I was reading the blog of a friend of mine (who blogs far better than I – do subscribe – http://justluckie.typepad.com/justluckie/
In his blog today, he described the uneasy relationship we often have with sin. Here are some selected highlights, but do read the whole thing.
“One of the many ways in which Christianity is perceived as unhelpful is that it appears to be mostly concerned with people’s wrongdoings.”
“… many people don’t feel that sinful. They haven’t done all that much that is so terribly wrong and don’t like to be reminded of the occasions when they do slip up – they have enough conscience to beat themselves up about those without any external reinforcement. Secondly, they are repelled by the kind of moral duplicity that can result from such an emphasis.”
John suggests that seeing sin as an obfuscatory device rather than a “bad” thing may help with the idea of rescuing sin from the tool which the church uses to beat us into a state of needing it. Interesting stuff as always John.
I’ve always had an interesting relationship with sin; my childhood church’s obsession with it gave me a very active guilt complex, (or maybe that was just what everyone has). I can well see the church with its obsession with sin can make it seem like a damnatory and judgmental organisation, but the issue there is not concerning sin, it is concerning the way in which the church externalises the sin of its community.
One thing which is missing from a good deal of alternative spiritualities – and indeed from a lot of traditional Christian theology, is the idea of the community, the communal, both in terms of virtue and in terms of sin. The rise of individualism has turned us from a society of belongers to a society of attenders – but when it comes to sin, and the idea of sin, the notion of individualism turns sin into the equivalent of a naughty schoolboy standing outside the headmaster’s door.
But this wasn’t the idea of the early church. For many centuries, Christian theology was founded in communities, monasteries, clerical institutions, convents, and perhaps because of that the idea of sin, like the idea of church, was communal.
For instance, this radical sermon from St Augustine: the reading is the story of the wheat and the weeds, where some enemy has sown weeds in with the wheat. The landowner says to wait until they have all grown up, and then cast the weeds into the fire.
On the fact of it, it is a dualistic story, baddies and goodies, where the baddies are thrown into hell. Indeed it could be used to scare people into trying to be good – but worse, there is an element of predestination in it – the idea that you are a weed, not wheat, from the very beginning. But look at what Augustine does with it.
Is there anywhere, where that enemy has not sown weeds? Do you imagine he has sown them among the laity and not among the clergy, or the bishops? He’s scattered them everywhere, sown them everywhere. Has he not left anything unmixed.
Any of you who on shaking up their consciences find themselves among the weeds must not be afraid to change. The command hasn’t yet been given to cut, it isn’t the harvest yet; don’t be today what you were yesterday, or at least don’t be tomorrow what you are today.
This, you see, is the difference – in the Lord’s field, which is the Church, what used to be weeds sometimes changes into grain; and nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. So do not uproot the weeds, lest you uproot what could become the stuff of God.
Augustine tells us that the whole of the church is full of weeds – there is a community of wheat and weeds intermixed. No-one can stand in judgement. He also tells us that it is not up to us to decide who is the baddie – that decision belongs to God. We are not qualified to decide what is weeds and what is wheat. And the most radical third thing – weeds can turn into wheat. Weeds are not in fact dangerous to wheat – they can become wheat themselves.
I find this particularly useful, because increasingly in our western world, much of our sin is communal. When one is focussed only on our individual sin, it is easy to deny it, or to magnify it (and in the process magnify our own ego) to ridiculous proportions. But what is essential is that we confess our corporate sins of injustice and unfairness, of prejudice and the poor way we treat those who disagree with us.
When a church says “you’re all sinners” rather than “we’re all sinners” it is putting itself in the place of God, and making a poor job of it. But the notion of being a broken community, in need of forgiveness from one another and from God, was very helpful.
When the church is a community of the broken – a community which is forgiven by an all loving God – then we are whole, and able to do good out of a love of being healed. When the church stands in condemnation of it’s own people and of others, it is setting itself in God’s place, which is blasphemy.