We recently explored the concept of sin together. We learned a little more about what it means to commit sin and to repent. But the topic of sin isn’t one that fits neatly in a box that can be tied with a bow. It’s complex and can be difficult to understand. When I was a little boy, the nuns who taught me in school told me that I was “sinful.” I didn’t have a very clear understanding of what that meant. I certainly wasn’t the only sinful person in the classroom. As the nuns explained, we are all sinful. The nuns were sinful. My classmates were sinful. The priests were sinful. Everyone, it seemed, was sinful. Is an eight-year-old boy truly sinful? Sure, anyone who has cared for an eight-year-old boy knows that he can certainly get into his share of trouble. Like many young boys, I enjoyed playing in the mud, jumping in puddles, running through the hallways, and picking on my siblings. But was that really sinful? According to my eight-year-old understanding, yes. If I was sinful, then those things must be sins.
Of course, now I’m a little older than eight. And now I can understand theological concepts better than I did when I was a young boy. But unfortunately for me and for countless others, the vocabulary we were taught as youngsters sticks in our minds and hearts. And for overly sensitive people like me, those types of lessons and misunderstandings affect our self-esteem, our ability to love ourselves properly, and the ways that we engage in our relationships with others. Our young minds determined that if sin is bad, and we sin, then we are bad by nature. How do we reconcile that with the Genesis story that teaches us that we are made in the image of God and therefore good by nature? I would argue that this way of paradoxical thinking teaches us that we must be careful and intentional when we try to teach theology to the young people in our lives. It also means that we have a lot of work to do toward healing the hurts of those who never seemed to shake their feelings of guilt and shame that inform the ways they live their lives.
What do we do about those feelings of being “bad” or “wrong”? How do we promote healthy spirituality that reminds us that we don’t want to sin, but that when we do, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re causing irreparable damage to our souls? Are there sins we commit that we are not aware of? These are examples of why it’s important to think of theology not as a noun, but rather as an action verb. When we actively participate in theology, we use our hearts and minds to continue to discern how to improve and do better, and even how to avoid committing sin. And it might come as a surprise to learn that there isn’t exactly a cookie cutter outline of what is and is not sinful. There isn’t a book that teaches us that a behavior is always or is never a sin. We have to do the hard work on our own.
Notice the word we just used: behavior. In avoiding toxic theology, we must start from a place of acknowledging our own inherent goodness and that sometimes we don’t behave the way we ought to. That’s a big distinction. Good people sometimes behave badly. And that bad behavior does not define who we are, and it does not contradict the inherent goodness of our human personhood. And really, the only way we can improve our behavior is to know what it feels like to behave badly. If, when I was little eight-year-old Timmy, I poked my sister in the eye, I learned that it not only hurt her, but that I also didn’t feel good being responsible for having hurt her. Knowing that I didn’t want to cause her harm again, and that I didn’t want to feel badly for having hurt someone again, I certainly at least thought twice before doing something similar next time around. And in that case, notice it was the behavior of the poking in the eye that was sinful and not the person of eight-year-old Timmy.
Sometimes humans do bad things. And sometimes our behavior dovetails on other things that have already been done by others. When this happens, we may or may not be aware of how our participation in that behavior perpetuates sinfulness. This is what is meant when people talk about systemic sins. For example, no one in our community would disagree with the declaration that racism is sinful. It most certainly is sinful! We also agree that sexism and other forms of discrimination are sinful. At the same time, some systems have been implemented that are the result of past racism, sexism, or other discrimination by others. And a lot of people (who by the way would never intentionally participate in active discrimination) benefit from these types of systems. Let’s look, for example, at legacy admission and scholarships at prestigious universities. Because I am a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, my stepdaughters and grandsons can apply to attend Notre Dame as legacies. Their status as legacies gives them preferential admission status over other students with their same qualifications who are not legacies. While certainly Notre Dame and other universities do admit people of all races, this hasn’t always been the case. For much of the history of our country, only white people were admitted to some of the best universities. This means, based on their numbers alone, most legacy admissions at those schools are white students. The universities are not actively seeking white students. There just happen to be more white legacy applicants because there is a much longer history of white parents and grandparents attending these schools. These white students may not even have awareness that their race benefits them. Yet, it does. Because they are legacies and their heirs will be legacies and so on.
