World gone wrong
In a new, three-part series, Lawrence Moore takes a fresh look at sin, forgiveness and confession. First: why sin’s not a personal business
It was 1989 – the year before Mandela was released from prison and the process of dismantling apartheid was begun. South Africa was under the State of Emergency – when men, women and children were being arrested and held without charge, access to a lawyer or trial. I was in Alexandra Township and talking to a black woman in her late 30s (I’ll call her Nomsa). She had had a 12-year-old son (whom I’ll call Sipho). Nomsa told me the story of Sipho’s death.
Alexandra was under siege, the streets full of South African troop carriers. Her son was among the youths throwing stones at the armoured vehicles. The troops inside the carrier opened fire with live rounds and her son fell to the ground, bleeding to death. She ran out to cradle him as he lay dying in the dust.
The troop carrier doors opened, disgorging heavily armed soldiers into the street. One, a young conscript of about 19, came over to her and told her to get inside for her own safety. She told him: “But this is my son. I must hold him; he is dying.” “Let the bastard die!” snarled the young soldier.
“Isn’t that appalling?” she asked me. I could only nod in mute horror. She went on: “Isn’t it terrible what The System does – how it can turn that young boy into such a monster?”
Nomsa and I had very different reactions. I was horrified by the inhumane cruelty of the young soldier; Nomsa was horrified by the way in which the apartheid system had destroyed his humanity! What I saw most clearly was the brutality of the soldier, who personified the evil of the apartheid system. I was appalled by his refusal to treat a black person as a human being. I was astonished and terrified by his capacity to do evil. It demonstrated to me how apartheid functioned through the myriad, cruel actions (sins) of those who upheld The System, trapping South African black people in a nightmare world of ruthless oppression that resulted in schoolchildren being shot dead in the streets by soldiers.
What Nomsa saw with such clarity was the way in which apartheid was a system that not only killed black children like Sipho, but dehumanised young, white, South African conscripts, imprisoning them in cycles of blindness, violence and brutality. She recognised that The System trapped and devoured its creators and defenders, along with their victims.
In theological terms, I was seeing what we might term the “personal sin” of the soldier. Personal sin describes all the things that I do (or fail to do) that hurt and harm others (including the non-human creation), instead of creating growth and flourishing.
Nomsa was responding to what we might term “structural sin” – the ways in which sin becomes embedded in the social, political, legal, economic and military frameworks of society, irrespective of our personal predispositions and actions. It cannot be repaired or forgiven; it needs to be dismantled in order to liberate people from its grasp.
The idea of “sin” connects with our everyday experience: there is something radically wrong with the world and with us. Things are not as God intended.
So talking about sin draws us into the story of God acting to save this world by transforming it into all that God intends for creation. And the focus of God’s saving activity is Easter: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus reveal to us what sin is.
And what does it tell us? Christian preaching often suggests that God finds it extraordinarily difficult to forgive sin, as if our deeds could cut us off from God’s love. The cross tells us that this is not true: if we don’t get nuked even for killing God’s only son, what do we have to do to be rejected, cut off from God’s grace and mercy?
The cross tells us that God is disgracefully, shockingly forgiving. It tells us that God does not see us as “wicked sinners” but as lost children to be welcomed home with open arms. We cannot cut ourselves off from God’s love. The cross tells us, not that forgiveness is difficult for God, but that it is costly.
We see sin in our broken relationships – with one another, with God and with creation. The problem with sin is not that it outrages God’s sense of purity, but that it destroys relationships. We offend God by harming another of God’s beloved children.
We might put it this way: God is less interested in our sin than in the people we sin against. Sin therefore requires more of us than private repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness alone; it requires confession, restitution and the restoration of broken relationships.
If we are inclined to over-emphasise personal sin, we need to recognise that structural sin is far more deadly than we sometimes imagine.
It is more than the sum total of all the wrong things we do collectively. It is the way in which human beings create our world without God. It is a Frankenstein monster: we assume that we are in control but our creation traps us in unbreakable cycles of despair and destruction. It is a system in which even the good we do contributes to the cycle – we seem to do just enough to convince ourselves that “the end is in sight” and we can make the necessary “running repairs” to survive.
At Easter we see God’s verdict: the system cannot be repaired. It needs to die and be resurrected as the New Creation. We do not need forgiveness from God for this sort of sin; we need liberation. Easter is the story God’s entry into The System in Jesus to expose and destroy it, and to resurrect all of creation to New Life in him.
Easter also tells us about our extraordinary capacity to choose self-destruction. Jesus visits humanity as God’s offer of the Kingdom. But in Jesus’s trial, Pilate offers humanity the choice between Barabbas (whose name means “son of the father”) and Jesus (“Son of the Father”). Appallingly, we choose Barabbas and demand Jesus’ crucifixion.
This is the final act in the biblical story of the human refusal of God. Its contemporary corollary is all too frighteningly visible in our disregard for the destruction of our planet. We tell ourselves that we are free to choose our own destinies – both individually and collectively.
Both Easter and experience tell us otherwise: we are incapable of choosing life when we are offered the possibility. Salvation does not lie in education or in reason, but in the compassion and resurrection power of God who offers deliverance from all that enslaves and destroys us.
Lawrence Moore is director of the Windermere Centre – a United Reformed Church resource centre for learning
This article was published in the June 2013 edition of Reform.
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