July 9, 2017

A Wretched Human Being

It is said frequently these days that the current state of our society is lamentable in terms of our ability to have meaningful and respectful dialogue about issues on which we disagree.

I have heard it from folks on both sides of the aisle. Whether we are Republican or Democrat, left or right, progressive or conservative, it seems that many of us wish that we could talk with each other about tough issues in a way that shows mutual respect and kindness, but we too often feel that it is not possible in this day and age.

This is not something that has arisen over the last few weeks or months. It is something that has been building for decades.

A few years ago, in a book entitled, "The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives," the authors presented a graphic that showed the patterns of voting in congress. Each Republican was represented by a red dot, each democrat by a blue dot. It then looked at how the individuals voted on bills that came through congress, going back to the mid-20th century. As is to be expected, red dots tended to clump with red dots and blue with blue. However, early on, there was a lot of overlap, areas where the two sides could find common ground and work together to move issues along. Over the last three decades however, those red dots and blue dots have grown remarkably far apart, indicating an intense disagreement between the two sides on important issues that we all face. This situation in congress mirrors the experience that we face as individuals. We seem to lack the skills necessary to disagree respectfully.

The problem is not that we disagree. If people disagree on the little things (like what television show to watch or what restaurant to go to), it is inevitable that we will disagree on matters of importance, such as how to best educate children, how to best address the sky-rocketing costs of healthcare, and how our representatives in government should best allocate the collective resources of this country.

The problem is not that we disagree. The problem is that we fail to see that the other person is actually a person, not just an opponent. We too often deaminize the other: it’s us versus them, we are right and they are wrong, we have to win and they have to lose.

Embedded in this is our failure to entertain the possibility that we might be wrong. We fail to see our own shortcomings, our own failings, our own sins. For if we are unable to recognize and admit that we might be wrong about some things, and always insist that we are right, we will not and indeed cannot approach others with a sense of cooperation and a mutual desire to move forward toward common goals.

So, if we want to love others the way we are called to love ... if we want to experience the freedom of new life that is offered to us through Jesus Christ ... then we have to confront and deal with our own shortcomings, our own mistakes, our own sins. We must face the fact that we might be wrong sometimes.

Our worship services give us the opportunity to do this every week, during the prayer of confession.

Now, it is easy to object to this prayer. A fellow Presbyterian minister shared a story about a time when someone in the church where he served objected to saying the prayer of confession every week. Her name was Norma: "Norma telephoned and said she wanted to talk to me. She had a question, she said. When we met, she handed me a copy of the worship bulletin from the previous Sunday. The Prayer of Confession was circled in red marker. “Now tell me,” Norma said, “why [do] you make me say these things every week?” The particular Prayer of Confession, outlined in red, included “laying waste the land, polluting the seas, warfare and greed, setting neighbor against neighbor, abusing imagination and freedom.” “Now really" she said, "I didn’t do all those things last week. I didn’t have enough time. I had a martini at [the restaurant], but that’s as bad as it gets. Why do you make me say those things?”"

It's easy to understand her objection. Most of us as individuals didn't personally pollute the seas last week or start warfare against another nation. But when you look at the way sin is presented in the Bible, it is more than just a personal thing. Sin in the Bible is also a corporate thing: there is an acknowledgement that there is a social and political and economic dimension to sin and to the extent that we participate in these systems, we too are complicit in a world that is not how God created it to be. But there is, of course, a personal aspect to sin: we all make mistakes and have our shortcomings. In our reading from Romans, Paul wrestles with this: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate ... I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."

Pope Gregory 1 argued that there were seven primary sins, the Seven Deadly Sins. They are the sins of pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. In later reflection on these sins, people began to argue that the sin of pride is the central sin. It is not that some of these are worse than other, but that the sin of pride can lead to the other sins. But we must be clear what we mean by the sin of pride. It is not a sin to have a healthy respect for yourself. The sin of pride is when we place ourselves at the center of the universe--when we think that the world revolves around us and our needs take priority over the needs of others--when we feel that we are justified in getting what we want or need even if it comes at the expense of another.

Our Presbyterian theological ancestors, the Calvinists--those who focused on and built upon the theological insights of John Calvin--they were obsessed with talking about sin. One of our confessions, one of the theological foundational documents of our tradition is the Westminster Confession, which says this, "Our first parents [Adam and Eve], being seduced by the subtlety and temptation of Satan, sinned in eating the forbidden fruit . . . [they] fell from their original righteousness . . . became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all their faculties. . . . From this original corruption, we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil."

Wholly inclined to all evil? That seems a bit harsh. Are we really wretched human beings and nothing more?

We know that there is sin and evil in the world and in human beings. And, if we are honest, we know that there is sin in us and that we are capable of evil.

But we also know that we are more than that. We are, after all, created in the image of God--there is beauty and goodness within us and no amount of sin can negate the fact that we are--you and me and all people--we are created in the image of God. Indeed we do see this goodness shine forth at times. In the grace that we extend to others. In the way that we can rise above our selfishness and extend ourselves in generosity. In the help that we provide to others. In the good we do.

There is a dichotomy here.

Professor Al Gini puts it this way: “Growing up, I reached the conclusion that we are a glorious species. . . . We have achieved wondrous things . . . performed heroic deeds . . . discovered cures for age-old maladies, our machines have taken us to the moon and beyond. And yet during my formative years I also heard a very different message from priests. The message was brutal. . . . I was a scoundrel and a sinner” (The Seven Deadly Sins, foreword).

So, are we wretched human beings or are we a glorious species? Are we sinners or are we saints?

Of course, we are both.

And so the question becomes, what can we do about this?

We must do something. We can't just throw up our hands and say, "what can I do about it?"

So what can we do?

We must acknowledge what it is that separates us from God. That is, in fact what sin is: a separation from God. But after we acknowledge it, the answer is not to then plan how we will do things differently and resolve to be better people. You will note that after our prayer of confession in the service, we do not have a time to make plans on how to be better. What does come after confession is the assurance that God's grace is with us still, and that nothing can separate us from God. We are accepted and grace is extended to us at the present time, and no amount of change or transformation or being a better person is required before that grace comes to us.

So we must learn to accept the grace that is offered to us just as we are.

But this, of course is not the end. As we are transformed by that grace, as we become aware of and take in and accept the fact that we are loved by God as we currently are--then we will allow that grace to transform who we are and what we do.