The Nature of Sin

Pictured: Holy iconography depicting the face of Christ. His face looks troubled, and behind him is a golden disc with the cross.

One interesting thing about studying the bible is how it describes sin, it’s a lot more sophisticated than some moral notion of good and bad. We are after all expected to sin, because we’re not perfect. God is infinitely forgiving for this reason, we all know such things. And yet, the modern way in which we regard sin is not nearly as forgiving. Neither to ourselves, or others. We treat sin like criminality, like something that should be punished, but this loses the plot.

From Romans 6:23

The wages of sin is death. Sin is not a crime, it’s a warning. It occurs in several passages, either directly or indirectly. Even in revelations it is stated.

And yet in modern language, sin is a moral condemnation. I think this is a bit of a scheme to be honest. It’s a nice way for feudal churches to establish a lot of authority that does not belong to mortals.

For instance, suppose I told you divorce is sinful? A lot of people would say that this is a very reactionary and even sexist notion. That this kind of sentiment has kept women trapped in abusive marriages, that it is a terrible thing.

And I agree, I’m not stupid, but that only happens in this framing of feudal authority, in which this is a way to stop people from divorcing. That’s not what I am asking.

Suppose we look at sin anew, if the wages of sin is death, if this is a warning, then how is divorce sinful?

I think it’s simple: Who on Earth wants to get divorced? It’s miserable, it feels almost like a loved one has died, it’s depressing and unpleasant, and not very nice. Suppose sin is not a moral failure, but an existential one? Suppose repentance is not about punishment, but reflection?

Suppose if divorce is something that we should consider, and learn from, and use as an opportunity to improve upon ourselves? Suppose it is an opportunity to take a very unpleasant chapter of life, and turn it into a way in which to reflect and better ourselves?

Suppose how, in this sense, things are sinful?

Suddenly a lot of things make a lot of sense in the bible, and even become very scientific. Most psychologists would agree that thinking about things is good, provided you’re not obsessive, that’s what psychopaths do. Point is, maybe this how it works.

Maybe sin refers to things that cause us suffering, and detriment, that embodies the ruefulness of life. Perhaps you do not defeat sin by punishments and arbitrary exactments of power, but rather through betterment, reparations and knowledge. I think this is the nature of sin. We are not criminals breaking rules, but scholars caught in our own ignorance.

I believe the true torment of sin is how it demands honesty, and self-reflection. The most powerful and convincing lies are the ones that we tell ourselves, to confront the truly sinful things of ourselves is inherently traumatic, and often demands hard and difficult change.

This is the struggle of true faith, to resist every impulse that promises ease, every excuse that permits us to continue as we were. This is why confession is such a powerful ceremony when carried out properly. It stirs us to become conscious of ourselves, to see ourselves as who we are, rather than who we wish we were. To expose our flaws to ourselves, as they are exposed to others. We can live content in our lies, but we can live fulfilled in the truth.

What good is sin that burns people with irons, and makes people into outcasts? What good is sin that encourages a community to judge, and spite, and turn on one another? What good is the redemption of inquisitors, crusaders and fanatics? Who is redeemed in the vales of blood? Christ was not redeemed in death, but in resurrection.

Sin is similarly death and resurrection, it is not to die, but to be born anew. To find peace, and resolve, to become found and to realise oneself. Cruelty is therefore fought with kindness. Ignorance is therefore fought with teaching. Pride is therefore fought with humility, and greed is therefore fought with giving.

So many people use the sins of others as a kind of moral passport, as a permission to be cruel and vile and vicious, to forego justice for revenge, to embrace sadistic and destructive temptation.

In some ways, I do like the idea of punishments, I think everyone does in some sense. There is a strange comfort in thinking that if you endure something, you go through something unpleasant, then that’s that. You’ve done your part, now all is forgiven and you can move on.

But that’s not the world we live in. Punishments are often permanent, and stigmatising, and degrading. They do not accompany forgiveness, or acceptance, or a debt repaid, but on the contrary, they strip people of their status, and leave them vulnerable to further abuse.

We have a disturbing humanism in which as an example, if someone robs you and you punch them in the face and take back your money, and then move on with your life, this is considered barbaric, even though ultimately the bruise will heal and life will go on.

Rather, the progressive thing to do is to report it to the police, who then puts the thief into prison for several months or years on end, and then they are permanently branded as a convict, and live the rest of their lives as an unemployable wretch.

The barbaric punishment lasts for 8 days, and the progressive punishment lasts for 80 years. This is very disturbing to me.

And it’s not to say that I believe we should go around punching everyone in the face, but it is to say that it feels considerably less unnatural than to torment people in such a way for such a trivial transgression.

I have personally been robbed, and I would not in a million years make it a legal matter, because I feel genuinely abhorred by the idea of inflicting such a terrible thing on someone else. I still felt wronged, I still wanted some sort of justice, but I saw no justice in what the police offered me.

At the end of the day, I was far more happy to lose my valuables than I was to lose my soul.

I think what makes it disturbing is how carefully orchestrated it is. If you give into anger and punch someone who robbed you, then it’s an impulse, perhaps even a mistake or a shortcoming, it’s life getting the better of you.

But a trial process that lasts for weeks? With investigation, juries and testimonies? With judges and lawyers and jurors? With dozens of people over such a long time, all of whom willfully participate in this spectacle with no objection? Who make no effort to examine themselves, and who they are to partake in such a strange and gratuitous ritual of ruining another person’s life over a very forgivable thing?

That’s disturbing to me. There’s no excuses there. There’s no anger, no lack of foresight, it is entirely definitive. Every single one of the participants have sat down and decided that this course of action makes perfect sense, and that they wish to fully embody it. To let it define them in its entirety, to weave it into the fabric of their conscience, it is a terrifying thing.

I still believe in fair trials of course, in fact, having studied so much history I am acutely familiar with what happens when we do not have them. But just because someone is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean that we are entitled to such cruelty, to do the very terrible things we consider to be normal.

A criminal is just one person, a society is embodied by millions. We are a giant stepping on an insect, and then call it justice.

And worse yet is how we pat ourselves on the back for it, how we say justice is served. This justice that tears families apart, that causes grief, that forces fathers to watch their children grow up on the other side of bullet proof glass. That deprives people of growth, family, learning and reparations.

And then they say it brings comfort to the victims. But what kind of comfort is that? Who is comforted by the suffering of others? I do not think that is a healthy impulse to nourish.

I think you bring comfort to the victims by helping them, by restoring their circumstance, by taking all that money spent on frivolous prison sentences, and investing it in rebuilding whatever it is that the victim lost, or in some relieve their suffering.

And I think the criminal should participate in this process, and once things have been restored, they are free. They must exercise the compassion that will repair what they damaged, and then they are free, and I mean real freedom, the freedom of redemption, in which they are welcomed and accepted by society, born anew.

I think this is the nature of sin, and now more than ever I believe we must consider its radical implications.

Depicted: Minimalist illustration of a cuffed pair of hands holding two prison bars.

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