Easter question: What can Christians on the left and right do about the evil of our world?
“See sin for what it is — mosque shootings, Catholic sex abuse, college admissions scandal, hate tweets — and dare to live a new world into being.”
Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg caught the attention of many in the religious world recently when he shared his views on the importance of the “religious left” in America. “When I go to church," Buttigieg said last month on "On Real Time with Bill Maher," "what I hear a lot about is protecting the downtrodden, and standing up the immigrant, and being skeptical of authority sometimes, and making sure you look after the poor and the prisoner. I mean, to me, that’s the sort of thing that the religious left, often without much attention, has been arguing for my whole lifetime.”
I would hope all people who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ would hold this position, as this is the fundamental message of Christianity. But at a time when it seems the whole world is falling apart, what, really, can the religious left — or indeed Christians of any persuasion – do about the evil of our world?
As the pastor of a church whose pulpit has hosted some of this country’s most strident calls for justice in the name of faith, I decided there was one thing my congregation had to do this Lent: We had to talk about sin.
In the Christian calendar, the season of Lent is a time to contemplate the ways that we participate in harm and diminish love in our lives and in our world. And there is certainly a lot to think about. During this Lent alone a white supremacist gunned down 50 Muslims in two New Zealand mosques. A Catholic Cardinal was convicted of child sex abuse. The sexual abuse of Catholic nuns finally spilled into public view. The United Methodist Church voted against gay clergy and equal marriage. Wealthy parents cheated the college admissions process, laying bare the duplicity of “equal opportunity.” The steady drip of cruel tweets from our president persists.
Make no mistake about it: This is sin. But too often the language Christians use for sin has resulted in self-loathing that perpetuates cyclical systems of despair.
Life is not a spreadsheet of sins vs. good deeds
Many Christians arrive at a rather transactional conception of sin: a God of judgment hovers over the universe’s largest spreadsheet, keeping up with our sins vs. good deeds. In this framing, God metes out punishment for bad deeds and rewards for good. A cruel word toward a friend equals a certain number of demerits; a parking ticket perhaps slightly fewer.
Although many find this balance sheet approach to life appealing, all of us know that’s not really how life works. Rather, our lives are formed through the relationships we build with ourselves, the people in our lives, and with God. When we understand that truth, studying sin is about understanding loss, as in the ways we are separated from hope and goodness. And if we can understand systems of oppression and what is lost when we perpetuate them, perhaps we can imagine the path away from human tragedy and toward a world of justice and peace.
But how could we have stopped a terrorist at a mosque in New Zealand? And it doesn’t seem possible to do much of anything substantive about the children suffering at the border. Sexual abuse scandals that happen in someone else’s parish are bad, it’s true, but at least they’re not my parish. And certainly only an act of God can stop Donald Trump from posting hate on Twitter.
What is the church for, if not to confront evil?
There are myriad excuses not to confront the sin around us, but there’s at least one powerful reason for Christians to do so: if the church doesn’t stand up and speak and act in the way of Jesus, the world is right to question why it exists at all.
Talking about sin is more than an exercise in pointing out all that is wrong in the world. Seeing sin for what it is, then turning in another direction, is an act of imagination, of daring to live a new world into being.
As Lent comes to a close Christians will celebrate a season of rebirth, Easter. What might this newness look like for our own lives, for our nation, for our neighborhoods? We will vote. We will connect our values with our actions. We will pray, stay informed, seek out relationships with others who are different. Challenge ourselves. Love one another. There are millions of ways we can confront evil and build hope.
Easter’s message is this: that systems of oppression and failures of the human heart are not as intractable as they may seem, that even sin can yield to hope, and that death can be transformed into life.