Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reimagining Sin


He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
Colossians 2:15

The steady barrage of illusions disseminated by corporate systems of propaganda, in which words are often replaced with music and images, are impervious to truth. Faith in the marketplace replaces for many faith in an omnipresent God.
Chris Hedges

The acronym COAL has been proposed for this attitude of compassionate curiosity: curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love.
Gabor Mate

Life in the American Empire consists of being socialized by a variety of forces that the New Testament calls "principalities & powers" (from the Greek words exousia and archon). These are not "spiritual" beings like angels and demons, but instead social, familial, cultural, economic and political entities (think corporate advertising, family rules, military propaganda, political campaigns, news reporting, local laws) that are designed to organize our lives, but in the end, often demonize and dehumanize us by saturating us with mostly invisible anxiety (the air we breathe). These principalities and powers can be downright "demonic" or even "satanic," seeking our worship ("it's all about family"..."these soldiers are dying to keep our country free"..."YOU deserve a break today") while killing our souls in the process. This systemic construal of "sin" makes life more beautifully complex and more recognizably realistic than a dualism that paints the world black and white with easy-to-identify good guys and bad guys, while conveniently assigning evil to all one's enemies.

I propose two paradigmatic shifts to mainstream Evangelical notions of sin. First, the concept of "original sin" needs to be re-evaluated. No doubt, we all live constantly with a propensity to see things from our own delirious point of view, making myopic decisions that only further our own self-interested agendas. Intentions saturated with lust, greed, laziness and self-protection counterfeit ourselves and others. But the notion that sin only arises from the depths of the heart of each of us shortchanges the very real dominating influence that The Powers (our families, jobs, cultural privileges, governments, media, etc) have over our lives. Sin is both inside-out and outside-in.

In addition, this original sin has a bold tendency to cut off hope for transformation. Indeed, we see through a glass darkly. However, this does not veto the potential in every living human being to reflect the image of God: "the Spirit breathes life into my most intimate desires, gently nudging me towards all that is good" (from the Irish Jesuit Sacred Space prayer this morning). Too many construals of "original sin" stop short of the bold hope of real world redemption today (not just after we die).

Second, the concept of Satan and his demons still has powerful effects on how too many of us understand the nature of sin. When we blame Satan for our own wayward thoughts and actions, it hides us from the real idolatrous and abusive offenders: the Powers. For instance, the patterns and rules in our families of origins shape us in many ways. The many different ways that our parents bound their own Powers-induced anxieties in relationships with each of us (and our siblings) and in various addictive behaviors (the bottle, the TV, food, workaholism, fitness, sex, consumption, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses) which have shaped us in counterfeit ways. Abusive, addictive and unjust family, social and political patterns create more abusive, addictive and unjust behaviors in a social cycle of sin passed down from one generation to the next...to the next.

The implications of these shifts are important. If sin is primarily created and compounded by how each of us is shaped in various social systems, then a vital aspect of Christian discipleship is identifying our counterfeit patterns ("taking inventory"), living each day with a renewed sensitivity to our patterns ("getting triggered"), sharing these with our intentional communities and churches ("confession"), finding solidarity with others who resonate with our struggle for freedom ("fellowship") and working tirelessly for structural transformation within the Powers that claim neutrality and innocence, but actually distort, distract and leave us all distraught ("mission"). In the end, Christian redemption is not just about how I can get saved from my sin, but the larger systems (even cosmic) that govern all of us as well.

The telos of bonafide Christian dialogue about the role of sin in the world is the audacious claim that God is in the business of redeeming and reconciling the whole world (including my patterns) back to its original design ("healing"). And, mos def, spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting and journaling strengthen us on our patterned pilgrimage through complex and confusing Powers (but our prayers can best be directed at how we can strategically engage the satanic Powers...not how we can somehow evade The-All-Powerful-Satan).

Of course, when faced with our own ugly sinful patterns, we all react differently. Some of us cope by sweeping our addictive and compulsive obsessions under the carpet labeled "justification" ("this is what I need to survive") and some of us juxtapose our penchants by condemning others ("how could he do that?"). But if you're like me, it's just a lot easier (and more honorable) to just beat myself up over that fact that, yet again, I've found myself satiating myself with the same old unfulfilling persuasion (for me, this satiation consists in obsessively seeking the admiration of others, constantly "being in the know" of political and sports news, seeking comfort and confidence in work, writing & working out--and I become scared shitless when it is possible that someone else is disappointed in me or when I'm the last to know or when I don't keep up with ambition and accomplishment). Here's what psychologist Gabor Mate writes from his own personal experience:

Instead of hurling an accusatory brick at your own head (e.g., “I’m so stupid; when will I ever learn?” etc.), the question ‘Why did I do this again, knowing full well the negative consequences?’ can become the subject of a fruitful inquiry, a gentle investigation. Taking off the starched uniform of the interrogator, who is determined to try, convict, and punish, we adopt toward ourselves the attitude of the empathic friend, who simply wants to know what’s going on with us. The acronym COAL has been proposed for this attitude of compassionate curiosity: curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. ‘Hmmm. I wonder what drove me to do this again.’

All three of these counterfeit responses to our enslavements cannot match the heart of a God who desperately wants to enfold us with love, forgiveness and an adventure of healing and justice. The "peace that transcends all understanding" is on offer, but there are many alternative avenues that become cul-de-sacs of hate, indifference, apathy, cyncicism and bondage.

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