One of the Niebuhr brothers (a pair of American theologians who had a profound impact on the American church in the middle of the 20th Century) is credited with saying “original sin [the doctrine that we all inherit a tendency to sin] is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine.” I can’t ever remember which of the brothers said it, but you’ve probably heard the quote somewhere.
Christianity, especially in the minds of my generation, has become associated with the practices of tallying up sins, public shaming for perceived wrongs, using people’s sense of guilt to control them, and generally being otherwise unpleasant to anyone who doesn’t adhere to a strict set of “moral” obligations (which, at some time or another, is all of us). For many, Niebuhr might be understood as a grinch who is sniping his fellow human beings by remarking that our wretchedness and unworthiness can be quantified and measured.
One way of responding to such guilt-mongering, a response which I experienced frequently as I grew up in Southern evangelicalism, is to basically revel in the depth of our sin, making it out to be a measure of how much Christ has done on our behalf. Of course we can measure and quantify sin, such a responder might say, and the longer the ledger the greater the magnitude of the redemption that has been worked on our behalf.
Another response, which I’ve seen much more often among “mainline” Christians, is to redirect the notion of sin away from the individual and toward the world. We can’t quantify individual sins, such a responder might say, but we can absolutely quantify systemic issues of social justice and societal wrong-doing. Latching onto the notion of Jesus as the founder of a movement, these Christians argue that the goal and purpose of the church is ultimately to combat and challenge these systemic issues, not to call individuals to repentance or change of heart.
Of course, these two responses are something of a false dichotomy. Who is to say that the “empirical verifiability” of sin (to return to Niebuhr for a moment) means we should study and quantify it like an empirical science by either method above? What if our response were more qualitative than quantitative, leading us instead to ask how this “empirical” fact of life changed our interactions with others?
Perhaps the best explanation of “original sin” I have encountered comes from the twentieth century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. Rahner tells a story about buying a banana for lunch. Seemingly, this is a harmless action. It may even have good intentions: the goal of eating a healthy lunch instead of pigging out on junk food, for example (not that a youth pastor would feel any particular anxiety around the amount of junk food he might eat in a week…). But, as is often the case, even our good intentions can have unintended consequences. Unbeknownst to us, that banana was harvested on the other side of the world by a laborer who was paid pennies (if they were paid at all). The bulk of the price of the banana went into shipping and lining the coffers of an industrialized agricultural industry (plus a little something for the grocer who sold it to us).
In other words, by buying that banana, Rahner admits, he has effectively supported slavery in some developing part of the world. Not that he intended to support such slavery, but that he has effectively done so despite his best intentions to do something good.
The point Rahner is making with this story is not about drawing attention to global inequalities and systemic injustices, though he does do that (and for his time that was actually fairly radical). Nor is it about measuring our own individual sins or even quantifying the existence of systemic sin in our global economy.
Really, the point Rahner is making is that all of our actions have what we might call a “moral ambiguity” about them.
Choices have consequences, in other words, and in a finite system this always means that the choice to do or make x is also implicitly the choice to not do or make y. And in the domino chain of cause and effect that is our interconnected global system, this almost always means that somewhere along the way any choice we make will negatively impact someone else. We buy the imported produce and inadvertently support the exploitation of the workers who made them. We buy the local, fair wage produce and the sailors from some other part of the developing world who used to work the container ships are unable to feed their families. You raise the wages for the agricultural workers picking the imported produce and the price of fruit rises, making it harder for families in our own country facing hard times to eat healthy food. There is no simple way to fix things so that everyone is happy. Inevitably, someone always gets the short(er) end of the stick, no matter how well intentioned we might be.
Now, that seems pretty depressing. But that is, in a nutshell, how Rahner illustrates the ways we all contribute to the continuation of sin in this world. Depravity is the inherent moral ambiguity that colors every action we take because of the interconnected nature of all our actions and the inevitability that somewhere along the way that results in someone’s harm.
Rahner wasn’t the first person to think about sin this way. Whether he meant it to be or not, Rahner’s notion of original sin is an echo of something that Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in the century before him.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky writes the dying confession of an old monk. The monk tells first of his brother, who became deeply ill at a young age. As he neared the end of his life, the brother began to say over and over again, “we are all guilty before one another and must ask for one another’s forgiveness.” Many years later, after a stint as an officer in the Russian army, the younger brother met with an old man whose reputation was as the town benefactor, the most beloved member of his community. To the shock of everyone who knew him, this old man suddenly confessed to an unsolved murder several decades before, reminding the monk of his dying brother’s words. We are all guilty before one another, we all must ask one another for forgiveness if we are to live in harmony and peace. These two tales weave together as the old monk urges his brother monks to humbly seek out one another’s forgiveness in order that they might live at peace with one another and show God’s peace to the world around them.
When I read scripture, this humble seeking out of forgiveness and peace resonates pretty deeply with me. This Sunday at Saugatuck Congregational Church I will be preaching on a section of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” which urges us to love our enemies, not just our friends. Why would we love those who hate us? One reason might be because animosity is almost never a one-way street and the first step toward stopping the cycle of violence is deciding we are ok with being the one who puts down our gun first.
Or to take another famous example, we could look at Paul’s litany of sins in the first chapter of Romans. Often used by some interpreters as a rallying point for the quantification of sins, taken in context such a reading couldn’t be more foreign to the text. Paul’s listing of sins in Romans 1 is really the set-up for a rhetorical move in the beginning of Romans 2. Dishing out this fiery sounding critique of “foreign” culture, you can almost hear Paul’s audience getting wound up. And then Paul suddenly turns it around on them: “So if these people are so horrible when they do these things, what are you, you people who know better, when you do them?” Paul asks in the beginning of chapter 2 (and then you could hear a pen drop in that audience, I’m sure). This rhetorical move is what gets Paul to his point in chapter 3: we have all sinned and are in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. There is no one who can stand above the rest and say, “Not I.” We all must seek out forgiveness from God and from one another.
The notion of sin is not meant to be the starting point for a spiritual tallying sheet. Sin is the brokenness of the world, the damage done by our inherent finitude and resulting near-sightedness. We cannot out-run this, it is a fact of our being. But that isn’t the point. The point is to say that since this is a fact of our being, we all need to adopt a tone of greater humility. If I am inevitably contributing to the hurt of the world, and so are you, then we both must always be ready to humbly ask one another for forgiveness and try to find new ways to live at peace.
At Saugatuck lately we have been talking a lot about vulnerability and experimentation, and if you haven’t seen this TED Talk by Brene Brown that explains why we have latched onto those concepts, I strongly encourage you to watch it! I think that the humility required to confess to ourselves and one another the ways we have fallen short and are in need of forgiveness is an incredible act of vulnerability. But in that vulnerability lies the seeds of new life, the chance for the cycle of animosity and violence to end and a new friendship and sense of peace to grow.
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