Friday, August 19, 2011

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SIN ?..... 2007..(edited August 19,2011)

Unfortunately Karl Menninger’s 1973  book title was taken by many Bible literalists as a welcomed voice to excuse one for making harsh judgments against the non-churched society. There are always religious voices whining ‘ain’t it awful’ how bad people, who do not have our religion, are behaving. This fits right into the deeply held longing to return to some fantasized good old day when ‘most everyone went to church and the world was just in general supposedly  a much more moral place.’ Discernment might ask, “moral for whom?” and even more revealing ‘justice for whom?” I ask the reader to tolerate  the 'sermon' tone  of this essay as it is coming from  the ancient  moral dictum, " To whom much is given much is expected."

I believe there is real sin in human life and society. Sin brings much human suffering and unhappiness with it. One way sin might be defined appropriately is attitudes and behavior that are “harmful and destructive” to the well being of  human beings and of nature. I also believe that one needs to own and be responsible for his/her very real sin. It’s a shame that some religious people nearly delight in proclaiming the sins of others and give all appearance that there is no serious sin in their own lives and hearts. Sadly, such do not know of their own sin and so it is with greatest unconscious sincerity that they only see the social/moral problems of their society in the lives of ‘others’. These ‘others’ are viewed as having significantly lower moral standards. Occasionally such a community gains a convert from the real world. This is always a high trophy and gives the community a sense that at least one among them is a real sinner. But this only makes it harder to identify what their own real sin is. Some speak strongly of their sins being forgiven at great cost but still can’t see exactly what that sin is. So sin remains primarily a category that identifies the ‘others’ of society for it is so obviously real out there. Though claiming to love the ‘others’ and wanting to give their very lives to ‘save’ them, more frequently barriers are built against the others whether it be by shielding one’s own children in private church schools or using middle class standing to avoid even driving through lower class areas where to them the 'real sins' are happening. Only one unaware of the real source of sin could parade before humanity claiming to be a moral example for the rest of us. Occasionally one of these kinds of religious leaders takes a huge fall but the group is quick to raise up another of their ‘like minded’ to be the new standard bearer. A 93 year old female parishioner recently stated to me, “ There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it is inappropriate for any of us to speak badly of the rest of us.”

I spent two nights penniless on the streets of Houston in August of 1985. That experience taught me forever that morality can never be adequately comprehended by lists of behavioral sins. Jesus was so right to insist that the most egregious sins are of the heart and thus more able to be hidden from oneself as well as from others, but this heart condition eventually breaks out in word and deed. And if it happens to become a group heart condition then the evil that results is multiplied many times. This scenario is what can result in wars and ethnic cleansing not to mention the demonizing of the poor and erection of social policies that ensure the poor suffer properly for their lack of pulling themselves up by their own boot straps. A society which puts little effort into planning for  predictable effects of natural disasters on its most vulnerable members, or has  little interest in our day of seeing that modern health-care is available to everyone, or of  ignoring  the threat of  world climate change is a clear indication of the unconscious sin that can grow in the hearts of many , especially ones who hold the most power in that culture.

To those who recoil at the suggestion that much ‘sin’ behavior is linked inseparably to traumatic and troubled life experience and to deprived social environments saying this makes excuse for sinners; my thought is that this very attitude will work to prevent the world from coming to a higher level of healthy spiritual living. It’s no accident that most of us know the wisdom of “Don’t judge another until you have walked in her shoes” and the pointed Jesus command, “Judge not that you be not judged for with what judgment you judge you will be judged”. I fear the most some Christians have learned from this is that we perhaps should feel sorry for those 'obvious' social sinners- addicts, prostitutes, gamblers, promiscuous, adulterers, youth gang members and young terrorists. If we learn about the judgment of ourselves we are more able to see that these behaviors are there not to give us someone to attack and to wipe out with legal and brute force but to show us that ‘our’ society, including some ‘socially acceptable’ parts of it, has deep unseen soul or sin problems.

In this sense wisdom insists that we see the sin of society as something for which we each bear a real responsible connection and that the ‘actual’ values of the society that we have established and support are the birthing place of the human sinful behaviors that come out of it. We would do better to see that Jesus’ words about ‘out of the heart come all kinds of sin’ as not just true individually but also of social groups, families and of nations.

