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A few years back an unknown judge came to the forefront of what has wrongly been called “culture wars”. Perhaps you remember the story from when it was all over the news. It did eventually make it to the Supreme Court and has been a rallying cry for fundamentalists and evangelicals in our country ever since.
The story begins with a county circuit judge named Roy Moore of Alabama. Judge Moore was not out of the ordinary except that Judge Moore had placed a handmade plaque of the Ten Commandments above his bench and started every court session with a prayer. Eventually when a murder case of two male strippers as suspects arose there was the first public objection to the Ten Commandments and the judges prayer.
Eventually this judge was elected to the Alabama State Supreme Court and had a massive granite ten commandments erected on the court’s premises on not merely historical and civic grounds, but religious ones as well.
In the ensuing legal struggle the monument was removed on grounds of separation of Church and State, but has traveled the country as a symbol for some of a country that has lost it’s Christian roots.
Whatever you think of the debate I was much more intrigued by the religious language that Judge Moore has used in defense of his actions. During his campaign he stated that he would enter the race with hope of returning “God to our public life and restore the moral foundation of our law.” His campaign, centered on religious issues, arguing that Christianity’s declining influence “corresponded directly with school violence, homosexuality, and crime.” Much of the same language was used in his defense of using the Ten Commandments in the courtroom. Restoration of a moral code that in his perception had been abandoned by the American public seemed to Judge Moore’s goals.
It is this looking backwards toward restoration of some sort of Shangri La that I find so troubling amongst both liberals and conservative religious thinkers today. Whether it is the conservative’s propensity to legalism or the liberal’s denial of sin at all neither seems a compelling description of evil in our complex world.
Nor am I convinced that secular morality and civic mindedness represents anything more than a mixed bag of aphoristic platitudes that either reflect humanity’s potential for creativity or evil. Even though the word used is morality in this context it goes much deeper theologically to our identity as a people to what exactly sin is in our present context. While most would try to prove that these arbitrary historical commandments are the starting point for our understanding of sin I would respectfully disagree.
Some point to a shallow legalistic view of sin and others deny almost the existence of sin at all. Right and wrong are shifting according to a person’s context. There is a relativism that stems from human definitions, human experience, and human social upbringing. According to these liberals there is very little with which we can judge the other. We must know the whole story before we claim anything to be wrong. We must be fair and balanced, hearing both sides of the argument before making any sort of definitions. Even those definitions of sin are arguable. We are told that if uneasy our liberal guilt will be assuaged by denying wrongdoing. Bold statements from conviction are watered down into half-measured stern looks of disapproval, but understanding. This is bunk and would make the prophets of old rage and even Jesus calling out the devil.
Sin is real. There is definite evil in the world. Each and every one of us has sin and it must be dealt with. The holy text is rife with lists and proverbs against what is sin. I am not discounting their value as markers for our denoting our responsibilities toward evil in the world. Yet, to begin and end with them is to severely hamstring what a healthy definition of sin could be in our world.
So, what exactly is Sin? For many years we have heard the overly simplistic definition of missing the mark. That definition neither tells us the mark nor realizes that the target may change over time and context. Jesus is instructive when he says that we are like sheep and have gone to our own way. This harkens back to the judgment on the Israel monarchy when the writer of Kings concludes his books by defining their iniquity as the fact everyone did what they thought was right in their own eyes.
The more that I study the idea of sin the more that I am convinced that it has less to do with laws, morality or lists than relationships. From the first covenant with Abraham to the last preaching of teachings by Jesus on unity it comes down to relationships. Whether it is our collective relationship as a state to each other, whether it is our marriage covenant with another person, whether it is this church’s responsibilities to the neighborhood or whether it is your relationship with your neighbor it all ascends to our relationship with our God. Whether we do the things we are learning to practices stems from our love, faith and awe of that creative force that calls us not only into being, but to fulfill the full potentiality of our beings.
Since sin deals with relationships and covenant it is not merely individuals who participate in sinful behavior. To deny our own participation in sin is grievous hubris and an abomination to God. Yet, to deny that organizations, churches, corporations and government’s sin is to ignore large portions of the holy text. Sometimes our individual sins pale in comparison to the corporate sins that break the public trust by banks, corporations and governments. At each level from the individual to the Federal government there is the potentiality for sin.
It is not whether we follow a set of preset rules that the ancient Israelites did which is important in our context. It is how we are showing fealty toward one another. It is when we break our covenants with each of our societies and when we mar our capacity to be fully human we sin in a post-modern context. Looking backwards towards lists and commandments may be instructive only to their ability for us to construct a whole community that strives toward the Kingdom of God.
When we have identified sins we know must be changed paralysis should not ensue. The dread that psychologically occurs when we know that something must change can be a powerful force. It can spur us toward denial, obfuscation, anger, defensiveness and blame. Yet, this dread is also an opportunity for growth. It can only be spurned toward growth if we are completely ready for the change that true repentance brings. Repentance is turning our backs on those old things hindering us from true relationship with each other and God.
I am not idealistic enough to believe that we will perfectly turn from our collective and individual sins in this lifetime, but I do wholeheartedly believe in the possibility of transformation. We are a people of hope. It is those who are stuck in sin that give us humility to say, yet for the grace of God go I. We know that we have been chosen to not stay put, but to examine our lives so thoroughly that at the end of our lives we might be told, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Enter into your rest.”
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