Sinners and the Sinned Against
May I express my gratitude to Christine Hong, Brian Powers and Mindy McGarrah Sharp for helping all of us to reflect on the ways in which we talk about sin, guilt, pain and salvation. Each of the respondents brings insights from a particular context and challenges any easy conceptual clarification. Clearly, the way in which one introduces a word such as sin can perpetuate and aggravate the pain of others. Indeed, sin is “weaponized, used against people to diminish and erase them” (Hong). This is illustrated in contexts of migration (Sharp), peacemaking (Sharp), the identity of Christians from First nations (Hong), differently abled forms of human embodiment (Hong), owning slaves (Powers), child abuse (Powers), and military combatants (Powers). The reference to Valerie Saiving’s work is helpful here: any theology of sin needs to be situated within the standpoint of the author and intended audiences
Sharp is quite correct in using terms such as border crossing, safe passage, and mystery here. Sin, suffering, and salvation mysteriously cross borders. Indeed, sin is both fatal and fertile, it corrupts progressively, like a cancer it kills by reproducing. Moreover, to define sin may be to explain and to control it. This would under¬estimate the deviousness of sin and evil. Instead, sin is regarded as a mystery (mysterium inequitatis), something that should not have been, in a way could not have been, yet is all too tangibly present. It is not a mystery to be fathomed but a senseless riddle. Or, perhaps, sin is more unmysterious than mysterious, more banal (Hannah Arendt) than interesting, more superficial than deep-rooted – and yet we cannot get it under control.
Let me offer a few brief comments as a rejoinder:
First, let me respond to a comment from Mindy McGarrah Sharp on the landscape that prompted such reflections. I hesitate to do that, not least because the term landscape is deconstructed in the recent PhD thesis (in music!) of Marietjie Pauw, my companion. I am also aware of how contested the notion of landscape is and have been influence by the work of Tim Ingold in this regard.
The underlying complexity may be illustrated with four brief examples which recognize that “sin has a face” (Hong). Firstly, having been classified “white” under the apartheid regime, I am still (!) a so-called beneficiary of that dispensation although as a student activist I never supported the National Party government. Secondly, many UWC students come from the Cape Flats (dominated by Table Mountain in the distance) where gangsterism is rife. Gangsters are victims of socio-economic inequalities but also horrendous perpetrators of intimidation, drug trafficking, rape (for initiation into a gang) and murder. Thirdly, too many amongst the post-apartheid political elite have abused their influence to secure lucrative contracts for family and business partners amidst obvious concerns over poverty, unemployment and inequality. Fourthly, the ideology of consumerism is found amongst the consumer class and the lower-middle class alike in South Africa, longing for and putting trust in what money can buy. This ideology and the pursuit of happiness is being legitimized through the prosperity gospel which is rife amongst the working class (if not the unemployed) on the Cape Flats. Together, the impact of such sins on the landscape is captured in the often-cited words of Albie Sachs, the long-standing anti-apartheid activist and retired judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa:
Apartheid not only degrades the inhabitants of our country. It degrades the earth, the air and the streams … we are calling for the restoration of the land, the forest and the atmosphere. The greening of our country is basic to its healing. There is a lot of healing to be done in South Africa.
Second, Brian Powers suggests that it is possible to reconcile the emphasis on the universality of sin and a strong contrast between victims and perpetrators. They are not mutually exclusive but complimentary. I would concur, of course, but still wish to warn that this is easier said than done. Powers suggest that sin be understood as “a primal, corrupting, distorting force that undergirds and influences our individual, personal trajectories and our communal life together.” This allows one to say that we are all captured by this force but that it is then still possible to identify perpetrators and victims. Such a notion of sin as power and not only as guilt is deeply embedded in the reformed tradition. This is a very helpful way of framing the problem with reference to John Galtung’s work on structural evil, recently also discussed by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda. In my work on sin I have often captured it accordingly: sin describes the mess in which we all find ourselves together, a mess from which we cannot escape, under which we all suffer (but not equally so) and to which (almost) all of us contribute (but again not equally so). There is a danger with such an emphasis on sin as power, however; namely, that sin-talk can either become pathologized or criminalized in this way so that perpetrators end up as victims of forces beyond their control. This has to be corrected by notions of sin as guilt. The question thus remains how these are related to each other.
Thirdly, Mindy McGarrah Sharp asks for elaboration of the (deliberately!) cryptic end to my reflections where I concur with the reformed tradition that an ability to recognize sin is dependent upon the vision that a different world is possible, the ability to see the world differently, to see the world in the light of the Light of the World. This draws on Karl Barth’s insight that sin that is recognized as such is always already recognized to be forgiven. It is God’s mercy that enables us to see what we need to be forgiven for. This ability is epitomized, at least for me, by Desmond Tutu, who was the Chancellor of UWC for 24 years. He never tired in making the point that the spirit of ubuntu (a sense of humanity) requires from us to see others, victims and perpetrators alike, as family members, as children of God. Thus, the beggar is my cousin, the prostitute my sister and the rapist my uncle. For sin-talk, this means that our notions of sin are dependent upon our notions of salvation. This leaves the problem unresolved because of diverging notions of salvation. In South African theological discourse, there are especially two such notions, namely reconciliation and liberation that are epitomized by the Belhar Confession and the Kairos Document, respectively. How to hold the core insights of both these documents simultaneously is the challenge.
What should at least be clear is that the suffering of those who are sinned against cannot be resolved without addressing the guilt of the perpetrators. One may retrieve soteriological symbols such as liberation, healing, exorcism or God’s solidarity with the outcasts in Jesus Christ in order to demonstrate the significance of the gospel for the victims of history. Such symbols are often sidelined where the universality of sin is emphasized – despite abundant references found in the gospels. However, such emphases will not suffice precisely because oppression, exploitation, marginalization and stigmatization are the reverse side of what should be regarded as the primary problem; namely, sin and implied guilt. In order to address that, another range of soteriological symbols is required: forgiveness, regeneration, justification, restoration and reconciliation. This means that the relationship between liberation and reconciliation requires clarification (unless the one gospel is divided into two separate messages, one for victims and one for perpetrators).
There are two alternatives to this agenda that should, in my view, be resisted. The first is one where a final just verdict and victory over evil implies the annihilation of former perpetrators, calling for God’s wrath, condemnation, punishment and even reprobation, in order to create the necessary conditions for a new dispensation. The danger will always be that the instruments used to eradicate evil will create new forms of evil. Then evil, symbolized by hell, will eternally be a festering presence as the inverse of God’s grace. The other alternative is one where the problem of natural “evil” (the survival of the fittest) is regarded as primary so that the relationships between perpetrators and victims may be regarded as symptoms of this underlying problem. If so, this requires that priority be given to the theodicy problem rather than to the soteriological core of the Christian faith. Then we require salvation from being creatures and not only from sin. Here, God as Savior need to come and correct the botched job of God as Creator.
In the reformed tradition, another way of framing the same underlying problem is how discourse on justification (aimed at perpetrators) and discourse on justice (aimed at victims) should be held together. Again, these should be two sides of the same coin. However, these concepts are often in tension with each other, not least in the South African context. I do not have easy answers here, but can at least say that I plan to explore this very question with some postgraduate students and colleagues at UWC in the second half of 2017.
1 I quote him in my book, Hope for the Earth: Vistas for a New Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000), 45.