Sinners and the Sinned Against
A Reflection on Sin and Pain
The Church and its people have long struggled with understanding sin. What does it mean to sin against God and one another? What does it mean to be sinned against by those with whom we are supposed to be in community? Because of this struggle, we regularly work to define and redefine what sin is, sometimes in unhelpful ways, resulting in schisms and even the ostracizing of one group from another. Sometimes we have sin defined for us even though we never asked. Sometimes we are told we are the sin.
Sin and the theological concepts tied to sin like atonement, grace, and forgiveness, are complex, so I approach my understanding of it from my experience. I understand sin in the systemic and personal sense to be at the center of some of humanity’s deepest pain. Sin and its construction of pain is simultaneously individual, corporate, and generational. Sin is not only a theological concept, it is also personified; it is both carried by people and devastates people. Theologies of sin and sinfulness have been weaponized, used against people to diminish and erase them. For instance, when scriptures like Mark 2:1-12, the healing of the paralytic, are exegeted and taught in church as if sin was the cause of the man’s paralysis, it teaches that disabilities define us and connect to sinfulness and uncleanliness, necessitating forgiveness in order to be a “whole” person. This type of teaching about sin as the nexus of otherness causes pain. It denies the reality that people with disabilities are already whole people! It also reveals the real sin, the sin of operating from ableist perspectives and constructs, in the ways we try and understand scripture and Jesus and leads to the shaming and shunning of our kindred.
For me, a major question around sin and sinfulness has always been, “Who gets to define sin and sinfulness?” As Conradie rightly mentions, we live in a world that is deeply patriarchal, ablest, racist, imperialist, colonialist, and ultimately sinful, where our relationships and values are defined by constructs of power and privilege. Throughout history, we have witnessed those in power consistently attempt to define sin on behalf of the less powerful. But what happens to a person when the sin that is named and defined is your own body, your own voice, your very personhood? For some of us, that sin has been the color of our skin, our gender or our refusal to claim a gender, our human sexuality, or all of these at once. These are identities, not choices; they are who we are, a part of the miraculous quality of being human, yet they have been defined for some throughout history by those in power as unacceptable before God. Those with such identities are treated as less than fully human, their very existence identified in terms of sin. Such abuse has left those who are marked this way feeling sinned against and in pain.
This pain is just as complex as sin and is carried out at the intersection of our bodies, minds, and spirits. Pain encompasses many experiences: the emotional and spiritual pain that comes from witnessing and experiencing tragedy in our lives and in the lives of others. This emotional and spiritual pain has a physical connection and element. Anyone who has ever grieved knows the keening and physical pain that accompanies the despair of the soul. Heartbreak is a physical thing as well as an emotional one. Likewise, the pain of physical violence on one’s body is connected intrinsically to emotional pain, emotional scarring, and trauma. Sometimes pain is all of these things as once, bearing down upon us in excruciating ways. All this to say that if we cannot even define pain in distinct and finite ways, how are we to talk about sin without hurting one another through the construction something that inevitably results in more grief and pain?
Conradie approaches sin as something we all innately understand because of the relationship we have with it. I am struck by his vivid descriptions of sin in his essay and am reminded, especially in political eras like ours, that sin is not only theological and that the discussion of sin should not only exist in the ether. Sin, like pain, has embodiment and its embodiment is both systemic and individual. For those who live in the United States, sin looks like a government that is willing to look the other way to pad the pockets of big insurance companies as people with cancer are on the verge or losing their healthcare and their only chance at survival. Sin looks like school lunches being thrown out while hungry students look on, shamed before their peers for being unable to pay. Sin looks like the pain we inflict on one another, whether by our words or by our vote. Sin is experienced by people first-hand in the harming of others and being harmed by others. Sin is not a theological construct when people first encounter sin; it is personified. Sin has a face.
Different constructions of sin and theologies arising from those definitions of sin have been used to control people, undermine people, and diminish the pain people experience as a result of violence and its different forms on the collective human experience. Many cultures and people today are still dealing with the ramifications of being exploited and undermined through a particular and imposed understanding of sin and sinfulness. Such theologies, paired with histories of violence, still send ripples of trauma through communities. For instance, First Nations people in North America have had their indigenous spiritualties and religious practices devalued and stripped from them, the religious education of their children co-opted by Christian institutions through the auspices of abusive boarding schools, and today face invisibility in North American life while their once “sinful” indigenous spiritualties are repackaged and commodified for consumption by the masses. Meanwhile, First Nations theologians like Richard Twiss, have openly discussed the inner turmoil of loving a Jesus whose followers and missionaries sought to kill the Indian and save the man. What are people to do when they are taught that the very concept and definition of sin is who they are, the body and voice they inhabit? Do they have to be forgiven of being themselves? Of being created in God’s image?
The commonality of suffering under sin and being surrounded by sin, for me, is not only the deep and visceral pain it causes both the individual and collective community, but also fact that we all need liberation from systemic sin. That, somehow, we need moments where even if we cannot come out from under the thumb of the impact of being sinned against completely, we can find space to breathe. Conradie talks about the difference between what sin elicits from the sinner and the victim of sin: “Whereas confession may be the cry of the sinner, lament is the cry of the victim.” Part of being able to come out from under the thumb of the impact of sin, even for a little while, is to be able to heard, whether it is in our confession or in our lament. Our confessions and laments need to be heard as they are and not operationalized, acknowledged and given space in which they can exist side by side.
As a way to navigate the complexity of sin and the dangerous and sometimes too-easy answer of universalizing sin and erasing pain, Conradie’s four distinct options for navigating the problem and rabbit hole of a theology of the universality of sin are helpful. However, is it also possible that, just as our relationship to sin is complex, so the relationship between the four options Conradie expresses are complex and connected? Like Twiss, who wrestled his whole life with the contradiction of loving an indigenous Jesus who was used by colonists to whitewash and erase the religiosity of indigenous people, people in different cultural and Christian contexts can experience Conradie’s options and approaches in multiplicities and hybridities rather than as one theological approach over against another. They hold the complexities and contradictions of these four theological approaches to sin in embodied ways that are teased out and deepened as the individuals and the communities tied to them walk through life together. For instance, one could believe that the categories of perpetrator and victim are not distinct binaries and, because of this, one could also believe, as Yong does, that the gospel bears something distinct to say to both sinner and sinned against. In other words, the whole of the Gospel is a living breathing text that speaks to us differently in particular moments in our lives when we find ourselves having harmed another or when we find ourselves having experienced harm.
Conradie, in his essay, gives us good approaches to a theology and understanding of sin and its interplay within human and divine relationships. Conradie works throughout his essay to understand how different theological approaches understand sin and lifts up the core problems within each construction. In many ways, he is pointing out, as I am, that sin is the result of our human attempt to curate and operationalize a particular understanding of sin for human use. I continue to wonder how he might envision people who understand sin in these varied and distinct ways interacting with and responding to one another about the topic of sin without perpetuating harm and pain through acts of erasure or belittling one another’s theologies, lived experiences, and even their very personhood? Would not a clash of theologies and understandings around sin not also cause conflict and therefore perpetuate a deeper “sinning against” one another and eliciting deeper pain?