Fundamentalists on both sides of the aisle
“Sin” is a big word for a lot of Christians. Perhaps our ultimate temptation is to use someone else’s sin, as we deem it, as ammunition to condemn them. These days, we call that “cancelling” them (at least on my Twitter feed). It seems to me, when someone makes a misstep or an egregious error, even, his or her enemies are eager to condemn them. Christians have done this for centuries, excommunicating people from the church or just pushing them out of their social circles.
This tendency to weaponize our misdeeds against us creates an environment that I believe is in opposition to Jesus in the New Testament. I suspect we’ve had a sort of overcorrection, especially among some of my more left-leaning, so-called “progressive” friends, where we view “social sins” with a much lighter hand than previous generations of more traditional or conservative Christians have. Their overemphasis, for example, on sex, had led to a more libertarian view of sexuality and sex, in general. I’ve written about this subject at length, so I won’t belabor the point here.
On the other hand, previous generations of conservative Christians have also ignored societal problems, such as sexism, racism, environmental degradation, greed, and violence, to name a few. They have become sort of “favorite” sins to call out of the aforementioned group. I know lots of Christians who would never describe themselves as fundamentalists, but weaponized those “societal sins,” as much as the previous generations fundamentalism used “social sins.” Put another way, the way your grandma sees sex is the way you might see racism, or something. I guess fundamentalists just make more fundamentalists, even if they are not ideologically aligned.
Jesus talks about sin a lot, but grace even more.
But I don’t think either approach is really Jesus’ approach. We can’t pick and choose which “sins” we emphasize, nor can we ignore the fact that Jesus spent a lot of time talking about evil and sin in his short time on earth. So I’m working on reworking how we think about sin in general and how we approach it. This is especially relevant for Circle of Hope, since we are a bunch of people that is eager to forgive and reconcile, we’ve been accused of being “light on sin” or even “weak on social justice.” If you can follow my line of reasoning, a group of people may think we are too easy when it comes to matters like sexual ethics or how we view marriage, but another group may think we’re too lenient because we include people who don’t have their politics sorted through to Woke Twitter’s liking.
A professor of mine had a helpful way to describe sin: that which diminishes life. This is not specific in its prescription of what sin is, but rather descriptive. It allows room for cultural differences, generational differences, and takes context into mind. It lightens the heavy hand of condemnation in favor of an exploration of it. It doesn’t universalize sin, but rather expands our understanding of it.
I think Jesus had a very broad view of sin. The Sermon on the Mount plainly says that our thoughts and feelings can be as sinful as our actions. Anger and lust are as bad as murder or adultery. Who can enter the Kingdom of Heaven? It seems impossible. Jesus reassures that that all things are possible with God.
Like Paul says in Romans 5, “where sin abounded, grace overabounded.” Jesus ups the ante on sin, but also does so on grace. Yes, your thoughts and feelings matter and can diminish life, to use my professor’s example, but God’s grace is bigger than your ability to mess up. You will be forgiven endlessly, according to Jesus. Grace overabounds.
How do we generate, instead of diminish life?
But the opportunity this new framework gives us isn’t just to avoid life-diminishing acts, but rather to engage in life-giving actions and a lifestyle. The antithesis to sin is not simply to sin, but to generate life. How do we do that? Put simply: we create, we liberate, we reconcile, we resurrect.
How do we create? We build things, we make community, we create art. We mimic the creator by trying out new things and not being afraid of failure. The church is a great ground for creating and planting. We are making something great and we invite people to be a part of that.
How do we liberate? We fight for freedom of the enslaved. And we develop eyes to see oppression all around us. We see it in obvious ways, like in the manifest racism and sexism that is all over our landscape, but also in the captivity people find themselves in of toxic relationships, work environments, or even a stifled imagination.
How do we reconcile? After we name life-diminishing behavior, we move people toward healing and forgiveness and repentance. The life-diminishers join the Life Giver and Sustainer. Christians should be eager to forgive, retain, and include; not shun, condemn, or cancel someone. We want people to come together and forgive each other. A reconciling community matters.
How do we resurrect? We look for death and suffering and we offer the healing life of the Spirit. We plant gardens in dead lots. But we also plant seeds of hope in depressed hearts and anxious souls. We befriend lonely souls. We follow in response to our Resurrected Savior and engage in the work of salvation and world redemption. We do our part in saving the world?
What are we saving the world from?
We are participating in saving it from its life-diminishing prison. Paul calls it a carnal nature or a sinful nature. We are hellbent on diminishing life, it seems to me. We can’t get rid of the idea of sin, because that is really more like denial. We feel the consequence of sin in our suffering hearts, in the groaning creation, in the plight of oppressed people around us. We can’t ignore the horror that we’re in if we intend to be agents that stop it.
Stop the cycle of violence. Counter-violence is not the path to liberation: forgiveness is, love is, doing something different. That’s the beauty of Jesus’ vision on sin: yes, it is extensive, and yes grace abounds over it, but the solution to ending it? Loving your enemy. That means not killing them, but it means not shaming them, or condemning them either. Bring out their best; you do so not to exonerate your enemy, but to protect others from their harmful, life-crushing ways.
The extent of our life diminishment ranges from the socio-economic to the political to the ecological but also intimately to our relationships, our marriages, our lives together. Our capacity to diminish life is extensive. We even diminish life in an effort to alleviate sin! Our condemnation, and perhaps quickness to do it, is as sinful as that which we are trying to end.
The solution here is to give life and join Jesus in sustaining it. Call out the best in each other even when we are at our worst. Lift each other up. Tell us we can do better and you believe in us. Remind us that Jesus conquered the grave and we can overcome our own despair and life diminishment and join him in waking up the rest of the world. That’s the work we are engaged in. Be a life-giver, not a life-taker.