Relearning how to speak
In looking into anything a definition is always useful. N.T. Wright observes sins
Sin does not find its initial definition in the breaking of arbitrary commands and rules that must be obeyed “or else!” The starting point for getting our heads around sin is in understanding that the behaviour and actions classed as sin stem from a falling short. A capitulation to a different way of doing things – an easier way, the way we default to.
It’s easy, when we think in terms of arbitrary laws, to paint melodramatic caricatures (God; “Did you steal those Atomic Fireballs?” Person; “I was 7!” God; “You still broke the rules “Do. Not. Steal! Gabriel, turn up the heat…”).
However, any serious talk of sin should be, and has the potential to be, incredibly helpful when understood correctly. Sin involves my nature, and sin involves myactions but it doesn’t involve them in some isolated individual sense. Why? Because at all times I participate in all sorts of relationships, institutions and connections (familial, communal, societal, global, economic, political) that at their core are, because of the individuals involved, systemically out of joint with the Divine telos.
We have too often individualized and personalized our talk of the Christian faith to the point of forgetting this reality. There are a lot of factors that have made this individualized talk of sin the popular way of framing this aspect of our faith. Western culture is so thoroughly individualized that we have reframed much of faith through this lens. Salvation, justification, atonement, sin have all got this filter on them – Jesus’ death has become all about “little old me”, not least because it is an extremely pragmatic way to get people to engage with faith.
One particular example I can think of is Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I don’t know about you but from the way I was taught “all” was really read as “I” or, if someone else was talking about it, “all” was really read as “you”. The point of the verse was always to highlight my guilt and my sin and that there was nothing I could do about it – I really needed Jesus was the take home point.
However, within the context of Paul’s argument in Romans individualism is immensely inappropriate. The verse arrives in Paul’s argument demonstrating that Jews and gentiles, as people groups, both stand in need of God’s grace and that this grace is offered to all through Jesus. The question of justification is not simply a personal matter, for Paul it is an ecclesiological question and cannot be understood on such flattened out terms.
Our acute emphasis on the personal nature of sin; in regards my sinfulness; my need for forgiveness; my guilt before God that condemns me; is so foreign to the worldview of the Bibles ancient authors that we might find it hard to register with. People could not be understood apart from their role, nationality and identity within their community and country (and actually at times even within the universe itself). It is vital therefore that we recognise this. If not we risk imperializing the text with our own cultural presuppositions.
“The resurrection of Jesus creates a realm of reconciliation where individuals have their relationship with God rectified, for sure, but only as that relationship with God is part of an ever-expanding series of contexts that extend from the “soul” to the body to the communities we live in to the food we eat to the ground that provides the food to the powers of slavery and injustice that continually twist it all together.”
Sin has never been an exclusively personal problem and Jesus crucifixion and resurrection were all encompassing events bearing and defeating the full weight of humanity’s sinful creativity, through missing God’s way and making it’s own, expressed in violence, murder, anger, deceit etc. through the political, economic and religious systems that held it all together. To this end sin (or missing the mark) has never been a solely individual issue. The effects are expansive and the restorative power of resurrection is extensive enough to pervade wherever sin has, does and will manifest itself.
In saying that it is important that we say dealing with sin will, no doubt, require actions of judgment from the God who is good and punishment will be articulated in appropriate, meaningful and significant ways in regards issues that require justice. Yet, even here, sin cannot simply stem from the violation of arbitrary commands but arises in the missing the mark, the falling short and as such the settling for less. The missing the mark and the settling for less, ultimately has systematized itself, missing how God desires us to order the world with Him and creating, initiating and settling for our own version.
Yet again however, I think it is immensely important that our talk of sin hold the individual who has “missed the mark” in significant connection to the wider corporate and systematic (if not cosmic) disorder within the world. Our sinfulness causes this in some, though not typically, “original” sense by consequence of our actions as damaged rulers of the world who have failed to rule, lead and care for our world as we should.
