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The Uproar Over Goodness

When 'original sin' becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card

 

I’ve been thinking about sin and evil in recent days.

That’s somewhat unusual for me. But it is difficult to avoid the daily news assault of people treating others badly, political treachery and revenge, random and meaningless gun violence, and racial and ethnic hatreds tearing nations apart. Sin and evil are on full display.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have stopped to think about the spiritual dimensions of this unhinged human behavior if not for an odd episode on social media. In the last few days, a group of critical clergy were ridiculing a sermon from the Washington National Cathedral preached by the Rev. Canon Dana Corsello. What was the topic of this offending sermon?

Love.

That’s right. The critics were attacking a sermon on love.

The Rev. Corsello stated: “First John begins with this mandate: ‘Beloved, let us love one another.’ He does not write, ‘Beloved, let us love God.’ The complexity of this concept then, indicates that perfect love is not the love of human beings for God, but the love of human for each other. As you know, it’s much harder to love one’s enemy or anyone for whom we feel has no claim on us, than it is to love a mysterious, cosmic, and unseen God.”

She went on to say that this centrality of love – that we are children of God’s love, created in the image of divine love – was the reason she struggles “with the doctrine of original sin” (the Christian idea that human beings are born stained with sin, corrupt in our being, in whom there is no health). “If the divine image of God and God’s love is coded into our factory settings, why then should we, in our purest essence as newborns, why would we be stained with sin in all its wretchedness?” she wondered. “How can an innocent child be birthed from sin, when the Bible tells us that we are birthed from love?”

Her questions are important and good ones – as is this observation: “I do not think that we possess a ‘sin gene’ as part of our DNA . . . We are born from love into love, not from sin and shame.”

To claim that we are born in love, bearing the fresh imprint of God’s love in our beings, is not to deny sin and evil. Human beings do terrible, horrible things every day. And some Christians explain such violations as “original sin.” We were born in sin. There’s nothing we can do about it. Only God can save us. These ideas were enshrined in western Christianity in a particularly bleak form of predestination as theorized by Augustine.

When I read Corsello’s sermon, I was surprised at the uproar surrounding it. Much of what she said are things I hold to be true as well – and she rendered her insights in clear, even poetic, stories and prose. It was a good counterpoint to news – a reminder that we humans choose badly, stray too easily, and violate our own beings when we follow any way that is not love. To say we are created in love is not to say that the world is a happy, Pollyanna place. No, on a daily basis we see the folly of rejecting love, of turning away from loving others. In that failure, we betray our neighbors and ourselves.

In Freeing Jesus, I wrote about my own struggles with “original sin.” When I was a teenager, I went to a conservative Bible church where people loved to quote Paul: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” It was a bit of a threat – intended to make you feel terrible that you would get born again. Here’s a section that reflects on these issues:

I was a tenderhearted teenage girl, very willing to believe elders who insisted I was a sinner from birth, a miserable offender, rightly condemned to death. No one, of course, informed me that there was a big fight in early Christianity about these ideas, and that to this day Eastern Orthodox Christians think their Western kin are far too pessimistic about human nature.

No one mentioned that in Romans Paul was writing to a church where Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians had become estranged, mostly through external politics of the Roman Empire, and that the apostle was trying to reconcile the two groups. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is part of Paul’s polemic making the point that both Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians hold wrongheaded views of one another and each was guilty of hypocrisy. He is mostly concerned with maintaining that the two groups are one – that they “are equals in the solidarity of failure and in the solidarity of grace.”

Indeed, the idea that everyone sins all the time runs contrary to other parts of scripture, including Paul’s own self-description of being both righteous and blameless (Phil. 3:6). As one commentary puts it, “Paul’s argument [about human sinfulness] should not be universalized but understood as a polemical diatribe against hypothetical accusers.” The freedom Paul described in Romans is more like the liberation of slaves, harkening back to the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt, surely not a fate they deserved. According to Paul, God frees all humanity – Gentile and Jew – from such slavery, and together those who follow Jesus are transformed through faith. The emphasis is not that we are all terrible sinners through and through. Rather, the emphasis is that human beings are equals, all capable of both messing up and living faithfully. And God provides a way through Jesus to heal what is broken and make it whole, liberating human beings from wounded lives.

Leaning on “original sin” to explain evil in the world has always seemed a kind of get out of jail free card. After all, if we are sinners from our birth – if all have sinned and continuously fall short of God’s glory – why bother changing anything? Why not steal and double-deal, lie and murder? It isn’t your fault. You were just born that way. There is no health in us.

But these words, this angle into understanding Paul, offer a biblical alternative: Rather, the emphasis is that human beings are equals, all capable of both messing up and living faithfully. And God provides a way through Jesus to heal what is broken and make it whole, liberating human beings from wounded lives.

Born in love, we enter into a wounded world – a world of practiced hatred. In effect, newborn love inhales the polluted air of blame and shame and guilt and denial from its first breath. Jesus, filled with the very Spirit of God, enables us to breath the fresh air of love, air without which we’d find it pretty much impossible to love others and live faithfully. No wonder his first act after the Resurrection (in the Gospel of John) was to breathe on his disciples. They needed to breathe out the fear and anger of the Cross, and breathe God’s love and peace. That is the way: Freedom. Fresh air. Faith.

“Beloved, let us love one another.” We can do this. Sure we’ll mess up. But no excuses. Instead, breathe. And breathe again. The way of love beckons.

That’s not Pollyanna. That’s our purpose. We were made for love.

Visit Diana Butler Bass’ website here.

Review & Commentary