The Sin of Evil

Warning:  This is a vent, a rant, a yawp and a tantrum.  I received an email today that had me shaking while I read it and has been a distraction all day.  I seek the catharsis of putting my thoughts in writing so I can let it go.  The gist of the email was a chastisement that I criticized people who are bothered by “sin”.  In the writer’s opinion, Christians aren’t “crybabies” when they are opposing real “evil”.  She queries, “Don’t you believe sin is evil?  If not, you aren’t much of a Christian.”  I can emphatically say that I am not her kind of Christian.  You see, the “evil” she was pointing to — evil that “forced” her to leave the Methodist Church — included Harry Potter, Katy Perry, churches that host Halloween activities, “loving faggots and queers”, letting women preach, giving money to “abortionists and feeding the children of rapists and terrorists”, Rap and Hip-Hop music, “little girls who wear make-up like whores,” those who opposed George W. Bush in any way, those who support Barack Obama in any way, and “global warming environmentalist Nazis.”  She reminded me multiple times that “these sins are evil.”

I wasn’t going to dignify such utter narrow-mindedness with an answer, but here is what I woulda/shoulda/coulda said — and I hope she reads it.

First, no, I do not think “sin is evil.”  I think sin is sin — a condition of brokenness and separation from the intention and will of God.  It is sad.  It is unfortunate.  It is tragic in many ways.  And it is the human condition in which each and every one of us finds ourselves.  Sin is.  And it is much more than the individual “sins” we can commit as acts of disobedience, pettiness or cruelty.  We, a sinful people, have reduced a condition of ostracism from God to a list of unacceptable and condemnable actions and behaviors.  Shame on us.  Sins aren’t the things we do; the things we do emerge from the sin that is part of our nature.  It is why we need redemption.  It is why we have a Savior.

Second, evil is evil, and evil is sin.  I have seen evil; not all sinners do evil.  Even fewer sinners are evil, though the sanctimonious among us choose to treat them as such.  I think of my time on earth, and these things come to mind:

  • I visited a child in an Intensive Care Burn Ward whose mother doused him in lighter fluid and set him on fire because he refused to go to sleep.  This is evil; this is more than sin.
  • I met two young Puerto Rican women whose father had hooked them on drugs so that he could prostitute them so that he didn’t have to work.  This is evil; this is more than sin.
  • I testified in a court case where a birth mother strangled her three-year old with the electrical cord.  The child had been removed from the home of a lesbian couple who provided safety, comfort and love, because the judge felt “it was not a healthy environment in which to raise a child.”  This is evil; this is more than sin.
  • I stood near corpses in Africa of men, women and children who starved to death within sight of storage silos filled with food impounded by the government.  This is evil; this is more than sin.
  • I listened to a young woman who told of the way she and her brother were sold into slavery to human traffickers by her parents because her younger siblings were healthier and would cost less to raise.  This is evil; this is more than sin.
  • I shared in a funeral for a thirteen-year old cognitively disabled boy beaten to death by four “Christian” boys who saw him wearing a Barbie t-shirt, thought he might be gay, and wanted to teach him a lesson.  This is evil; this is more than sin.
  • I know a young woman who gave up on church because three times during her teenage years she was molested and forced to have sex by two different youth pastors.  This is evil; this is more than sin.
  • A man in a church I once served poisoned his wife and three children so that he could “be free” to marry a woman he met and fell in love with.  This is evil; this is more than sin.
  • Another man in another church I served had sex with his two daughters for years, while his wife stood by doing nothing.  This is evil; this is more than sin.

As long as there are such things in the world, I can’t get too upset about a boy wizard, styles of music, Halloween parties, and women preachers — not that I actually think any of these things are “sins”.  And you know, I can’t get too frothy about two people finding each other and forging a lasting bond, of love, respect, admiration and joy who just happen to be the same gender.  And I think name-calling is a lower form of engagement than the subjects of said calling.  It is evil to think of others less kindly than one thinks of self.  When we live in a world of life and death, torture and abuse, sexual and psychological enslavement, starvation and violence — why do we waste time worrying about such trivia as make-up and music?  Our values are all out of whack.

