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What About Sin?

There are some who say that liberal/progressive churches don’t believe in sin.  That we never talk about it—or call people to confess.  I would agree that we seldom talk about it.  When I first came here I soon learned that was the “s” word that was never mentioned.  But I don’t believe for a minute it’s because we feel no guilt or shame or remorse.  In fact I observe that many people here at Southminster, take on guilt way beyond their need.  But I think we are confused about how to describe, define, talk about sin.  We know it is not as narrow as sexual behavior (as some Christians try to make it); we know it is not as simple as breaking 10 commandments, as we probably learned in Sunday School…if we went to Sunday School; because we know it has something to do with context.  We many of us, don’t believe that Jesus had to come and die for our particular sins to atone a vengeful God. We don’t really know what to teach children because we don’t want them bogged down in shame and guilt—yet we also want them to grow into adults are moral and ethical and compassionate.

We realize there is evil in the world, and we intuitively feel that we sometimes add to that…but we don’t always know how to stop it.  If we don’t know what sin is; it becomes more difficult to figure out what authentic forgiveness and reconciliation means …and how to reach it.

Since no one took up my offer to send me responses about what “sin” means to you—I am going to share some thoughts from various theologians.

Judaism:  Sin is  “missing the mark”; refusing to listen to God; a wrongful path; hardness of heart; stiffness of neck; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel; “a refusal to humans to become who we are”; Ricouer says the understanding has evolved in Judaism and sin “is at once personal and communal.”

Jesus:.  Like certain prophets that came before him, Jesus teaches that sin comes from inside us, form our hearts and minds, and that it is there that the healing and balancing must be effected.  Sin is bad fruit. (It shows itself in the systems that harm people and keep them poor and powerless.) Repent!  Return.  Start over.  Metanoia.  Change your heart and your ways

Hildegard of Bingen:  (12th century Christian mystic, theologian, scientist, artist)

Sin is drying up.  It is care-less-ness; not caring.  It is also “uselessness”; lack of passion; sterility.  Those who do good are like an orchard full of good fruit. If we do evil, we shall remain sterile in God’s eyes.

Reinhold Neibuhr: (20th century, U.S. Protest theologian, social ethicist & activist) “Sin is the unwillingness of man (sic) to acknowledge his creatureliness and dependence upon God and his efforts to make his own life independent and secure.”

Gustavo Gutierrez (contemporary liberation theologian—Peruvian; Roman Catholic): Sin is denial of love.

Langdon Gilkey: (20th century, U.S. Protestant theologian) “Sin may be defined as an ultimate religious devotion to a finite interest.”

Duncan Littlefair: (20th century Unitarian; one time Presbyterian & also Baptist theologian & minister) Sin is “any act whatsoever that interferes with the creating of life, any act that interferes with love and the opening up of our individual, family or corporate life…anything that interferes with the evolutionary process toward a greater, nobler, more joyous humanity.”

M. Scott Peck: (20th century author with background in medicine, psychiatry & theology) “Evil is opposition to life.  It is that which opposes the life force….Evil is also that which kills the spirit…The central defect of evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it…their absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness.”

Angela West: (British theologian, contemporary) “Sin is about compulsive repetition, about never being able to do a new thing to reach a new place…The ways in which we are sinful are historically and culturally conditioned …and sin is patterned according to race and class.  Thus there are patterns of sin among powerful and somewhat different patterns among the powerless.”

Valerie Saiving Goldstein:  (trained in psychology & theology; author of classic 1960 article: The Humanist Situation: A Feminist View) She is critical of Reinhold Niebuhr and theologians for representing  “a widespread tendency in contemporary theology to describe man’s (sic) predicament as rising from separateness and the anxiety occasioned by it and to identify sin with self-assertion and love with selflessness.”  But women suffer less from a sin of pride than from “triviality, distractibility and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus;  dependency on others for one’s self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence; inability to respect the boundaries of privacy…in short, underdevelopment or negation of self.”

Rosemary Radford Reuther: (contemporary, Roman Catholic, feminist theologian) “What is appropriately called sin belongs to a more specific sphere of human freedom where we have the possibility of enhancing life or stifling it.  It is the realm where competitive hate abounds, and also passive acquiescence to needless victimization…the misuse of freedom to exploit other humans and the earth and thus to violate the basic relations that sustain life.  Sin lies in the distortion of relationship, the absolutizing of the rights of life and power on one side of a relation against the other parts with which it is, in fact, interdependent.”

