Reflections on sin given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Ann Arbor on Sunday, March 12th. (Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent(A): Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5,13-17, John 3:1-17)
I’m continuing to feel like this Lent is a particularly good time to do some real thinking and talking about evil and sin as our participation in the reign of evil. Our dog Kirby gets excited when he picks up different scents, and lately I’ve been feeling the same way about this topic – so here are a few of the trails I picked up this week.
First, last week I was struck by Hugh’s reminding us of Jim Lewis’s very simple definition of sin as, “living at the expense of others.” I find this clear, simple definition remarkably helpful. Given all the junk we’ve heard and internalized about sin, it can be easy to lose our moral compass to the extent that we can go around feeling totally guilty about things that haven’t really hurt anybody — and at the same time be oblivious to the ways we have caused harm, or allowed harm to happen.
Secondly, I was struck by Charles saying that evolution shows that the story of original sin is not historically accurate. I would add that the idea of original sin isn’t even Biblical, as this idea didn’t even emerge until the 3rd century. As Charles talked about the long evolution of human beings, it occurred to me that there may not have been sin before humans developed our fore brains — that is, before we could imagine a different way of being or acting. But once we had fore brains and we were able to imagine how our actions might affect others – and we still acted in ways that harmed them – that is when the problem of sin began. In other words, perhaps it is our fore brains, like Paul’s vision of the law, that have acted to render us guilty for what we’ve done or failed to do.
Third, after last week’s service, Amy mentioned to me that when she thought about when and where she had really sinned, she was almost always acting to avoid suffering. The implications of her statement are still really resonating with me. I’ve found that so much of personal and collective sin is about disconnection. When we do great harm to others, it’s almost always because we are disconnected from our hearts, minds, bodies, or souls.
Similarly, again and again great collective evils seem to happen when situations have been set up to help us to not see, and are thus disconnected from, the evil that is happening — for example, when people were taught that slaves aren’t equal human beings – or when the situation is so huge and complex that we don’t feel any connection or personal responsibility for the collective evil because our own, individual part in it is so small. Amy’s comment made me think about how often these disconnections are about avoiding suffering. Bryan Stevenson suggests they are often simply about our desire to avoid being uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable, and sometimes even painful, to let ourselves feel our connection or disconnection from ourselves and others.
Fourth, this week on her Facebook page, Dixie wrote that perhaps original sin is about how our attachment to the world we are born into leads us to go along with the injustice that is part of that world. In other words, sin is rooted in our fear of letting go of the world as we have known it.
This really hit me in terms of our readings today, for all of them are about our need to let go of the world and ourselves as we have known them if we wish to live the life of faith, the life of the Spirit, and if we wish to be about the reign of God on earth.
The Jewish, Christian, and Islamic vision of faith begin with today’s story of Abram being called to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house to go into an unknown land. In a world where the stranger was often feared and attacked, Abram is called by God to become a stranger, to embrace the vulnerability of being an alien, as the means of becoming a blessing to others.
That is so powerful. It’s the very opposite of what so many call faith, which is all about holing up, hiding out, and becoming invulnerable. If you really let Abram’s story sink in, you can hear the direct connection between this idea of going forth as a vulnerable stranger and Jesus talking about our being called to the very places where suffering and injustice reigns – to meet God in those places and to become a blessing. You can also hear the connection between this vision and Paul’s letter to the Romans today about blessing being a means of “calling into existing things that do not yet exist.” That’s so powerful for me!
Finally, in our Gospel today we hear Jesus telling Nicodemus (and us) that unless we are willing to let go of who we are, be born again, and live a life led by the spirit – which he compares to being led by a wind which comes from where we known not and leads to where we know not – we are not going to be able to experience the reign of God on earth.
And here Jesus very explicitly says, “I’m not talking about what happens in Heaven, but what happens on Earth. About how, through this different way of living, we can experience the life of God, rather than the life of death, right here, right now, on Earth.
So just to recap – between these three readings, we hear that faith is a journey into the unknown that enables us to become a blessing to others, and that part of this blessing is that it enables new things, new realities, to come into existence.
This vision helps to reveal how so many of the conventional conceptions of sin can keep us from seeing what sin is really about, and also how we can be part of helping to overthrow the reign of evil.
So often, people think about sin as being a choice. We’re here in the middle of the road. The right side of the road is the good side, the left side of the road is the sinister side of the road – and sin is about our choosing to go left rather than right. Being a left-handed leftist, you might suspect I might have trouble with this metaphor, but not for that reason.
Rather, I reject this idea because it suggests that we are standing on neutral ground. If that’s the case – that we start out in the middle and then choose whether to turn right or left – we are absolutely the cause of whatever evil happens, but we’re also not responsible for evil that doesn’t result from our direct actions.
But, as Dixie pointed out, we are not standing on neutral ground. We are born into a world not of our choosing. We are born into a world significantly shaped by a domination system where everything has been organized to control, dominate, and exploit people. We didn’t have a say in whether we were born into the top ranks of this domination system or the bottom. In such a world, sin happens in us and through us not only when we choose to sin, but simply when we fail to imagine and to act to break the ways that we are living at the expense of others. Sin is like the default mechanism. For evil to happen, all we need to do is go along with the way things are.