Somewhere along the way we reduced “faith” into a set of “right beliefs,” and made a way of being together in the world into a set of “right behaviors”.  The challenge of including everyone in the project of finding their God-given place in the body of Christ degraded to arbitrary criteria to determine who “belongs” and who doesn’t.  Judging and condemning are cornerstone pursuits for a significant number of people calling themselves Christian.  I can understand this because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but where is the humility?  Where is the desire for reconciliation and wholeness with those judged and condemned?  Where is the grace, the mercy, the compassion, the forgiveness.  I don’t want to be part of any “faith” that sees disrespect, indignation, contempt, self-righteousness and superiority as basic tenets.  The venom, bile and hatred disguised as “religion” is reprehensible.  Sin is sad, unfortunate, often pathetic, and universal.  But it isn’t evil.  Evil is something much, much worse, and all too often those who cry out loudly against it are its origin and source.

14 replies

  1. Ignore what Nick DeLaney says. He’s pissed at the church for its hypocrisy and its failures. Well, so am I. But what you’ve done with this column isn’t “busy work” by any stretch of my Christian imagination — nor those who are shouting “Amen!” over on my Facebook feed where I’ve posted the link. We NEED this theology — the WHY of what we do — so that we go out to do ministry and mission as the body of Christ, we know WHY we’re doing what we do!

    You know I’m picking this up for UM Insight. Brush off the woman who chastised you, yes, but don’t you dare stop theologizing for us. We need a practical, public theologian such as yourself to encourage us and to give us the words and ideas we need to counter both sin and evil in the world. Your writing is a gift to us all; please don’t deprive us of your wisdom. Thanks!

    • “Ignore what Nick DeLaney says”? How does that promote respect, compassion, forgiveness? If we say that we should ignore those who offer opposing views, who are passionate about their view, and who may not be offering respect to us, does not that place us in the same boat together?

      Ah, but that’s the thing isn’t it. We are in the same boat together. And, whether we like it or not, we have to learn how to treat each other as God’s beloved. One professor put it this way for me… “There is never anyone who has every existed on earth, now is there anyone you will ever meet, nor is there anyone who will ever live that God does not love.” How can we show love to Nick? Ignore him? I have trouble with that one.

  2. You state: “Somewhere along the way we reduced “faith” into a set of “right beliefs,” ”

    I read your two posts about crybabies earlier and today and let them sit before I responded. I then read this one. So here goes with my very humble view from the pew of the UMC for more than a few decades. First off, I do not agree with the reasons the lady who wrote the email left the UMC. I do agree, that sin is not evil, it is our state as fallen humans; it is the reason God took the drastic step to walk this earth and then pay the penalty he himself required for our sin and rebelliousness.

    Belief about who God is and who we are matter. Belief about what the role of the church is in relation to society matters. Belief about the role of the General Conference and the Discipline in the life of the church matters. The UMC is coming apart at the seams and people are yelling at each other because there is absolutely no consensus when it comes to any of these things. As much as everybody wants to deny it there is a theology–and it is very much Wesleyan–about God that teaches that God created, humanity sinned/took control and continues to sin/take control, God paved the way, through Jesus, for our redemption in the here and now as well as all eternity. By my experience, this story has not been clearly told in the UMC for a very long time. I know because I had to distance myself from all things church, sojourn into Calvinist leaning writings from the past and the present to discover the existence of a God worth worshiping; at age 59, I finally found myself in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace.

    I do not claim to be a Wesleyan scholar, but I have read enough about him and read quite a few of his sermons to make this statement: Yes, he believed in the catholic spirit when it came to different factions of Protestant belief as long as there was agreement on the major high points. But, when it came to the Methodist Societies under his control, any body who joined themselves to him agreed to a certain set of beliefs and understanding at the core of which was a desire to connect individuals to the triune God of holy love and then to each other. John Wesley’s goal was never ever to transform society but to facilitate God transforming individuals into the truly human persons God created them to be regardless of their circumstances; society was then transformed one person at a time. John Wesley never ever wavered from his Priority #1 of connecting individuals to God and to each other. Somehow, within the UMC, what Wesley did has been mutated into a predominately social justice agenda which it never was. For the most part, The United Methodist Church has become exactly what Wesley predicted it would come: the form of religion without the power because we have lost the understanding of who we are and who God is. It is not up to us to transform the world. At its best, Christianity with a Wesleyan accent is about allowing God to transform us for the good of the world. The UMC is doomed to fail unless it reclaims that teaching/understanding.