Systems Theory shows us that Psychologically some part of any community or family has to play out the shadow or negative part of the community which has not been owned up to by most of the members and especially its effectual leaders. In families the acting out ‘sinner’ is referred to as the black sheep. But it is not usually psychologically or spiritually true that the black sheep is the deeper place of sin in the family. But rather that the sin of the family has made it essential that there be a black sheep so the powerful part of the family which sets the values will have opportunity to face the fact that their imposed values are lacking in some way. When sin is seen in this light then those with greater power are in a position to help correct wrong values and attitudes and thus  remove the need for the acting out of the negative parts of life.
We Try To Solve Our Shadow Issues By Imprisonment

I believe sin is rooted in ‘flawed attitudes of personal power’ and ‘pride’ which are matters of heart. Neither power nor pride is usually the human motivation for 'crossing an arbitrary line of human activity' as sin is commonly defined by religious laws, such as the Eden story is usually interpreted.  'Crossing the line' behavior not aimed at harming anyone is usually more properly seen as curiosity, even human creativity and essential exploration. But the Eden story has been interpreted that way and so the common view of sin causes a person to ask for the ‘list’ of things to avoid. There are many truths that can be gained from the Adam and Eve myth but this simplistic view of sin should not be one of them. Also hate is frequently found in individuals and groups who have experienced abuse or injustice in their individual or group histories. Injustice against one causes any human to rightly swell with anger. Over time and generations the anger, if not resolved, becomes hate,  hate for what is viewed as the agent of the injustice. If one or one’s group was indeed the agent of the injustice then the gospel demands that responsibility be taken for the injustice and everything possible done to right the wrong to create an environment where injustice is not able to easily continue.

American leaders of genuine spiritual heart have for example led this country in directions to own injustice against black Americans. This has been in steps including the Emancipation Proclamation, the civil rights laws, voting rights and programs to help minorities have more equal opportunities. What has not happened is that the general attitude of a strong minority of  Caucasians has remained negative toward Blacks. Also, when the agents of injustice seek to make justice they cannot do it in a less personal way than the form of the injustice. In the case of slavery it was very personal and involved daily personal presence between the perpetrators and the victims. Much of the intended correction has been impersonal programs with attempt to keep the victim group physically and emotionally isolated from the mainstream. This is why so many whites are exasperated feeling that,” it should be over by now. Every one now has equality. I never mistreated any of these people. What more do they want from us?”

Many 'behavioral sins' are resentfully seen by many in power today as sins of the lower economic class and of racial minority groups. It is not hidden anymore that the U.S. has  now taken a much harsher position against its poor than seen in  previous decades. Close to 20% of citizens of some cities are living in poverty, and 17 % of black Americans are unemployed. To think it is  generally something they can change by primarily  being more industrious is foolish and mean spirited. There is little question that the 'behavioral sins' the power culture points to are much openly  practiced in poor parts of the culture than in the more affluent. Poor people have a much harder time hiding such behaviors  behind white collars and expensive lawyers. Economic frustrations no doubt cause any ethnic group to have higher rates of crime and other negative behaviors. And in America they may come to feel totally left out of the 'American Dream.' It is common to hear people concerned that some poor people are getting too much via social programs and are abusing the programs. Sometimes that is true but it’s a risk that morally  responsible leadership always takes. It would happen less if the programs were far more personal and respectful to the recipients. Upper class and cooperate 'government handouts' do not subject the wealthy recipients to humiliation the way poor people are. Jesus did not choose which of the ten lepers to heal searching for the most deserving. The same people who will see ‘evil’ at work in social program efforts never even question whether the money that comes regularly to their bank accounts is all well  deserved and untainted by 'government program.' I wonder why literal Biblicists never suggest we return to the Old Testament Hebrew policy of every several generations letting all land and personal wealth be again equally distributed to tribes and families. Presently 60% of the wealth developed by the labor or American people is in the hands of 2 % of the population. Can we expect democracy to work justly with such an economically  stacked deck?  Biblical believers need to hear the words of the O.T. testament prophets warning of the consequences in store for a nation that allows its common people to live in economic injustice. Isn’t it a fact that a person who embezzles thousands or does upscale and prescription drugs is more likely to be set free than a poor person who is carrying a small amount of an illegal drug? Injustice to the poor is a strong part of American life today.
Disproportionate Black Men In Prison For Non-Violent Crimes

Like power, the other root sin- pride- is also more likely the social sin of the more affluent in our culture yet both are common failures in human life at every level. And it is usually hidden from ourselves, often totally unconscious. I think much of what I wrote above is how I see the sin of pride being deeply seated in the more powerful people and groups of our society. Pride and power were the heart of institutionalized slavery and are at the heart of every kind of racism, immigrantism, and sexism aimed against women or ones with non-straight sexual preferences.

