02 August, 2018

Sinful or just Incomplete?

The following article is a salute to John Shelby Spong's work, The Sins of Scripture.

Peace to you and grace, from Carly, called to be a bearer of the Good News to the saints and sinners of La Grange and beyond.

“Sin” was a word that was thrown around and thrown at people regularly in the fundamentalist church in which I dabbled in college.  Everyone was considered a sinner in need of being saved from the clutches of evil – or “Satan.”  The leaders were fast to call anyone who did not agree with their theology or ideology a “Sinner.”  The sweet joy of being saved was the drawing card of that congregation.  

Jonathan Edwards
Congregational Preacher
At one time in history of Congregationalism, “Sin” had prominent role.  In 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon published under the name, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” where he used over 20 metaphors to illustrate God’s wrath toward sinners and the torment of hell.  The sermon, while preached to the Congregationalists in Enfield Mass (now Enfield CT), was in the style of that preached to a person about to be executed.  Edwards used fear as persuasion to “be saved.”

The thesaurus lists a long list of ugly words as synonyms for sin:  Wickedness, iniquity, immorality, debauchery, evil, turpitude, peccadillo, offense, indulgence, crime, transgression, wrong, felony, fault, misdemeanor.  While these fit the English language definition of sin, the Biblical definition of the word is more nuanced.

American Civil Religion, the English language, and the church I mentioned above have each taken the Deuteronomic cycle, the model of humanity’s inadequacy in the book of Judges, as the definition of human life and it’s basically “sinful.”  In this cycle, Israel turns away from God (sin), an enemy oppresses Israel (punishment), Israel cries out for help (repentance), God sends a redeemer (deliverance), and there is peace under the redeemer’s leadership (new relationship).  This approach assigns an innate inadequacy to humanity: we can never get it and keep it right. 

We have taken these texts from the bible and we have used them to denigrate our humanity and to cause human beings to be plastered with guilt and a sense of inadequacy. Maybe, if we can make people feel bad enough about themselves, that will immediately translate into their thinking how great God is, that God can love/save a wretch like you and me.

Perhaps it’s time to take a look at human life from another perspective: one that does not view people as corrupted, but rather as emerging and becoming. 
Perhaps the role of the church is not to rescue fallen sinners, where, in order to make them understand the great gift of God, we’ve got to constantly beat them up by telling them how awful and wretched they are.  Rather, perhaps the role of the church is to recognize that all people are incomplete and need something in order to be empowered to become so fully human that we no longer have to build ourselves up by tearing somebody else down.  Perhaps that something is the extravagant and unconditional love of God and not the wrath of an angry god.

Sin isn’t a word we like to use because it is loaded with denigration and inadequacy.  This isn’t to say that we are always perfect, that we never hurt others, or that we are always in the right.  Rather, I’m suggesting that we begin to think of each person as incomplete and seeking wholeness.  From this perspective, we approach one another with compassion and empathy.