What does it mean to sin? This is a great question, and one that fits nicely as we move from our series on “Justice” to the series “Understanding our Faith.” Over the next few weeks, we will go deeper into the relationship of sin to our lives, but for right now, it is helpful to revisit the definition of sin. “Theologically, sin is the human condition of separation from God that arises from opposition to God’s purposes ” (McKim 2014, 294)*. This is an excellent definition, but it is also a difficult one, since we are left questioning, “What are things that oppose God’s purpose?”
Many people have offered numerous interpretations over the centuries. Some have been helpful; others, not so much. Contrary to some interpretations, the direction the Bible gives is not very clear. It is not clear because concepts and our understanding of them have changed. Nothing demonstrates this more than when you sit down and translate the Bible from the original languages. More often than not, as we explore highly controversial texts, we recognize that the words which have been chosen often reflect a particular political or social stance more than the concept that they are meant to explain.
One of the great things about the writings of Paul is the fact that he seemed to know this would happen. Granted, he was watching a lot of manipulations of the message of Christ in the early church. Almost all of his letters are in response to a conflict or a particular set of issues facing the communities. So Paul gives some simple rubrics for understanding if an interpretation is lifting up the message of God or if it is tearing it down.
This week our lectionary texts give one of the more interesting ones, and one that mirrors our definition of sin: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” You can easily see where this is going. If sin is the separation from God, the way we think plays a big role in that. Think of it this way: if our minds and hearts are bound to the things of this world, then logically, we are bound to this world. Conversely, when we guide our lives by seeking the heavenly realm, then we are ordering our life in that way. This can be a bit tricky though, because the argument arises that we are forced to live in this world and cannot separate ourselves from it.
This is true, but at the same time, we can examine ourselves by asking the deep questions of how we choose to live. This has a lot to do with justice. If we are living--or trying to live--a just life, then we are choosing to live counterculturally, because we are not living for our own self-preservation. It also means that we must stay away from many of the temptations we encounter, like fornication, impurity, evil desire, and greed, a form of idolatry. Paul even adds passion to the list, which I found interesting until I thought a bit more about passionate people I know, and recognized how often passion turns inward and becomes more about the individual than God.
But more than how we live our lives, the ways in which we verbally interact with one another really show where we are living. When we live in rumors or derogation, we place ourselves in a very human place. Any kid can tell you that the saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me” sucks! Whoever made that up must not have been on the receiving end of the verbal abuse that is all too common in this world. Think about what happens when we speak out of anger, wrath, malice, or slander, or use abusive language: who are we lifting up? It is not our neighbor to whom we are speaking, nor can it be God, which leaves it pointing right back to us. When someone speaks that way, it really does say more about them than it does anything about the person they attack.
What is really interesting is that we have a choice in how we live, and whether we live for the comfort of this world, or for the hope of the eternal even though we are in this world. The problem is that it is difficult! It is difficult not to get swept up into this world’s temptations. It is REALLY difficult not to get pulled into derogatory speech, and when you are, to gracefully exit. But this is our struggle, as well as our promise: when we live in the glory of God through a just life, we can break the cycle of sin and grow in our relationship with God.
*McKim, Donald. "Sin." The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox, 2014.
Last Friday marked my 15th anniversary of ordination. I am blessed in my ministry to have had some wonderful experiences, starting 23 years ago on a mission to Sisseton, South Dakota. It was the summer after I graduated from high school. My church was sending me out to live among the Dakota people to work with youth and children and prepare for a mission trip our congregation was going to take later in the year. While I had not fully realized my call at that point in my life, that experience laid a foundation that would later become a cornerstone of my ministry.
I was challenged to think about realities that were drastically different than anything I had ever had to deal with before. One of that hardest problems in that community at the time was the lack of men. Some had jobs off the reservation that pulled them away, but most were stricken with the disease of alcoholism or other drug use, or in jail. It was the first time that I had really seen a pattern of behavior that stretched from one generation to another.