Here it is perhaps useful to think of the reign of sin in terms of the US at the time of slavery. Everything was set up to deny the slaves’ humanity. The only way to break through this evil was to claim slaves as your sisters and brothers, as flesh of your own flesh and blood of your own blood and then to act to free them from the evil of slavery. But trying to free slaves, or even to treat them as people, was illegal and considered by many to be immoral – and, for the longest time, even the idea of doing so was beyond most people’s imaginations and courage.
To use a more contemporary example, we might look at the current caste system in our country, at all the ways discrimination is perpetuated in terms of who can live where, who can go to school where, what kinds of jobs you have access to or don’t have access to because of where you went to school …
It’s a system that results in a kind of social despair – and the actions born of that despair are then used to justify even further discrimination, resulting in the United States jailing more of our people than any other nation in the world. Not only that, but we’ve created a huge caste of second-class citizens, ex-offenders who have completed their sentences but are still legally discriminated against in such basic aspects of living as housing and employment, and denied the rights of citizenship like voting or serving on a jury.
A key part of the mythic narrative that sustains this unjust system is the false idea that everyone is walking in neutral territory, and therefore the evil that befalls them is their own fault.
But if we reject the idea that we all start in neutral territory, and we instead start with the great evil that exists right here where we are – and then work our way back to how we participate in perpetuating or challenging that evil, we end up with a very different vision of sin.
Suddenly, you can understand why Paul says everything that is not faith is sin, because without faith’s imagination, vision, hope, courage and determination – you end up going along with systems that destroy the lives of millions.
Suddenly, you begin to understand that overcoming evils like starvation is not a matter of needing more technical knowledge to figure out how to produce more food or to get food to those who are hungry, it’s a matter of confronting policies based on narratives that justify neglect and harm. As Bryan Stevenson has pointed out, we will not be able to overcome such evils without challenging the underlying narratives that justify them.
Suddenly you begin to understand that sin – when sin is rightfully seen as cooperation with great evil – is generally not as much about what we do as what we fail to do. It requires imagination to connect the dots, to see how the small role we are playing helps perpetuate these evils. It requires imagination to start to envision how we can begin to take responsibility for addressing these evils.
Suddenly you begin to see the ways our deformed consciences keep us preoccupied with minor things, that may not even really hurt anyone, also keep us from being able to see or address real evil.
Suddenly you begin to understand why Bryan Stevenson says we must be willing to be uncomfortable if we are going to stop helping to perpetuate these evils and begin to help overcome them.
We want our lives to be like the story of the Good Samaritan. We would like being good to be as easy as encountering people who have been left brutalized – and then we get to be the good person who helps to heal them and send them on their way. But our reality is different, because we live in a world in which we can see people being brutalized as it is happening. We live in a world where we can see people about to be brutalized before it happens.
This means there is no more neutral ground. We can wait until the beating is over and then help those who have been harmed, or we can intervene to stop or prevent the beating – which will bring us into direct conflict with those doing the harm. Either way, we are no longer bystanders. Either way, we have to really wrestle with what it means for us to be part of God’s reign of love and justice here on Earth in a way that those who want to restrict the concept of sin to what we individually do wrong aren’t willing to consider.
Letting go of a world view that says we’re little self-contained individual units that are only responsible for those we immediately bump up against leaves you incredibly vulnerable, but this is not a bad thing, for as Brene Brown says:
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
In W.H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio the three wise men say: “To discover how to be human now/ Is the reason we follow this star.” These are words that suggest that our becoming human is dependent on our being led by revelation and what’s beyond our conscious minds.
Recently Donna and I got to hear the great Native America poet Joy Harjo speak and read her poems. Again and again, she talked about words being given to her and about stories coming to her that wanted to be spoken. That’s the language of prophecy. That’s the language of a person who’s willing to be led, of someone who recognizes that our conscious minds know only a small portion of what we know and that our egoistic minds know even less.
Only by being willing to enter the darkness of the womb of the unknown can we begin to look beyond to see what our corrupted vision would keep us from seeing, can we think the thoughts our corrupted minds would keep us from thinking, can we feel the feelings our corrupted hearts don’t want us to feel.
Please don’t misunderstand me – the conscious mind and rationality are terribly important to give us greater understanding, but if we limit our understanding to what they have to tell us we will always be driving into the future looking backwards.
Workers for justice are dependent on the creative vision of artists and poets and prophets to help us see, know and feel what we have been educated not to see, know and feel. If to live fully in the present we need to understand our past, we also can only come to that future world we have never been to, but which our hearts know of as home, by becoming co-creators of that future. But to embark on that journey require us to let go of and become a stranger to the world and ourselves as we have known them through embracing the unknown, and with it – that which we can’t see for it doesn’t yet exist.
And if we are willing, God is able – and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen.