality accurately. He will find a way to convince himself that the victim deserved it and may even work himself up into anger at the victim for having made him feel guilty by being the recipient of his violence, which may cause him to hit his victim again and become even more deluded and perversely convinced of his infallibility. When dogs fight, they may establish some kind of pecking order in the neighborhood, but they just don’t have “selves” that they are preoccupied with defending and justifying the way that humans do.
Every single human being has not only inherited a social world damaged by the fallout from zillions of harmful, wicked deeds since the beginning of humanity. Worse, we have inherited a confused, corrupted view of reality established by the self-justification of the billions of people who enacted these harmful deeds. For example, in our American context, white people have no idea that we’re being racist when we presume that young black men we encounter in dark alleys are going to hurt us. It’s just “the way things are” because of the confused, corrupted view of reality breathed into us since our birth. Part of the reason that we have this perception is because our white ancestors needed to justify first slavery and then segregation. This need for self-justification meant that black men had to be depicted as innately violent brutes who must be civilized by slavery and later kept in their own part of town away from the white women whose virginity they supposedly threatened. This is the shape of a major part of my peoples’ original sin: the same shame-induced self-justification illustrated by Adam and Eve’s story translated into the particular context of our nation’s story over the last several centuries.
The same stereotypes that made Darren Wilson think he was wrestling with a demon in Ferguson were deployed by music industry executives in a slightly different form 25 years earlier to create a compelling and incredibly successful brand that gave a nerdy white boy like me a means of fantasizing about being tough. Memorizing the first three tracks of Straight Outta Compton was part of my agenda of self-justification in middle school. Though it didn’t really work, I thought I could say I wasn’t a nerd anymore if the popular kids heard me rapping in the hallway, “Straight outta Compton crazy motherf***er named Ice Cube from the gang called N***as With Attitude.” And that self-justification included embracing the misogynistic attitude of gangsta rap because I thought that part of being cool was saying with Ice Cube that “life ain’t nothin’ but b***es and money.” To recognize that the weird complexity of our racist legacy framed my sinful desires and decisions as a middle schooler doesn’t mean that I didn’t make deliberate choices, just as Ice Cube and the members of NWA made deliberate choices, and EMI Records made deliberate choices. But the original sin of racism was part of what chalked out the specific playing field on which I lived out my sinful self-justification.
As humans burdened by the curse of Adam and Eve, we live and breathe self-justification every day. One of the most important myths that the doctrine of original sin ought to utterly repudiate is the delusion that humans can ever agenda-less and objective about anything. Christians who claim to be “objective” may believe abstractly in something called original sin, but their emphatic declaration of their personal lack of corruption show that they don’t really see original sin as a force that impacts them personally. It’s under the cover of this myth of “objectivity” that many Christians (very often white males like me) use scripture for their self-justification. This happens when we use the Bible for building ideological platforms rather than cultivating lives of discipleship. It’s so much easier and more self-satisfying to be “Biblical” when what that means is having the right opinions about issues rather than actually loving your enemies, regarding others as better than yourself, or taking up your cross to follow Jesus, to name a few of the specific Biblical teachings that are supposed to be embossed into our lives. When I use the Bible as a sort of candy dispenser that spits out the right opinions about issues, then I have made it into a tool whose purpose is to give me authority over other people. I get to be the expert speaking authoritatively over the lives of the people around me, justifying myself the same way that my civilized European ancestors have been doing for centuries as they told supposedly inferior cultures what to do and used violence to make them do it.