My mentor on the mission was a retired pastor by the name of Sid Byrd. Sid had been through a lot in his life, and through his story and insight, he showed how the current problems on the reservation stemmed from a horrible period in American history when we tried to steal the identity and culture away from his people under the guise of civilization.
The first thing Sid taught was the importance of names and labels. His example was the word “Sioux.” Though it has been adopted by some groups, Sioux is a derogatory word that was attached to two related but distinct groups, the Dakota and the Lakota peoples. He would say that by just by using the term Sioux, you’ve already claimed that their identity is not important. As an older teen, I knew how important identity was. I was really just coming to a place where I was starting to understand my own identity, and discovering how hard it was to figure out who I was when others labelled me differently than I felt.
The second thing Sid taught was the importance of story. He said that who tells the story is important, and more importantly, that there are some stories that must be told, and other stories that can only be told by those affected. Sid had been a pastor at the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s. That was a very difficult time when the government had created one story about the “Indians” and did not recognize the unique cultures of the Lakota and Cherokee peoples. This, coupled with the identity issues caused by children being taken from their families to attend the “Indian schools,” brought tensions to a height. Members of the American Indian Movement occupied a town on the reservation, Wounded Knee, to protest the murder of a Lakota man, and the failed impeachment of a tribal president accused of corruption. However, instead of listening and working with the people, the government came in and lit a fuse that is now well-known in history. According to Sid, nobody cared about the story of the people---what they cared about was the story that fit within the civilization they created.
This is something that we talked a lot about in my committee at General Assembly. At the root of the way we treated the Native Americans was a series of laws known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Laid out in British law and adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court, this doctrine “ignore(s) aboriginal possession of land in favor of colonial or post-colonial governments.” While the General Assembly both repudiated the doctrine as well as made formal apology to the Native American peoples, the legacy of our actions and the church’s complicity are still being felt in many communities, as I saw with the lack of men on the Dakota reservation when I did my mission there.
Here is where that experience shaped my ministry. The church must be careful when dealing with people. It is easy to think that we “know what is best.” But the reality is that when we do not listen, when we assume that we know the answers, and don’t bother to ask questions, we often do the opposite of creating community and relationship, and end up causing grief and devastating consequences.
For the past few days, I have been trying to find words to explain my feelings about the past week. And though it has been a constant thought, I have not found the words. I have read many things---some moving, others annoying, some just ephemeral platitudes---but very few that touch on something profound or new.
I realize that when it comes to race, I am exhausted. Not of fighting for justice, but of witnessing the same discrimination, the same backlash, the same hate, over and over and over again. It is exhausting. Unfortunately, this exhaustion is making the fight for justice seem overwhelming. The psalm last Sunday asked the question, “how long?” Like an excited kid on a road trip that just wants to get where they are going, our work towards justice seems to be just as futile, though every little bit of action brings us closer to the community Christ calls us to be.
Some of you reading this will be asking yourself, “Where is this going?” or even, “What is he talking about?” And that is the thing: the crisis we are in is so ingrained within our society and our faith that many do not even perceive it. This is a crisis of evil. It is an evil that causes discrimination and visibly manifests itself though racism, or sexism, or Islamophobia, or homophobia, and so on. But beyond the visible manifestations, it is an insidious evil that is active in ways that we are not even aware of, and ends up showing itself in bias.
Hate is a byproduct of evil, and hate causes us to do many things that we otherwise would not do. You know the line, “The devil made me do it.” This is one of my great problems with the person of “the devil” or “Satan,” the way people often use the person of “Satan” as a copout. By ascribing our actions to the devil, we can bypass them and choose not to deal with it, or we can try to ignore the situation entirely.
The truth is that often when evil is present, the perpetrator is a victim as much as those hurt. Both are stripped of their relationship with each other, and that is how evil manifests itself within the world. Personally, I see evil as a malignant cancer. First it corrupts us, then it changes us, and finally it allows us to justify the evil that we purvey, blocking us from real relationships and community.
