This is my column in today’s Greenville News. As I’ve looked over responses today, I’m fascinated. Some very nice, supportive notes; also some very angry ones. And the angry ones accuse me of being judgmental and anti-science. Of course, that’s not the point. The point is that the new ‘sins’ of our culture are unforgivable. And the responses completely confirm my suspicions. How dare I say that global climate change should be subject to doubt? How dare I suggest that Paula Deen be forgiven? How could I be a good physician when I’m a ‘science denier.’ It comes down to accusations of heresy, for which I can never be forgiven unless I do some odd penance; or maybe not even then. Anyway, here goes!
Given that this is Sunday, I’ll pose a Sunday-School kind of question. Is there any such thing as sin? It’s a funny word, sin. It’s a concept deeply embedded in our culture and language. (Some of us would say, in our souls.) It implies wrong-doing, an offense against God.
But these days, the very idea that people might be separated from ultimate good (much less God) by their hearts or behaviors, the very idea that humans do ‘bad’ things and need to confess and repent, well that’s a bit of a stretch for polite society, isn’t it? ‘Oughts’ are passe, and have been generally replaced with feelings and a kind democratic process in which we all rather vote on right and wrong (or let entertainers and pundits decide for us).
However, sin is alive and well. Let’s face it, society may scoff at the church for saying fornication is a sin, or drunkenness or theft (or anything else proscribed in scripture). But society loves (and I mean loves) the concept of sin. And people love to condemn others; it’s quite invigorating to judge, even though we are all told not to do it. (Ironically, judging is a modern sin of the first order…unless judging those who are intolerant or judgmental, obviously.)
Need an example? It isn’t hard to find, as American culture is absolutely full of modern sins. How about the ‘sin’ of racism? Ask Paula Deen if she committed a sin. Heck, she was more roundly condemned and castigated than any Mosaic scape-goat could ever have been. Years ago she used a racial epithet and because she confessed her sin of racism, she was required to repent on national television. And her penance? Loss of her cooking ‘empire.’ (No Hail Marys for Paula!) And what penance will the world require of Oprah’s Swiss shop-girl?
How about disbelief? No, not disbelief in God. I mean disbelief in some popular idea. What about disbelief in global climate change? Why, you might as well be a baptist who doesn’t believe in casseroles! Environmentalism is its own religion to no small number of moderns, thanks to our tendency to worship something. And anthropogenic global climate change is an essential part of the catechism. In general, ‘Science,’ with a big ‘S,’ can never be doubted without opening oneself up to angry accusations of ignorance; despite the very real fact that it is the job of science to question science.
What about big business and greed? Is greed bad? Well yes. But not just to people who think God says so. Greed is bad because big business and wealth are bad; and they’re bad because, well, greed is bad. The Occupy Wall Street movement was full of tent-dwelling ascetics with student loans, i-Pads and Starbucks cups who just knew it. Wealth and greed are fine if the greedy agree with the right ideas or donate to the right campaigns. ‘Greed: good for me, bad for you.’
And to really push the hot-button, what about those folks who just aren’t on board with same-sex marriage? In modern parlance, they’re haters (even if they happen to love same-sex people). Or, to put it another way, they’re sinners. In an odd turn-about, the condemners of what was traditionally considered sin find themselves condemned; not by God but by man, the new arbiter of the New Law. And the new cultural priests spew their own fire and brimstone, and mark their ideological enemies with a scarlet B for bigot or F for fundamentalist.
Although it’s not an exhaustive list of the ‘New Sins,’ there is something hopeful to be learned here. We all at least agree that some things are wrong. While we disagree in content, between ancient revelation and modern construction, the fact that the very idea of right and wrong still exists gives me a little hope.
What’s hopeless is that there is no redemption from the new sins. There is no real forgiveness; there’s only surrender, complicity and endless sacrifice. Judeo-Christian faith tells us that God forgives and forgets if we ask in sincerity. But the New Law is never satisfied. No sacrifice is great enough and no repentence sincere enough and no past sin, however remote, is free of examination; unless you are a law-maker, of course. And any deviation, any heresy, is intolerable.
As New Sins and New Laws continually emerge, I wonder if we’ll discover that the old ways, which called out sin but simultaneously offered repentance and redemption, were gentler than we ever realized.