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“Whatever Became of Sin? Indeed.”

Apr 01, 2008 — Categories:

Whatever Became of Sin? This was the provocative title of a book by psychiatrist Karl Menninger in 1974 written out of his concern that in the beginning of the culture wars, we were losing our sense of moral focus and jettisoning the notion of “sin.”

Whatever Became of Sin? This was the provocative title of a book by psychiatrist Karl Menninger written in 1974 out of his concern that, in the beginning of the culture wars, we were losing our sense of moral focus and jettisoning the notion of “sin.”

Of course in the past 25 years, the notion of “sin” has been alive and well and mostly limited to an obsession with personal, individual “immoral” acts mostly related to reproductive choice and homosexuality. In recent years, these two social phenomena have framed the litmus tests for virtually every politician and religious leader across every spectrum. One’s “position” for or against was for some the only question of any merit and the answer determined in which box a person would be placed.

Two recent news stories suggest at least some thoughtful conversation on the nature of “sin” in 21st century North America. A U.S. survey asking what people considered to be sin revealed that out the list of 30 behaviors, adultery was most often described as a sinful behavior by American respondents (81 percent). Next came racism (74 percent); using “hard” drugs such as cocaine, heroine, meth, LSD, etc. (65 percent); not saying anything if a cashier gives you too much change (63 percent); abortion (56 percent); and homosexual activity or sex (52 percent).

So there is good news and bad news; the good news is that racism is considered sinful by 74 % of Americans. And abortion and homosexual activity have moved down on the list. But the bad news is that a few things are missing from the top five sins. When we hear the word “sin,” why don’t we first think of the battering of a partner, the molestation of a child or the torture of a prisoner?

The Vatican has also recently weighed in: “A Vatican official has listed drugs, pollution and genetic manipulations as well as social and economic injustices as new [emphasis mine] areas of sinful behavior. Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti said in an interview published on Sunday by the Vatican's daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, that known sins increasingly manifest themselves as behavior that damages society as a whole . . . whilst sin used to concern the individual mostly, today it had a mainly a social resonance, due to the phenomenon of globalization." [emphasis mine]

I find both of these items fascinating. The public and the Vatican are now discussing the importance of recognizing social sin, i.e. conduct which causes harm to persons or the earth. But pointing to globalization as the cause? What ever happened to the scriptures?

In Hebrew scripture, the prophets consistently name and condemn the people’s conduct that caused harm to the community as immoral (e.g. violence, oppression, theft, neglect, etc.). In Christian scripture, Jesus is always more concerned with the wellbeing of persons than with following the rules.

The irony is that actually the Roman Catholic Church has a long standing tradition of social justice ministry addressing social sin but it hasn’t enjoyed unanimity on how to live it out. Protestants likewise stand in traditions of abolitionists, suffragists, the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch, the teaching of Reinhold Niebuhr, and liberation theologians and ethicists from many perspectives.

So although there is nothing new under the sun, perhaps we are slowly coming to our senses. Perhaps we have turned a corner in the public discussion. Perhaps we can move beyond an obsession with individual sexual behavior as the essence of “sin” and begin to name and address our social sins which in fact now threaten the very survival of our earth and the peoples who live on it.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute
www.faithtrustinstitute.org

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