Jared Witt - September 10, 2018
Christians have a problem with sin.
Or rather, we have a sin problem.
Specifically, we have a problem with the word sin and defining just what it is supposed to mean. More progressive-minded Christians tend to see all the problematic ways that the word has been used to browbeat and alienate and for that reason might prefer to throw it out all together. More conservative-minded Christians see this as dangerous refusal to call the evils of the world what they are. In response, they are inclined to double down on their use of the term, throwing it at just about everything and, in the process, making it seem as though all the problems of the world ultimately boil down to a labeling issue.
Neither option will ultimately work, because the concerns at the heart of either side’s arguments can both be true. It can be true both that the church has often used the word sin in ways that are abusive and unhelpful and that we still need to reserve some means of calling the realities of broken families, and violence, and human trafficking what they are.
To give this word a room in our vocabulary house to move back into while leaving behind all of its unhelpful baggage, we need to draw a distinction between the two very different ways in which the term is normally used:
Guilting vs. Shaming.
Here is quick and dirty primer on something that psychologists have spent careers defining:
This last point hints at a massive shortcoming in the theology of the western church with our sole fixation on Jesus’ death at the expense of serious reflection on his life and resurrection. Jesus might have mystically forgiven me my guilts through his cross but what’s to be done about the fact that I can’t seem to forgive myself for my shame?
The problem of shame can’t be solved by scapegoating. It can only be healed by love—and not even by forgiveness per se, which is only one small facet of the larger diamond called love. You can forgive someone their guilt. But if you forgive their shame, it only reinforces that they had something to be ashamed of in the first place. The part of Jesus’ story which most addresses the problem of shame is not his death but his life.
Consider the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus saves from literal and social death in John 7:53-8:11. The religious leaders, in their decision to execute her by stoning, would like to make her offense an issue of shame. Guilt can’t explain such a massive discrepancy between punishment and crime. They’ve decided she should pay the ultimate price not because of what she’s done but because of what she is. They’ve decided that there is something so grotesque and disgusting about her that the world cannot tolerate her existence.
Jesus quickly recognizes this disproportionate leap for what it is and calls them back from a conversation about shame, which is limitless, to one about guilt, which is limited and fact-based. “Yes. She is guilty. Now, let he [who is not guilty of anything], cast the first stone.” Through generic and baseless shaming, they have tried to dehumanize her and distance themselves from her as humans. By speaking of specific and fact-based guilt, Jesus has humanized her and put them on the same level. “No one here is a grotesque sub-human. Everyone here has made mistakes. Have you also made mistakes? Yeah? That’s what I thought. Byeeee!”
(Ok. I added that last part. But I feel like it’s pretty true to the interaction.)
Once the religious leaders have departed, he is free to acknowledge the wrong in what she has done while validating her basic humanity. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Much of the confusion in western Christianity stems from this, that our lack of self-love due to shame can’t be atoned away through crosses in quite the same way that guilt can. It can only be healed and rehabilitated through a daily walk with Jesus in life. We don’t need someone to die in order to learn that we ourselves are loveable. We need someone to love us. We need Jesus’ life, smiling at us and breaking bread with us. We need him to forgive our very real errs, but forgiving our shame would only encourage it. Instead, like the woman caught in adultery, we need him to refuse to acknowledge the more baseless accusations we make against ourselves.
Seek forgiveness for what you’ve done, not for what you are.
Cheers and Peace,
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