Whatever became of sin? Many years ago Karl Menninger wrote a book by that title in which he deplored the absence of sin from the moral vocabulary of the time. I recall wondering about his premise because sin seemed to be on every pastor’s list of things to hammer into our heads, and I even heard it bandied about in public places, but on the whole I didn’t pay much attention to it, which was the point Menninger was trying to make, but I figured it didn’t have anything to do with me. I was wrong, but, in a sense, so was he.
Sin has made a marvelous comeback. It has become the bedrock of the moral vocabulary of many Christians who deeply lament “the world’s” blindness to sin. The problem is, as I see it, that sin has become trivialized almost beyond recognition. The matter came up a few weeks ago in a conversation with a friend who is struggling a bit with the leaders of his church. As we talked it became clear that sin was mostly relegated to pornography, excessive consumption of alcohol (or other drugs), and having affairs outside of one’s marriage. It was not that unusual. When questions about what sin is have come up in my various small group discussions, they almost always get reframed as questions about immorality, and that means sex. It’s an interesting transition. The question of sin evades the question of what morality might be, immediately slides into immorality, and equates immorality with behavior related to sex and alcohol (or drugs).
I don’t know whatever became of sin in the years when Menninger wrote, but it seems to me that these days it’s most often stuffed into a pigeon hole marked sex and booze. If that doesn’t trivialize sin I don’t know what will.
This is a problem. Jesus, at least according to the gospel writers, was far more concerned with sin as our failure to attend to the ways of God that lead toward healing and reconciliation with a particular emphasis on the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Moreover, what the gospels record as Jesus’ teaching is the culmination of almost everything contained in the prophets. That’s a very heavy scriptural load, but hauling it down the road of everyday life is dangerous because it always leads onto the thin ice of prejudice and politics that we would prefer God not be too concerned with. It’s so much safer, easier, and self satisfying to leave that load behind, and be happy with sin as sex and booze.
To be fair, the trivialization of sin by equating it with immorality and then equating immorality with sex and booze, while effectively ignoring anything else, is not a new phenomenon. The letters of Paul are filled with it. Paul was concerned that his newly baptized Christians not get caught up in lives of drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, sexual immorality, fornication, and impurity. At least that’s so if you were a Roman, Corinthian, Galatian, or Ephesian. I guess it was OK for others, but I digress. Paul had to deal with particular issues, and I cannot be certain what those issues were, but I think his emphasis on the perceived licentiousness of the communities in which new churches had been established has been a disservice to the rest of us because it is so disconnected from the moral teaching of Jesus and all the prophets.
Whatever happened to sin? It got buried by all of us who are not keen to take on the moral burden of Jesus’ teaching, and have found being titillated by sex and booze to be more entertaining and far more self satisfying – whether we’re for them or against them (in others).