Carter Heyward: (contemporary Episcopal priest, theologian)  “It is exceedingly dangerous for us to allow any structure of sin and evil to go unchecked in the society, because in the end, we ourselves, will be the victims. Those forces in the world (which, in the advanced capitalist quarters of the earth, take the impersonal shape of militarism and multinational interests, flying under the guise of ‘free enterprise’ and ‘Christian blessing’) are bound to act against women’s liberation, racial equality, gay/lesbian rights, the demands of the poor, all revolutionary movements, and the integrity of the earth itself.”


Matthew Fox:  10 Deadly Sins of Our Time:

—The suffering we cause one another…all beings suffer; life is painful at times.  Why add to its difficulties?  That is sin: the choice to add suffering to suffering.

—Ignoring.  To ignore is not just to be without knowledge, but to choose not to see, not to hear, not to feel.   Many, many educated persons are the most ignorant, the ones most ignoring what is.

—Imbalance, injustice. To be unbalanced is to be either/or…to be overly committed to one’s particular tribe or worldview.

—Severing Relations.  All sin is a kind of severing, a cutting-off from how we connect and how we find one another in the universe.  Sin severs relationships of justice and love.

—Dualism.  Settling into either/or relationships; being segregationists, whether around race or class or gender or sexual orientation or profession; settling for the part and ignoring the whole.

—Reductionism.  Oversimplifying the depth, intensity or complexity of our relations and of their bright and their painful dimensions. (An example: reducing all issues between humans as due to sexism, race or class.  Then rhetoric often replaces healing and little gets accomplished in the accompanying politics.)

—Loss of passion.  In today’s world of urban living, TV, unemployment, striking issue.

—Misdirected love.

—Dissipation of energy.  To misdirect our powers for love is to invite a loss of energy, a misspent energy, a dissipation of energy.

—Sin is that which devours.  Sin is that which destroys and devours.  It is being swallowed whole by events or feelings or circumstances….becoming an addict or a slave to that which does not beautify us.  Sin kills the flesh and dampens the spirit.


Obviously how we think about sin changes how we think about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.  If we understand sin to be primarily personal… the burden is on us individually to change our behavior. Change in personal behavior is always good when we identify behaviors and thoughts that we know we need to change.  But personal change does not adequately deal with destruction and hurt and evil that can come from the corporate, communal sin. For example: we might know that we have to change our attitudes toward homeless persons…and be more generous in our personal charity.  And it is good to do so.  But that still does not change the structural economic and political situations that will continue to result in more and more homeless people.  Or we might become aware that we personally need to be more open minded to those who are different from us.  So personal transformation is good.  But that does not change the systems of racism, sexism or homophobia. That infuses much of our cultural landscape.

Our personal changes will have ripple effects…and yet we intuitively know there are bigger forces at work…and that we are a part of the systems that oppress.

If we are white and middle class, we may not personally prevent someone who is Black from getting a job.  Yet we benefit to an extent from the systems that subconsciously favor white, middle-class, educated people.  That does not mean that we should be personally guilty or responsible for all the racism in our country…but we are part of the whole system…whether we like it or not.  And we need to be aware that our comfort sometimes comes at the peril of someone else.

When we acknowledge “corporate sin” it is about confession that we are part a whole system of destructive attitudes and behaviors.   We ignore those at our own peril.

If our sin is primarily pride or misuse of power—we need to look at how that infects all our relationships.  If our sin is primarily that of not taking responsibility, of allowing ourselves to be a victim; or being without boundaries or expectations of excellence: there will be different ways to “turn around” or begin again.

What do we mean by forgiveness?  Forgiveness is not allowing someone to tramp all over us or manipulate us.  That is not healthy for ourselves or for the whole community.  Sometimes forgiveness is simply realizing that we have to “let go” of all the anger and frustration we carry inside; it does not mean we forget what was done to us.  Sometimes reconciliation demands that whoever has been a perpetrator apologizes and makes restitution.

There are no easy answers to these questions of sin and reconciliation and forgiveness.  We are human beings, tied into complex situations. (As Jesus said the one who is without sin can throw the first stone)  Even what is loving in one context may not be so loving in another. As we look around us and inside us…and see how profound and inclusive are evil and destructiveness…we also see how even more inclusive are the possibilities for good and hope and joy.  Personally I believe “confession of sin” IS good for the soul—the individual soul and the communal soul.  By looking at reality and admitting our participation is what can be destructive and life denying…we also open the way for the spirit of truth and reconciliation and compassion to enter

As much as need to confess our sin —however we define that—we also need to constantly hear and experience affirmation and reconciliation.  We are all human; we are all beloved children of God…called to rejoice and be glad…because we are holy and we live always in the blessing of the love of the Spirit.  Amen.

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