6What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
What I am Learning:
I grew up in a church in the eastern part of Eastern Washington State. My church talked about sin fairly frequently. They talked about how bad it was. They talked about how we should avoid it. They also said that you can’t stop sinning. They said that if you thought you had stopped that you were sinning by just thinking that way.
This teaching on sin left me in quite a no-win situation. No matter how you slice it, we are screwed.
Fortunately, Jesus had been tortured on a cross to somehow deal with all of this. Problem solved!
This congregation was part of a broad swath of American Christianity that said that sin was a personal and interpersonal matter. However Jesus did it, he made it so that God would not hold this personal and interpersonal sin against us. God was a perfectionist, but a forgiving one.
Of course theology was only one part of my experience of church. There was the kindliness of Pastor Walla and his wife Alice. They often expressed very well a loving community of people who were there for each other.
The land where the church was built was once a part of the hunting land of the Palouse Indians. The farmland on which the farmers grew wheat and barely was confiscated from the Palouse. The church was built with the proceeds from this stolen land. I started working in the 6th grade on the same stolen property.
I have been a part of the Organizing for Mission Cohort for about 2 years now. This is a group of people who do community organizing in and by the church. I am learning much from them. One of the learning sessions has been really fruitful for me. It is a grid that helps us understand racism and it’s many forms. Here it is:
Racism is certainly an expression of sin and this got me thinking. Maybe this is a good grid for looking at sin in general. You can find out more at https://www.raceforward.org/
But what is sin? Here is one way to look at it.
On an intra-personal level sin is a rejection of life as-it-is in our desire to be like God or less than human. This can be expressed in feelings of deep shame and unworthiness or superiority and desire for power over others.
On an Inter-personal level sin is the living out our rejection of life-as-it-is in a cycle of dominance and submission with other people. One minute we feel an urge to dominate someone and the next to submit to them. This can range from very subtle behaviors all the way to abuse and violence. Typically this is where discussions of sin stop.
On an institutional level sin is living out dominance and submission with rules, attitudes and goals that create and perpetuate the dominance of some and the subjugation of others. The ELCA, sadly, has spent far more money creating congregations in suburban, white and wealthy areas. It has often moved churches out of areas as they became populated by brown skinned people “because they can’t afford a pastor.”
On a structural level sin is the economic and legal patterns that create and perpetuate the dominance and the subjugation of others. In the 1940’s the FHA made a policy that gave white people the ability to borrow with federally backing and decided which areas blacks and whites could move into. This meant that white families were able to accrue household wealth and to share that wealth and black and Latino families could not. This in turn limited the ability of black and Latino families to send their children to college which in turn limited the next generation’s ability to earn a living.
Here is a link to “red lining” in Seattle: http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/covenants_report.htm
Here is a link to a movie about this policy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mW764dXEI_8
When Paul uses the word “sin” in Romans, he is really meaning all of these forms of sin at the same time – to what we often call a “culture of domination and submission.” This kind of culture is like software that takes advantage of the hardware of human beings – creating a spirituality which says that we are human to the degree we have power or are a part of a powerful group.
The only way to deal with sin on all four levels is to “die to” this culture of domination and submission and rise to Christ – that is to take part in an ongoing process of conversion from a culture of domination (in that time it was Rome) to God’s way of mutuality (the kingdom of God) that Jesus announced and began. I believe that is what the early Christians mean by baptism, and why Paul talks of it as a daily process.
There is much more to say here that I can’t say today. But I wanted to get a conversation going on this way of understanding sin.
It is totally possible for people to be “nice and well-meaning” and to still participate in institutional and structural sin. I know that most all of the ELCA were nice and well-meaning when they moved churches to the suburbs and when they decided not to plant churches in black and Latino areas. But they still participated in sin.
This does not mean that God stops loving the ELCA and its people. Instead, God so loves the ELCA and its people that God is offering a death and rebirth opportunity not so God can love us but because God does love us. Our salvation (healing) is inextricably bound with all our sisters and brothers. In Jesus we learn that God is healing and creating the earth and its peoples.
My home congregation has probably never heard anyone talk about the people who lived on it before they farmed it. I will be preaching at my home congregation this weekend. I will have to pray hard to see if I am called to bring up this hard truth.