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The Romance of Redemption
On “systemic sins.”
My God, what is a heart?
That thou shouldst it so eye, and woo,
Pouring upon it all thy art,
As if that thou hadst nothing else to do?
Everybody wants to talk about how nobody wants to talk about sin.
Our newspapers, newsletters, magazines, podcasts, blogs, and vlogs are scrambling to impress upon us a sense of our own wickedness. What’s fascinating is that, despite these heroic efforts, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. There’s a huge demand for guilt and self-loathing, but not much supply. That’s why our schoolchildren read The Scarlet Letter but not The Pilgrim’s Progress, or even Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The Puritans founded America; more importantly, they lost it.
As it happens, the latest campaign to Bring Back Sin comes from our friends on the Christian Left. Take, for example, “The Wages of Idolatry” by Tish Harrison Warren. For those of you who don’t know, Rev. Warren a minister of the Anglican Church of North America who moonlights as a columnist for The New York Times. (Not a bad gig!) In her column, Rev. Warren admits that sin is “an idea that for many bears the mothball scent of a religious relic long packed away and best left forgotten”:
For some, the terms “sin” and “sinner” seem self-hating or judgmental. For others, they sound silly, associated with things like lingerie and decadent chocolate cake, what the English writer Francis Spufford deemed “enjoyable naughtiness.” Even those of us comfortable with these terms often think of sin as individual bad choices, like stealing and committing adultery. All of these notions seem inadequate to describe the source of so much oppression, violence, chaos and heartbreak in our world and our lives.
Yet there is a specific though less discussed category for sin that sheds light on human fault and failure that is particularly helpful in understanding our society and ourselves: idolatry.
It’s hard to think of a mothballier word than idolatry. Never fear, though—it too is getting a facelift:
With more guns in the United States than people, many see gun ownership as part of their identity and an inalienable right. Guns take on a sacred quality among devotees. Sometimes this is overt, such as the trend highlighted by The Atlantic last year of Catholic gun enthusiasts posting illustrations of saints holding AR-15s or photos of guns draped in rosaries.
Usually, idolatry presents with far more subtlety. Most people would not valorize violence. They would not profess a worship of weapons. But our devout attachment to guns springs from a broad societal adoration of power and of individual rights. These interact with other cultural idols, like money, in complex ways as the gun lobby buys an outsized voice in politics. Our inability to pass meaningful gun control measures is irrational. Idolatry, however, is impervious to rational arguments because it is driven by passions deeper than cognition.
Naturally, there are other, more terrible “systemic sins.” Racism, of course, is another. I learned that, too, from the Gray Lady.
In 2021, the Times ran an op-ed by Esau McCaulley, a professor at Wheaton College. It’s called, “Why Christians Must Fight Systemic Racism”. According to Dr. McCaulley,
Christianity teaches that humans, left to our own devices, often pursue their own distorted interests. We call this tendency sin. When you add in political and economic power to get what you want at the expense of others, you have the recipe for systemic injustice.
When people point out bias or racism in structures (health care, housing, policing, employment practices), they are engaging in the most Christian of practices: naming and resisting sins, personal and collective. A Christian theology of human fallibility leads us to expect structural and personal injustice. It is in the texts we hold dear. So when Christians stand up against racialized oppression, they are not losing the plot; they are discovering an element of Christian faith and practice that has been with us since the beginning.
This should give us an idea of how progressives think about the “S”-word. And now, let me say this about that.
First of all, I think it’s worth noting that neither Rev. Warren nor Dr. McCaulley ever mentions God in their articles. Rev. Warren uses the word gods (plural, with a little “g”) to talk about the false gods worshiped by conservatives, but there’s no mention of the true God worshiped by Christians. Dr. McCaulley mentions Jesus once, but only to quote Him quoting Isaiah’s call to “set the oppressed free.”
This point is pretty important, because sin is not (as the good doctor claims) a tendency to pursue our disordered interests. It’s not a “tendecy” at all. Sin is an action—an action that damages our relation with the Father. It creates a wound that can only be healed by the grace of Christ. So, a sin without God is like a victimless murder. It cannot be. It’s a contradiction in terms.
