The question came out of the blue from a member of my church — more of an accusation than a real question. It might have more accurately been phrased, “Don’t you believe in sin?” The question came in response to a frustrated statement I had just made about a local industry who was constantly having Open Houses to hire people to work for them, and then loudly complaining that they couldn’t fill all the positions because the applicants couldn’t pass the drug test. “Perhaps,” I suggested testily, “if they wanted to make a contribution to our county, they could hire some people who really need a job and then help them to get clean!”
“Do you believe in sin?,” he demanded. Startled, I didn’t respond instantaneously. “Aha!,” he exclaimed, triumphant: “Your pause tells me you don’t!” At that point, the rector jumped in to respond, and then he changed the subject.
Had I been quicker on my feet, I might have offered the retort sarcastic: “I didn’t notice there was a commandment that prohibited smoking pot.” Alas, I am new to theological rapier and dagger, and so I fumbled the opportunity. But ever since then, I have been reflecting on that question.
Do I believe in sin?
I believe pretty strongly in mercy, which implies sin, I guess. After all, you can’t have one without the other. Furthermore, I believe in grace, which is undeserved mercy, which isn’t surprising, I guess, given my Lutheran upbringing. And I could easily construct a respectable theological stance around mercy and grace. So yeah, I believe in sin. But more in the Greek sense of hamartia.
In bad high school lit classes, hamartia gets translated in a Christian sense as a “fatal flaw” in a character’s moral fabric — a sin, a reflection of original sin — Oedipus’s “fatal flaw” is hubris, i.e., excessive pride. But that’s not what hamartia really means, at least not when discussed in relation to Greek tragedy. What hamartia literally means is “to miss the mark” or “to err” — in other words, it is a decision made by a character that leads to his or her downfall. It’s a mistake, a bad move, perhaps even an evil one. Oedipus’ error was running away from his adopted parents after the Oracle at Delphi predicted he would kill his father and marry his mother. Bad move based in ignorance. Oops.
Anyway, the point is that it is something that a character does, not what a character is. And that is a crucial distinction, at least to me. It’s particularly important whenever I go to teach at the prison. I do not teach “criminals” — people with some characterological flaw that makes them “bad people” who deserve condemnation and abuse; people whose very essence is bad. Rather, I teach men who have made an error in judgment, have committed a crime that hurt someone or violated a law. I teach men who have committed a bad act, but whose humanity has not been erased because of that act. I don’t believe that human beings should be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever done.
To me, this seems totally consistent with my Christian beliefs. After all, Moses killed a guy and then ran away (Exodus 2:11-15), which didn’t stop him from being chosen by God to lead his Chosen People. In fact, God seems to have a soft spot for people who are kind of shady. Paul writes four of his letters from prison (Ephesians, Phillipians, Collossians, and Philemon), and eventually he is executed by the Romans. John the Baptist — executed. Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah — all imprisoned. Heck, Jesus destroyed private property (the money changers) and then was executed by the state as a terrorist for violating Roman law. Peter cut off a guy’s ear. And who was the first person to enter heaven after Jesus? A thief (actually, another political revolutionary, which is the real meaning of what is translated as “thief” in the English Bible).
Sure, you can argue that most of these were people who were thrown in jail because they were following their religious beliefs, beliefs that theoretically we “good people” share, and so we look the other way. But to the ones who put them in prison they were just criminals, plain and simple, and they got what they deserved.
And maybe that’s why God is always speaking of springing prisoners from their bondage. “He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” (Isaiah 61:1); “For he looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven the Lord viewed the earth to hear the groans of the prisoners, to loose those who were appointed to death…” (Psalm 102:19-20); “Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners.” (Psalm 146:7) I could go on and on (Matthew 25:36 is particularly important to me personally: “I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.”), but you get the picture.
And so to the one who challenged me about sinning, I offer, several months late, the retort theological: I put my faith in an executed God who offered mercy to those who have erred, whether deserved or not.
And no, I do not believe that pot smokers are sinners.