The forbidden tree in the garden in Eden in Genesis 3 has a specific name: the tree of knowledge of good and evil. My race of superior expert people has been standing under that tree for centuries scarfing down fruit after fruit, relishing the authority we divinely sanction for ourselves to tell other people what they’re really like and what God is really saying to them. To the degree that we love our own authority, we’re followers of Adam and Eve, not Christ. What following Christ looks like is eating and drinking with sinners and defending them to their critics. It looks like railing against the gatekeepers who shut out the “unclean” until they crucify you. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have passionate opinions about the truth, but you ruthlessly judge and examine yourself to make sure that your championing of the truth isn’t really a championing of your own authority. And I’m not trying to say that holiness doesn’t matter because you should just love people and stuff. Holiness is what makes it possible for God’s love to pass through me when, instead of puffing out my chest as the authoritative expert on other peoples’ lives, I beg God to shatter every idol in my heart that keeps me from being perfectly hospitable to my fellow sinners who need unconditional love without qualification or smarmy self-justification in order to begin their journey toward confronting their sin and being made holy by God so that they can become the radical hospitality through which God touches somebody else’s life.
The doctrine of respecting the identity of the other is an acutely necessary outgrowth of the Christian doctrine of original sin, particularly for me as a descendent of people who think we know everything about everybody else. It is a renunciation of the tendency I inherited through my historically particular original sin to put myself forward as an expert categorizer and analyst of other peoples’ lived experience. I cannot trust my motives especially when I’m trying to pretend to be objective. That doesn’t mean that I can’t trust my knee to be telling me truth about pain when I bump into the corner of a table or that I can’t trust my eyes to be telling me truth about beauty when I see an incredible sunset. What I cannot trust is my attempt to hide the perpetual agenda of self-justification that I must always actively name and fight against.
I don’t think that people who say that they just know they’re gay or transgender are trying to justify themselves. They are describing an overwhelming self-perception that just isn’t part of what gets corrupted by original sin any more than the physical ability to feel pain, see color, etc. There is nothing self-justifying about sharing scary, awkward truths about yourself that might get you thrown out of your home even as a young teenager. It’s the opposite of self-justification. It’s the confession of a truth that doesn’t make a person any more valid, especially in the eyes of the church, but simply rescues that person from keeping a deep, dark secret that far too often results in suicide.
I suppose it’s possible that some people might think it’s hip within their particular niche subculture to pass as LGBT so they try to give themselves cool points by pretending to be that way when they really aren’t (confession: Icalled myself “bicurious” at one point in time when David Bowie was my messiah). But I cannot make that accusation about anyone else without falling head-on into the original sin that my presumptuous expert categorizer ancestors passed along to me. The doctrine of respecting the identity of the other is my confession that I have no idea what God is revealing to people whose experiences I have never lived. It’s renouncing my need for the Holy Spirit to tell other people the exact same thing I am told by a particular Bible verse. Every time I need for the truth to be crystal clear and without nuance or mystery, my need is to have control over the truth, which means taking another bite out of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.
To recognize my own limits and fallibility because of original sin doesn’t mean that I can’t counsel people as a pastor about avoiding destructive behaviors and idolatry as I gain their trust. It does mean that I listen without pushing back or editorializing when people describe their terrifying experiences growing up in a body that is foreign to them. It means that if people feel like God has given them peace about a particular way of living out their gender or sexual identity, I respectfully leave it at that and commend them to God’s continued care and revelation. I am not defending the truth of original sin when I tell people that their first-hand life experiences aren’t real. I defend the truth of original sin every time I recognize my self-justification in trying to white-man-splain others and repent of it.
God is allowed to reveal truth to other people differently than the truth has been revealed to me. This is not only true about LGBT people but also the fundamentalist Christians who are virulently opposed to them. I have to accept that God is working in their lives and that they are praying fervently for him to show them his will just like I am, even though what God has shown me is vastly different than what God has shown them. I don’t understand it. Honestly I get angry at God about it. But I don’t have the authority to say that my interpretation of the Bible is the only possible way of understanding it. So let’s try to be disciples who are meek and poor in spirit instead of ideologues who know everything. I don’t think that this means throwing out our obedience to the truth. Actually it means assuming a humble posture with which we can much better explore the truth together with other people whom we can love without needing to explain.