National pride of the sinful variety seems now very high. Some American people believe their form of government is superior to all others and that our goal should be to make others as we are. It is nothing short of a religious fervor of a growing segment of the country and a large part of that attitude is coming from fundamentalist Christian communities. The 'Tea Party' insisting its way or the highway has done great harm to the already troubled U.S. economy. What is godly to this part of our culture is seen by much of the world as sinful pride. I wish I could believe that this latter opinion is wrong but I fear it’s not. We have nearly squandered whatever ‘light’ the genuinely moral teachings of Christianity has to bring to the world community. How can a nation that seems to despise its own weak and poor make a case for trying to help the poor of the world?

The religious right boasts its morality in its claim to protect the 'weakest', the unborn, by its intolerant stand against a woman's choice to bear children. It is always much more difficult to love and respect real living humans than it is unborn fetuses. There is a strong ethical and moral augment for the bearing of a child to be the sole decision of the potential mother. This is what I believe is just and moral. There is something far more sinister going on in the religious mind that tries to coerce people to have children who everyone knows are destined for a life of poverty and suffering. Raising a child requires a twenty year commitment of at least one adult who is ready and prepared for the job. This requirement that one give birth usually accompanies opposing educating people on the truth about birth control and refuses to uphold it as one of the most moral and responsible things a human being can practice. Today, much of the US funds marked to help countries with their AIDS epidemic are withheld unless the receiving culture agrees to teach only abstinence as a means to prevent disease and birth control. This to me is sin in frightening  proportions. If there is a place for the conventional symbols of the devil and his brood it is such unthoughtful attitudes. And it all has its roots in religious pride that is unacknowledged by its bearers, primarily because it is truly  unconscious to them.

Perhaps the greatest sin a human can commit is an attitude of not attempting to welcome all truth to consciousness. This should be a spiritual and social  goal of  human life, no matter how hard new truths may be to hear. The greatest sin in not 'crossing some arbitrary line of behavior' that has been set up by ones’ supposed God but by not being willing to cross the line of increased consciousness when the opportunity presents itself in one’s human life. If this kind of maturing behavior and goal setting were modeled by adults and what people were taught to value in themselves and others, then many more humans would be having the experience of raised consciousness, so needed in our world today.

This essay expresses some of the dimensions of sin that seem important to me in our age and how it is the lack of consciousness that is the barrier that keeps these things being seen for what they are. If seen I am convinced that the typical human would take necessary steps to reduce the grip of sin on his/her own life. She would be able to respond to others in ways that truly would help them do the same. He would fully experience the grace and mercy of God and be quick to extend the same openly to all others- not in words and forms of any orthodoxy but in the warmth and welcoming of genuine human respect and caring.

Some who would read this may say, ‘Jim, you just expect too much of people. They just can’t measure up to your severe expectations’. I have a great empathy for anyone, including myself, who desires to live a moral and just life. I am also convinced that until we see our sin and the sin of our groups as a reality which we have  no way to resolve on our own good will and ego strength, we will not be moved to use our religion to access a power from the Spirit of God. A power to do that which we realize we are unable to do on our own. Any real spiritual attitude will always drive one to the realization, " We have a serious problem here that is larger than my own good efforts to solve but ‘with God all things are possible’ and in this case necessary for human survival.”

Back to those Houston nights. I was driving a rental car and totally ran out of money and had no credit card. I tried to get into a salvation army but there was no room. I was not afraid until then. So I saw a dozen or so people gathered on the street. It was dark. I entered into their street community. My ‘sin’ point is that I was treated with the highest level of morality. Perhaps these people were not ‘big sinners’ but my guess is that one or the other had likely covered most of the sins on anyone’s list. I could have been hurt and taken advantage of that night. I told them I had no money. But I had a car and they knew I had the key. And I was a vulnerable body if there was anyone who would have chosen to rape me. They did nothing out of the way, not even a word to make me fearful. They requested nothing of me and offered me anything they were eating or drinking or smoking or taking. They were not offended if I declined which I did for the most part. If I had provoked them I could have likely been rejected. They seemed to understand my situation and welcomed me into their community for two nights in a row. Before the first night was over I  felt safe in their midst. I knew then that people, even the ones I had thought of as ‘real sinners’ are moral also in the richest meaning of that word. There were good hearts on that Houston Street for these were fellow humans created just like me in the image of a fascinating God. Their morality was a part of that image. I asked God then to always help me to expect to see God in the goodness and morality of all His children. Sometimes I forget and get pulled back in to that fearful, selfish, judging , unwelcoming, distancing way of not being truly human. When I do I realize I am experiencing and living out death, not the life that Jesus promised is within each of us. As a British author once said, “ We are all in the same boat on a storm tossed sea and we owe each other a terrible loyalty”. I suspect Jesus felt this way about every human he encountered. He was indeed so many years ahead of his human time. His kind of view is the only hope I can envision for a quite literal salvation of our present world.

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