Another example we can look to is the American prison system. Black people and other people of color have disproportionally occupied prison cells when compared to their white peers in the entirety of our nation’s history. Why is this? Some of it certainly is that some police officers, juries, and judges are not immune from participating in racist behavior. But beyond that, laws have been on the books for years that disproportionally affect Black communities and other communities of color. Let’s look at the penalty for using the very dangerous drug cocaine. When we think of cocaine, we know it exists in different forms. It doesn’t make the same kind of headlines that it did decades ago, but in the 1980s, it was very common for stockbrokers and other business executives (most of whom were white) to brag about their cocaine use by snorting it in its powder form. During that same period, it was also common for people in poorer neighborhoods to use cocaine by smoking crack cocaine, a cheaper and more widely available form of the same drug. Because it was common in less affluent neighborhoods, and because people of color disproportionately struggle with poverty, a larger percentage of crack users were people of color. While cocaine in either its powdered or crack form is exactly the same drug, penalties for possession and use differ greatly. Crack use is much more widely policed and carries much more burdensome penalties than its powdered counterpart. As users of powdered cocaine were more commonly white and users of crack were more frequently Black, the white drug users were let off the hook with much more leniency than their Black peers. The system is set up in a way that is indirectly impacted by race.
Gender also has systemic components that benefit some people more than others. If you’ve ever heard of mansplaining, then you are familiar with an example of what we mean. This happens when a man clarifies something unnecessarily when he’s talking to a woman without assuming that she knows as much (or even more!) about the topic than he does. Society has become conditioned to think of men as more likely to be experts. This doesn’t have to be a conscious understanding. In fact, it probably isn’t in most people’s awareness. It just kind of exists. Picture in your mind someone working in what is traditionally thought of as a “masculine” occupation. Doctor, priest, lawyer, police officer, firefighter, soldier, etc. For many people, the image that pops into their minds is a man. Women are just as capable of serving in these capacities. So why do so many people think of men as the experts? Because the system perpetuates that way of thinking. We’re shown pictures of men in these roles from the time we’re very young. Movies, TV shows, books, and other resources inform our imbedded beliefs. Sure, some men are experts in some topics. But that expertise does not come from their gender. Assuming someone is more or less capable simply because of gender is unhelpful. And it isn’t always something humans do conscientiously.
Is it becoming clearer why some people talk a lot about broader, systemic sinfulness? If we knew we were contributing to problems, we’d change our behavior much of the time. Sometimes, we can’t. For example, I am vehemently opposed to capital punishment. At the same time, I have zero power when it comes to keeping death row inmates from facing execution. But as the execution takes place on behalf of the people who live in the country or state where I live, it is being done on my behalf. It is, in my view, a sin. A sin I am not personally committing. And at the same time, it carries great weight.
It isn’t helpful to wallow in feelings of guilt or shame about systemic sins. It is, however, helpful for us to learn about and then work toward correcting these systemic sins. When we learn about them, sometimes we revert back to those little boys and girls we used to be and we become defensive when we’re told we’re benefiting from discrimination that negatively impacts someone else. This isn’t exactly helpful, either. Instead, a curiosity and a willingness to listen are our best tools. We don’t have to tell someone else that their experience is wrong just because we haven’t experienced it from that perspective. And when we know better, we can do better. We can learn about laws that disproportionally affect some people more than others and then petition to have them changed. We can raise our awareness when we notice behaviors that perpetuate discriminatory systems. We can gently inform others when we notice them participating in the same kinds of behaviors. When we sin, we promise to repent. As we discussed previously, this literally means to change course. When we become aware of systemic sins, we ought to do all in our power to repent and change the system. Even if the system will no longer benefit us. People are inherently good. Because of this, we ought to become aware of sinfulness in all its forms and then do what we can to do as Jesus tells us, and to sin no more.