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Sin is Culturally Defined

Thomas Whitley

La Confession de Pietro Longhi, vers 1750 I've thought about writing this post for a long time. A very long time.

The reality of the title statement hit me sometime in my teens, as I attended a church that taught that the consumption of alcohol was a sin. Yet my parents, relatives, and family friends - all equally "Christian" - drank alcohol responsibly. I stepped closer to this statement when a very important time of my life ended in disappointment because my powerful conversation partner remained shut down to my claims that current religious prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol (and the subsequent labeling of such activity as "sin") were merely a holdover of our country's earlier legal prohibitions.

Through college and divinity school I became exposed to numerous groups of Christians who had different lists of "sins," different definitions - sometimes radically different. Why was this so, I wondered? Were some "better Christians"? Were some more "devout"?

It was, I think, during divinity school that I started openly telling others my theory that sin was culturally defined. I was rebuffed, often. Opponents of my view would quote Bible verses to me and I would quote them back. Romans 14 quickly became a favorite chapter of mine. Verse 5b: "Let all be fully convinced in their own minds." Verse 14: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean." Even Paul was proclaiming the relativity of sin.

[Aside: This is the same Paul who cannot settle on what he even means when he uses the term "sin." It is sometimes very clearly doing things one ought not do, but other times it is very clearly some cosmic force which is able to indwell human beings and in fact does dwell in the flesh, while the Spirit of God dwells in the spirit. Yay, dualism.]

Recent conversations in our country and in various Christian circles about same-sex marriage have caused me to become more convinced than ever. Those who are opposed to same-sex marriage because homosexuality is a "sin," or at the very least that engaging in "homosexual acts" are sinful, employ the so-called clobber verses: Romans 1, Leviticus 20, etc. The selectivity of using these verses (and not verses that prohibit wearing clothing made of mixed materials, for instance) as a guideline has been pointed out and labeled hypocritical. Countless proponents of marriage equality have talked about Romans 1, the homoerotic acts discussed therein, and the invention of "homosexuality" in the 19th century as though they were experts. The text does not mean what it seems plainly to mean, but instead one must realize that there was no understanding of things such as "sexuality" and same-sex monogamy at the time, the arguments go.

While the authority of the Bible is regularly given as the reason for claiming that homosexuality is a sin, I have yet to meet someone who claimed that homosexuality was a sin that would claim the opposite about slavery, though the Bible clearly and repeatedly condones the latter. Claims have been made by religious leaders and politicians and Facebook friends that the "Biblical definition of marriage" is that of one man and one woman. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, after all. In response to this I am fond of posting this helpful chart:

Biblical Marriage

All of these miss the mark, though. For it is our culture, or our particular subculture, that has already defined "sin" for us. We need only to provide the explanations for our classification. When examined with a critical eye, it becomes apparent that there is no consistent list of "sins." My dad could not play cards when he was growing up, though I could and no one considered telling me that the activity was a "sin." Galatians 5.2 says, "Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you." Even so, most American Christians permit their male children to be circumcised. It is the cultural norm. Claims will be made of lax or weak Christians, though the hypocrisy runs rampant in all stripes of Christian. Merely pointing this out only takes us so far.

We do better to realize that intimately connected to what counts as "sin" is the power struggle over identity and legitimacy. Liberal Christians denounce conservative Christians as not really following Christ's example. Conservative Christians denounce liberal Christians as not accepting the authority of the Bible. The recent World Vision debacle gave us a trove of examples people from all sides engaging in these identity politics in the matter of a few days. Charges flew back and forth explaining who was a "true Christian" or who was worthy of the name "Christian." The ones leveling the charges always included themselves in the "true Christian" group. Self interest, FTW, huh?

At the heart of these struggles are people and groups engaging in the varied processes of identify formation and maintenance. For the authenticity of one's faith to be legitimated, his opponent's faith must be delegitimated, so the thinking goes. We see the same processes at work in the early Church when Paul fought vehemently with the Jerusalem Church over Gentile entrance requirements, when Irenaeus and Epiphanius produced their (in)famous lists of heresies, when controversies arose over the personhood or divinity of Jesus, when bishops used their powerful connections to oust competing bishops, when those in power feared the new-found popularity and increasing authority of the desert fathers and mothers, when "heretical" groups were excommunicated and then when they were no longer considered "heretical" because someone new was in power.

It seems a cynical and crass way to view history and to view the church, yet no other view suffices. No other view explains the arbitrary nature of what is considered "sin" at a particular time and place. We need only look to the sermons about the "curse of Ham" to justify the institution of slavery in this country and to couple these with their context: civil war America where one part of the country had a significant economic interest in maintaining that slavery not only should be legal and was not a "sin," but that it was actually part of God's plan. Such a sermon would never fly today in an America that has outlawed slavery, has outlawed Jim Crow laws, has continued to make progress in racial equality (though it remains slow, painful, and rarely steady), has elected its first black President, and recalls with fondness and humility Dr. King's dream. The context has changed. The culture has changed.

Similar examples can be given of how shifts in public opinion are directly tied to shifts in theological understandings and understandings of "sin" as it relates to issues such as same-sex marriage, drug usage, interracial marriage, drinking alcohol, etc.

It is true that in many circles I am considered a "heretic." I have been deeply influenced by being met with hostility and questions like, "How can you call yourself a Christian?" So I am keenly aware (and have become much more aware thanks to Foucault, Bourdieu, McCutcheon, etc.) of the role that power and identity politics play in claims of truth, authenticity, and normativity. Sin is no exception.