Often times we look to the hate groups or groups that we feel at the time are the purveyors of hate and point our fingers in that direction, saying, “If we can get rid of them, or change them …” The problem is that, like Satan, they are the manifestation of something that is much bigger and wholly more profound. They are a product of a broken world. Our job as people of faith is to name and rebuild those broken relationships. Just as Christ needed to fight the power of Satan, we need to take on the groups which use hate as their weapon. But we will never have a real impact, and we will never be able to effectively address hate, until we look at ourselves and ask why and in what ways do we perpetuate hate?
From mass shootings to schoolyard bullying, from increasing gay bashing to police murders of Black and Latino people, from the backlash against the police to harassment of other religious groups¾all of this is linked. It all points back to hate, and not the hate of certain groups, but the hate and judgment that come from years of decrees by the church, the insecurity of the electorate, and the greed of the powerful. But it is even more, since hate is something that we do without even knowing. When it goes unnamed and unchecked, like the cancerous evil it is, it creeps into a place where we cannot recognize it until it is too late.
So is it too late? I don’t know. I hope not, but until we look at ourselves and begin to ask how we are part of the hate, things will not change. Until we are ready to go through the difficult battles and struggles to stop it, things will not change. Until we can admit our role in hate with all groups, things will not change! We must name the hate, and we must live into the love, and every time we see hate, we must name it. But every time we see hate, let us also look for the many ways its insidious nature has overcome our lives.
I remember years ago when John Ashcroft was installed as the head of the Department of Justice. In his speech, he quoted the passage which many say is at the heart of the social justice movement, Micah 6:8¾“What does the Lord require of you. . .” I cannot help but remember how strange I thought it was that he would use that verse in the way he did. As I heard it, which may or may not be as he intended, the message was to be humble as you exercised the heavy hand of justice.
Biblically speaking, justice, especially in the New Testament, is something restorative, rather than punitive. This is an important distinction, because it shapes and makes us question what is just and what is not. The political version of justice asks, “Does the time fit the crime?” But that is kind of problematic, because it is often otherwise said that justice is not about making things right, it is about punishing or detouring actions.
Nowhere is that more evident than when looking at drug-related crimes. This was one of the many social justice issues we looked at during the General Assembly this year. Drugs are bad, there is no question about that. However, our relationship to drugs and the associated punishments is wholly out of whack. With the current state of the jail system in California, we have seen the impact of overly punitive and often racially biased measures towards low-level drug offenses.
When it comes to drugs, I have a very different perspective, because I have never met a drug addict that did not have something underlying their abuse of drugs. This may be overly simplified, but in my experience, I identify three causes for drug addiction. First is the easy one, and what I think is mostly a red herring, and that is the social environment. I call it a red herring because I think that a very small percentage of drug users actually use based solely on their social environment. But I mention it first, because it is by no doubt a contributing factor to use, and yes, there are people who follow the pressures of their peers and find addiction.
However, most people I have worked with either start because of a low self-perception, abuse (physical and/or psychological), or some underlying psychological problem. You can probably easily see how an unhealthy environment can drive someone with low self-esteem or in an abusive situation to drug abuse. But what is really interesting is how many people find their way to drug abuse because of some underlying psychological problem.
This was something that was eye-opening to me as I once had to call for help with a member who was so high, they were being abusive toward their kids. This person was bi-polar and was self-medicating. I raised the question with a psychologist about how often this happens. He just rolled his eyes and said, “More than you would like to know!” In fact, he went on to talk about how the fear of repudiation, coupled with the fear of being labeled “crazy,” or the lack of resources or connection to proper psychological treatment, or some combination thereof, often leads people to start using drugs, which then leads to the addiction.
So we get to the justice part. The failed war on drugs really did nothing more than criminalize drug use, not taking into account the underlying reason for the use. Often, instead of treatment and working through the underlying cause of the addiction, people were given stiff sentences as punishment. In doing so, our government was successful at incarcerating people, but did we really make a difference? Moreover, is it justice to lock someone up at a huge financial expense to the general population and devastating cost to the individual personally? The change in our church policy is to rethink the war on drugs and place more emphasis on how we are helping people. In other words, we are looking for how we create a just policy looking towards restoration, not punishment.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen