Monday, June 07, 2010
Ethics and Justice. Part 5: Can One Sin on a Deserted Island? The Communal Aspect of Ethics and Justice.
Can you sin on a deserted island? Most people I’ve spoken to say yes. Examples I've heard are: You can kill yourself. You can harm the environment. You can lust. You can blaspheme God. But these examples are a little forced. I suppose you can run around cutting down trees and killing monkeys, or commit suicide, or fantasize about someone not on the island, or even scream things at God. But these things don't seem to be typical “sins,” and the ethical meaning of “sinning in your heart” is open for interpretation. At what point do thoughts become sins, and what gradation of sin? Further, if you saw this behavior on the island, I doubt your first thought would be, “That is a sin.” You'd probably think that the person went crazy, and thus it weakens any categorization of “sin.”
But now, let's imagine that there are two people on the island. Can you sin with another person? Now we can imagine all kinds of sin: Lies, stealing, violence. The whole point of the question is to make this principle painfully obvious: Sin is a social phenomenon. I think one of the worst mistakes in theology is to consider sin to be only, or even primarily, a God/human issue. The island question is trying to point out that if it is just you and God, your sin repertoire is pretty anemic. But sin categories abound when we find ourselves in human community, when we see sin as a human/human issue. In other words, God's judgment against sin is judgment against human-to-human infractions.
I think this is what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. Before you offer your sacrifice to God, first be reconciled to your brother, then come offer your sacrifice to God. It's also the theme in 1st John - you can't say you love God when you hate your brother. Love your brother first and then you can say you love God with authenticity. If you wander through life thinking there's a rift between you and God, that focus leads to guilt, shame, and religious paranoia. But if we also see sin as a human/human rift, then we can focus on reconciliation that we can actually do something about.