    Wesley, who preached to the poor and marginalized about who God is and who they are, made his famous prediction about the loss of power within Methodism because within in his lifetime, he saw the early Methodists become complacent in their faith because, under Wesley’s teaching and guidance about living a prudent and thrifty life pleasing to God, they experienced a significant improvement in their economic status.

    And if you think Wesley is pleased with all this theological diversity currently running rampant in the UMC, then I suggest you indulge in a very careful reading of the second half of his sermon on the Catholic Spirit–I think you will be surprised at his definition of a person who is truly of the catholic spirit.

    And just for the record, I have found the theological diversity currently running amuck in the UMC to be extremely toxic. It left me with a very confused and muddled understanding what Christianity is about! I have found basic orthodox Christianity as handed down by the saints to be absolutely mind blowing. It has absolutely nothing in common with modern fundamentalism; something that the liberals/progressives are very much engaged in. It is very hard to respect somebody else’s belief when they have absolutely no respect for mine! My understanding of freedom that has served me well is that my freedom ends where the next person’s freedom begins and the other person’s freedom ends where mine begins. Obviously the liberal/progressives have a very different understanding!

    • I maintain that a corpus of beliefs does not equal faith. Certainly beliefs matter. Opinions matter. Prejudices matter. Ignorance matters. Filters matter. What we choose to listen to and what we choose to reject matters. I have been called a Wesley scholar by some, and I do not for a moment think he would recognize today’s United Methodist Church as having much to do what got started under his watch. People who lift up a return to a Wesleyan Methodism generally have two things in common: 1) they don’t know much about Wesley’s teaching, and 2) they don’t understand the institution we call The United Methodist Church. Square pegs/round holes; apples/oranges; bicycles/fish — choose your incompatibility. It will generally be apt. We want something simple we can wrap our heads around that won’t make us feel uncomfortable or expected to change. What we call “religion” today is being often rejected, not because it is bad in itself, but that it has been so poorly represented by those claiming to care most deeply about it. Were we to commit to covenant community in the Christian faith, the world would be transformed. The dividing walls of hostility would be removed. Denominationalism would crumble. And Christian people might remember that God so loved the world, not their little enclave, sect, cult or commune.

  3. Here is Wesley’s understanding of the church. I do not have the original source but I very much trust the blog I found it on, Formatting is mine and I made it gender neutral:

    Here is what John Wesley once wrote about the church:
    “This is the original design of the Church of Christ. It is a body of [persons] compacted together, in order,
    first, to save each his own soul;
    then to assist each other in working out their salvation; and
    afterwards, as far as in them lies, to save all [persons] from present and future misery,
    to overturn the kingdom of Satan, and set up the kingdom of Christ.
    And this ought to be the continued care and endeavor of every member of his Church; otherwise [they are] not worthy to be called a member therof, as [they are] not a living member of Christ.”

    “Wesley on the church”, posted on John Meunier’s Arrow though the Air Blog, April 24, 2012

    • Wesley, at the end of his life, offered a mature view of his earlier beliefs. He was crystal clear that NO ONE could save his own soul; only God could do so. And the absolute best, most likely pathway for this to happen was through the regular and consistent practice of the means of grace. And, “means of grace” by Wesley’s definition were those practices the body engaged in together — Lord’s Supper, acts of mercy, study of Scripture, Christian conference (talking together about the faith), prayer, worship, fasting. Granted, the young Wesley offered a vision of individual salvation that the mature Wesley never did, but it says something about growing in understanding that we would well learn from in our own day.

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