Last week, when I was preaching about Billy Graham, the Reverend Sande Ramage was also talking about him. She writes:
“[Graham’s] first task was to ensure people knew they were sinful and rotten to the core by using biblical texts to prove his point. Eternal damnation and torment were then wheeled up as the consequence of unbelief. Once people had their faith in themselves and ability to manage life undermined, Jesus Christ was suggested as the only answer. It’s a formula that’s been used by charlatans across time… ‘You are sinful, you are unable to manage your life, only believe and you will be saved.’ A repetitive story that was one of the most destructive forces in my life.”[i]
In the late 90s there was a man called Peter who, after his wife died, started attending the Anglican Church where I was a minister. Church was a safe and comforting place to grieve.
He didn’t like the prayer of confession common in Anglican liturgies. Peter told me that although he made some mistakes in his life he’d put those right. He didn’t think God wanted him to rake over his reconciled past. Surely God would have moved on as he had.
Peter didn’t think of himself as a sinner. He modestly, and correctly, assessed himself as successful in both business and relationships. He was also very generous to others.
He tried to re-frame the prayer of confession. He imagined that he was part of the totality of humanity that had warred, and grabbed, and exploited. There was a lot wrong in the world; and he wanted to be part of putting it right.
Yet he couldn’t get past his experience of managing a large business. To lead and motivate one did not constantly revisit past mishaps or lament the wrongs of others. Instead one praised and encouraged one’s employees, envisioning a different future and strategizing to get there. Religion seemed to be fixated on the past rather than focused on the future.
Eventually Peter left. He was on a spiritual journey. Our church had been a backpackers’ hostel for him, offering him sustenance, company, and rest.
I concur with Peter that one of the difficulties with sin theology is that it looks back not forward. By constantly talking about sin, church liturgies magnify its importance. Attention is focused on the bad rather than inspiring people to seek the good. If faith is like riding a bike, prayers of confession seem to direct attention to the times people have fallen off and bloodied their knees, rather than the joy of cycling or the direction they are heading. By emphasising sin the Church is encouraging a cyclist to look at their knees while pedalling. Not only is vision and enjoyment diminished but they are also susceptible to a psychological crash [as Sande alludes to].
Sin theology is also bad news for those in poverty and the marginalized. The word sin has been used over the centuries by the religiously powerful to control those who thought or behaved differently. Sin was part of a system that sought to contain and restrain freethinkers, women, and other supposed minorities so that the male elite would continue to dominate. Women, for example, were deemed to be inferior, untrustworthy, and often deserving of punishment due to the ‘sin’ of their gender. Gays, lesbians, divorcees, solo parents, and many others were treated similarly. Sin has been a judging, categorizing, and condemning word.
In times past those among the poor, for example, who questioned the accumulation of wealth and power by the privileged classes were accused by some church leaders of sins like pride, greed, and disobedience. ‘Pride’ in this context meant considering oneself better than one’s station in life, ‘greed’ meant desiring to prosper beyond one’s station, and ‘disobedience’ meant challenging the rules that kept one stationed. All three were words of social control. The ecclesiastical and political ruling classes cooperated, and in many places still do, in order to fortify a hierarchical society and provide the theological justification for the repression of dissent.
[It is important to note that there have always been pockets within the Church – even in the most oppressive of Church-State hierarchical compacts – that have either been part of the challenge to authority or supportive of those doing the challenging].
There is also a great deal of hypocrisy around the use of sin theology. In times past, women, the gender allegedly more prone to sin, were judged and punished for any sexual encounters outside of marriage whereas the men they were encountering did not usually suffer the same fate. An example: In the 1920s in Auckland the Order of the Good Shepherd ran a home for unmarried mothers and their babies, just down the road here[ii]. At the Anglican Synod in 1927 the sisters were criticised for undermining marriage by catering for the needs of these ‘sinners’. There was no mention made of the men. Their leader, Sister Hannah, retorted, “The girls are more sinned against than sinning… and are victims of the unprincipled.”[iii]
‘Sin’ is therefore not a neutral word. Along with the word ‘God’ it has been co-opted and used to maintain a system of control, and bringing with it – particularly for those side-lined by the powerful – feelings of hurt, guilt and anger. It might be a blessing if the word ‘sin’ is forever consigned to the theological rubbish dump. This is not to say however that words like ‘wrongdoing’ or even ‘evil’ can’t continue to be used in theological discourse and liturgy. In PCUSA, for example, the Lord’s Prayer says ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those indebted to us’. [And scholars argue that ‘debts’ is a more accurate translation than ‘sins’.]
