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What we mean by "sin" and "sins"
Tony+ prompts us:
> Quite apart from the essential Christological factors addressed in
> this discussion it might be a good idea if we addressed what we mean
> by "sin" and "sins".
I have spent much of my life having to unlearn what I was taught about
sin and trying to discern what is really evil, as well as what I might
do about it. I have very few answers, but some rich and complex
Brought up and educated as a Baptist deep behind the Cotton Curtain, I
was taught that sin included, (in no particular order here)
* smoking (unless you were from a tobacco-growing state)
* cussing (unless 'damn' became 'darn,' 'God' became 'gosh'...)
* "mixed bathing" (a Texas phrase that referred to swimming, not
taking a bath)
* drinking (though 'Whiskeypalians' were given allowances; and
anyone could order 'Baptist tea' -- beer with a lemon slice
and mint on the glass, especially during "I Buy Dry" campaigns)
* entertainment on Sunday (unless it was 'reading' or radio..)
* sex (treated as nasty and thus to be saved for marriage)
* spending time with any but the 'better sort of people'
* chewing (though no middle-class people were tempted anymore)
* dancing (though Baylor allowed it if we called a 'dance' a
* telling dirty stories (unless they were gossip without sexual
and, of course, 'murder' (though approved if we called it 'war' or
'electrocution'), 'theft' (though approved against the poor if we
called it 'sales tax'), 'rape' (though allowable if done in marriage),
lying (though 'white lies' were expected over candor in many social
Neither Sunday School nor regular school taught me anything about
racial justice, economic justice, gender justice.....
Sin was almost always presented as a private act, almost never as a
corporate or institutional act which private citizens enabled by the
Quietism we maintained in the face of unjust systems. For
adolescents, sin was frequently a private nastiness.
It is no accident that Segregation lasted so long in such a system.
It is no accident that wages remained the lowest in the country in the
region that taught that Good Ole Time Religion.
My parents sometimes exposed me to a more complex view. I well
remember the day Dad told me to take off my white suit and put away my
bible because we were going fishing.
"On Sunday!" I exclaimed in horror.
"Yes, son," he replied.
He was one of the two teachers of the men's bible class, and at 9 or
10, I wondered whether I would hear thunder at his sacrilegious
"We're in danger of winning one of those perfect attendance pins, and
they have nothing to do with real religion," he continued. "Mrs.
XXXX [a lady who lived up the street and ran a furniture store near
his hardware store] has a string of those pins from her chest to her
knees, and she makes much of her money by selling furniture to people
that they cannot afford, and then re-possessing it to sell to yet
other poor victims."
As a sissy boy, I rarely appreciated his lessons at the time, but I
thank God for a dad who persistently showed me that the world does not
fall apart when you stand against the majority.
It is very hard to think clearly when we face huge amounts of Received
As a teacher, I have frequently used exercises to help students gather
evidence with which they might say something fresh about issues that
have grown stale. E.g., I pass out to each student ten 3/5 index
cards and ask the student to write on each card a different act which
she or he would feel guilty doing. Next I ask students to rank the
cards from 1-10, with '1' being the behavior that would provoke the
most guilt, '2' the next most.... Then I ask them to rank the cards
A, B, C.... with 'A=Most tempting,' 'B=next most tempting...' and
'X=not really tempting at all.' Finally, I ask them to identify some
other variables on each card, such as 'your gender,' 'the number of
times you have been to a religious organization in the last year'.....
Only after we gather the evidence from the whole class do I point out
that we have just revisited the 10 Commandments, Then I ask them to
write essays based on this candid evidence about what their real
values were and how they compare with Yaweh's/Moses'.
I wish I had saved these projects, over a 44-year period, in cultures
as different at China, Wisconsin, New Jersey, the black South, the
white South, Hong Kong, the London slums, a Delaware boarding
Some of Yaweh's big 10 almost never show up in their lists, though
they have a much better appreciation of what Moses was doing when we
begin first with attention to their own observations.
One of the biggest problems many religious people have in asking what
is sinful is the long habit of expecting someone else to answer the
question for us. 'Just give us the right list!' Such passivity leads
to Religion as an opiate rather than Faith as a spiritual tonic.
The church has far too many clients. We need more disciples.