Secondly, Rev. Warren and Dr. McCaulley both suggest that sin can be a corporate as well as an individual act. But that’s not quite true, either. There can be no such thing as a systemic sin, because systems don’t have relationships with God.
Obviously, groups of people can commit a sin in concert. Three Klansmen can burn a cross outside a black family’s house. Or (to use a more modern example) three white bankers may deny a black family a mortgage, ensuring they never have a house to begin with. Wherever there’s hatred, there’s sin. Still, either way, there are three individual sins committed by three individual sinners. There are three souls in need of grace—the grace of contrition, the grace of penance, the grace of forgiveness, the grace of love.
By the same token, yes: presumably, there are Christians who love guns too much—i.e., Christians whose love of guns substracts from their love for God. Yet there are probably Christians whose love of stamp-collecting also subtracts from their love of God. Maybe one skips church on Sundays to attend philatelists’ conventions. Maybe another left his wife for a rich widow with a whole book of Black Empresses.
More importantly, though, I think it’s clear that Rev. Warren isn’t really that anxious about the sin of idolatry as it exists among 21st-century American conservatives. She’s certainly not worried about the “idolators” or their relationship with God. She’s mostly concerned with the lack of “meaningful gun control measures.”
That’s why think-pieces like Rev. Warren’s or Dr. McCaulley’s are just a little too clever. I understand what they’re getting at. They’re trying to inject a certain moral urgency into our debates over racism, gun control, etc.—an urgency that only the word sin really conveys. Calling something sinful is more effective than calling it bad, or wrong, or evil. It’s just not, you know, accurate.
There’s a reason we’re not in the habit of using “sin” as a synonym for “systemic injustice” or “the lack of meaningful legislative action.” It’s because they’re different things.
By (mis)using “sin” this way, we distort and cheapen its true meaning. And that’s a real problem. Because the story of our sins is also the story of God’s love. We can’t run from him without Him running after us. We can’t hide from Him without him seeking us out. Our falling down is nothing more than an excuse for Him to gather us up in His arms.
Really, we might go far as to say that this is the only way Christians should tyalk about sin. You’ve heard the expression, “Hate the sin and love the sinner.” But St. Francis of Assisi said that we should hate the sin for the love of the sinner. “That person truly loves his enemy,” the Little Poor Man said, “who is not upset at any injury which is done to himself, but out of love of God is disturbed by the sin of the other’s soul. And,” he adds, “let him show his love by his deeds.”
Let me ask you this, dear reader: when Rev. Warren talks about the NRA, does it sound like she’s concened about their souls? Does it sound like she’s being spurred, first and foremost, by the love of God? Or is she just giving a religious inflection to the usual center-left talking-points about gun control?
Now, I’m sure the same could be said for us “conservatives.” We’re pretty good at hating sins; loving sinners is more of a struggle. Hating sin for the love of sinners is a whole new concept for most of us, and I do include myself in that category. As for reckoning with our own sins—being able to introduce ourselves, like the Pilgrim, as “a Christian by the grace of God, and by my deeds a great sinner”—that’s the work of a lifetime.
Yet that’s all the more reason (isn’t it?) to keep our attention fixed on the romance of our redeption.
No offense to Rev. Warren, but Lent isn’t the right time to “broaden” our definition of sin. That kind of broadening is always really a narrowing. Instead of opening our hearts to the mystery of divine Love, we sprinkle a few Bible quotes over our usual talking-points and call it religion.
Don’t fall for it. Remember, Lent isn’t an excuse to damn our opponents instead of merely disagreeing with them. Lent is a courtship. It’s like mating season for the soul.
From before time began, God has pined for us—for me, and for you. Now, through fasting and prayer (and that other one), we finally accept His advances. Like the Virgin Mary, we empty our selves to make ourselves vessels for His love. On Good Friday, He duels with His great rival, Death. Then, on Easter—at long last—He ravishes us. After aeons of patient waiting, the Bridegroom has His bride.
Unless we understand the greatness of God’s love, we can never understand the gravity of refusing God, our lover. And that refusal, ladies and gentlemen, is sin—nothing more, and absolutely nothing less.