Sin theology also distorts the meaning of salvation. Billy Graham and his ilk have pedalled a schema which begins with humanity being born sinful and therefore incapable of loving kindness without divine intervention. God is off the planet and unable to relate to humanity in its sinful state. God in this schema then sends Jesus to live an innocent life and be murdered as a ‘sacrifice’ in order to cure the relational dysfunction between God and humanity. Jesus’ innocent blood washes away the sins of humanity and saves us.
This schema has a number of problematic consequences. It promotes a low view of human potential. Humanity, it seems, is incapable of salvation unless the ‘blood of Jesus’ is invoked and believed in. This overlooks the great selfless feats that have been achieved by humans without reference to the Christian God.
Further, many Christians today have never understood themselves to be defined by sin. Their basic spiritual need is not to be cleansed of wrongdoing in order to be saved, rather they look, like Peter did, for inspiration and support as they seek to encourage love and justice in the world. They also, by and large, are not motivated by a desire for a heavenly afterlife.
We know today of the history and ancient mythology around blood and sacrifice that gave rise to this salvation schema.
We also know today of the effects of judgemental parenting and the dysfunction of always seeking forgiveness. The judgemental and emotionally distant father was normative in Western culture for centuries. We know too that our parental experiences often form the primal basis for how we understand the divine.
This sacrifice sin/salvation schema though continues to shape how many understand the Christian God. God seems to be innately divorced from humanity – over and above our experience rather than immersed in it. God, though supposedly a loving father, needs to allow his son to be murdered before ‘he’ can relate to humanity. God as a remote judge seems to supersede the metaphor of God as a loving parent.
For those of us who are critical of sin theology, we would prefer a theology that began with the way Jesus lived and taught – emphasising his hospitality, his inclusion of the marginalized, and his critique of the political and religious systems of domination. Jesus points us to a God who is compassionate and challenging. Salvation is therefore about being part of a larger vision, a Jesus vision, one that includes both religious and non-religious people. Rather than a sin/salvation theology it is a loving/life theology.
Note the metaphors in our readings today [Hebrews 5:1-10 and John 3:1-7], both often used in sin/salvation theology. In Hebrews the metaphor is not Jesus the sacrificial lamb, but Jesus the one who compassionately prays for us. In the Nicodemus story, ‘born from above’ [note: not ‘born again’] is a metaphor about following the way, the ethics and actions of Jesus. It does not talk about sin.
A loving/life theology does however take injustice and evil seriously – the distance between the poor and rich, the excluded and included, and the systems that maintain such distances; the effect of historical injustices; the abuse of our planet and its ecosystems; and the violation of individuals and the damaging intergenerational effects. In trying to address such issues past wrongdoings need to be identified and if possible rectified.
But this is different from the pattern of blaming and inducing guilt in individuals, as was so often the case in Christian history. A commitment to justice requires a commitment to restore not only the poor but also the privileged.
This is because undergirding a loving/life theology is the value of compassionate hospitality. Compassion is founded on the realisation that if we had been shaped by circumstances similar to the offender then maybe our actions would have been the same. Similarly compassion can be enhanced by the awareness that within each of us is the potential to do harm. Hospitality simply means ‘making room’ – physically, spiritually, and communally - for the stranger, the vulnerable, the other, our worst self and our best self.
In Billy Graham’s theology there is a single conversion moment – an ‘altar call’ - when you are encouraged to turn from a life of sin and accept Jesus into your heart, and from which point on life is different. In loving/life theology the prevailing metaphor is that of a journey, where there are many decision moments and meeting Jesus moments. On that journey there will be times of acknowledging hurts – given and received – and the importance of forgiveness. But – and it’s an important ‘but’ – confession of sins and forgiveness is not required in order that God loves us, or that we might enjoy a better afterlife. The heart of the Jesus message is that the love of God is unconditional, and not reliant on what we do or don’t do, or on whether we seek forgiveness or forgive others.
So instead of ‘sin’ being the lens through which one understands oneself, God, and the world, I would argue that ‘love’ is the lens of Christian understanding. And it is a vision of compassionate hospitable love – a love rooted in justice - for which we pray, work, and dream.
[ii] Arney Road.
[iii] Church Gazette 1 July 1927, 11.