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I find myself wondering what is a “sin”? This past Sunday, it really struck me after we were invited to confess our sins. Is it still lust, gluttony, anger, pride etc.? Or is there new thinking about this?
What do we do when a word becomes heavily associated with a draining or a destructive idea? Well, in some cases, we abandon it altogether. As a society, for instance, we have discerned that there is no longer much good that we can do with the word “retarded” — it has been so poisoned by years of playground taunts that employing it neutrally or positively is very nearly impossible. In other cases, however, some or all of us choose to appropriate or reappropriate a word. Witness boosters of the Affordable Care Act proudly referring to “Obamacare”; witness southern conservatives calling themselves “Rednecks”; witness gays and lesbians inviting their allies to use the term “Queer.”
Over the years, many religious terms have taken on seriously problematic connotations. Consider the term “Christian.” Given a lot of what has happened and continues to happen under the banner of Christianity, it isn’t a big surprise that there are folks who are inspired by the teachings of Jesus, who seek to follow his example, who may even believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but who are emphatic that they are not Christians. “Sin” isn’t so different. In popular usage, it has become almost indivisible from a profound sense of unworthiness, from the notion that Adam and Eve are responsible for a hereditary brokenness in all of humanity, and from a phobic obsession with all things sexual.
It probably isn’t a shock to learn that I am in the reappropriation camp when it comes to religious words. A big part of my ministry is simply being out of the closet as a Christian in culture that is escalatingly ambivalent or even allergic to faith. And a big part of my ministry involves publicly wrestling with Christianity’s words. How, for instance, do the words of scripture remain powerful and transformative in the 21st century? How do the words of the creeds remain an important articulation of the numinous? How do words such as “sin” remain useful and coherent?
That’s a pretty long preamble, Pete, to get back to your question: what is sin? I’d like to suggest that we could answer that question using another “s” word. I’d like to suggest that there really is only one sin:
If we examine the old-school categories which you mention (sometimes, “the seven deadly sins”), we find selfishness manifested in one context after another. What is gluttony except taking more and more when others do not have enough? What is sloth except choosing stasis and comfort when the plight of your neighbor demands action? What is wrath except a gross failure of empathy?
One of the big goals of any healthy religious practice is to help us to overcome that selfishness. Vital religion invites us to grow into a place in which we know in our bones that we are loved, that we are God’s cherished sons and daughters. In that place of belovedness, our selfishness is slowly worn away. The people whom we know as saints are those who have embraced this holy erosion, who have allowed themselves to become so transformed by love that, Richard Rohr puts it, they are “glad to be common, ordinary, servants of all, and ‘just like everybody else,’ because [their] need for specialness has been met once and for all.” Following Jesus’ example, saints are people who are becoming glad to be selfless.
This side of heaven, none of us is selfless all of the time. And so, every Sunday, we get together and we name before God and before community the ways in which we have been selfish. We name the ways in which, intentionally or unintentionally, we have hurt others. We name the ways in which, as the old but still important word has it, we have sinned.
We say that we’re sorry. We ask that we may learn. And we ask that we may change.
Amazingly enough, God forgives us.
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