Systems and behaviours have a tendency toward perpetuation and inheritance. Through familiarity, habit and convenience (though none of this goes quite far enough) our sin (or missing the mark) can and will become ingrained in our familial, personal and communal relationships and soon becomes systematized. This is the sort of direction I would like to take any talk of “original sin”.
Within this I fail to see how it is appropriate to speak of guilt or culpability being passed onto persons, though there is a case for considering and appropriating responsibility – there is surely a point where anyone will stand by their own decisions and actions.
Can I be thought of as guilty by birth for my growing up in a world that has made theft, cheating, anger, murder, violence etc. at times acceptable or normal? Can I be thought of as guilty for absorbing these values and reciprocating them toward others as a child? Hardly! These values dominate a having-missed-the-mark-world and I cannot do anything about this.
Yet is there not a time when we knowingly participate, remain ignorant of or otherwise seek to perpetuate these having-missed-the-mark realities? Is there not a time when we allow ourselves to become responsible for allowing ourselves to think, act and be part of these systems of violence, enslavement and injustice to varying degrees – and as such identify with them?
Well yes, absolutely! I am at times so immensely selfish that greed, anger, lust, pride, indifference and so on manifest themselves in my life and rob it of its goodness and wholeness and potential. But even more than this these actions impinge and infringe on the shape, enjoyment and wholeness of another’s life – from my family and my friends to my neighbours, to people in another part of the world.
My sin problem cannot be just my problem – and it isn’t. Whenever 7 billion people enter, or are forced into, these ways of life we can see how a personal problem can and does become a systemic problem. Sin is a personal problem in so far as it is also a corporate problem. The two are not mutually exclusive and must be held, and will be reckoned with, together.
This leads us to the question – what will God do about this? What is His opinion of this situation?
At the forefront of the narrative of Scripture is an emphasis on God’s intention to redeem, reconcile and rescue – the primary emphasis is not ever on a disconnected, Stoic judgmental, condemning God wanting to tear humanity a new one. The sweep of Scripture is the relentless mission of God to restore his image bearing people to their position as co-rulers of the Earth, with God – yes a judgment and punishment will be necessary for anything that seeks to subvert this paradigm (anything that does arises from our “missing the mark” and the paradigms and systems it creates) but it is not an act of aggression or violent desire; it arises from the need for things to be set to rights.
A person’s responsibility for their actions within a world dominated by sin, which expresses itself with all the ingenuity human’s muster, must be reckoned with. We may not be originally culpable but at some point the way our actions manifest themselves, toward other persons and the world at large, makes us responsible before the God who invited us to rule and create the world as we both would have it. Our being born into within a sin-filled world does not make us open to punishment by sheer virtue of our existence but at some point the damage we inflict as participants within the systems we participate in, on the many levels we may inflict it, requires some sort of judgment call.
Maybe this is in undergoing the full reality of what it means to experience the wages of sin as death – a literal ceasing to be? Maybe it means that we shall be called to account in some sense? I’m not sure but what I do understand is that the God of Israel has promised to restore all things through Jesus Christ (and the Kingdom and New Creation he announced) and He has stated he will bring the world, and us, along with Himself in doing just this.
It is only in recognising this and letting it capture our imagination and attention that, I think, a meaningful discussion of sin can take place.
 I am currently thinking through this whole area. There are ambiguous references to a total resurrection of the dead, sometimes only a resurrection of God’s people. Maybe when Paul speaks of death it means something for those apart from resurrection in Christ? Here we of course touch on thoughts about Hell and I am not touching on them in a footnote.
 I would gladly hope that some people may not be required to fully undergo the total separation of death. If I can comprehend that some people have been robbed of the possibility of living life out of the full depth of what it means to be made in God’s image then I can only presume God can recognise this and may respond with His infinite wisdom, grace and love which is extended to all and found in and through Jesus.