A few weeks ago, I read a thought-provoking blog article by David Calvin on trading the language of ‘sin’ for the language of ‘brokenness.’ To read it in full, click here. The point of the article is that we minimize our own responsibility for sin by passing the buck to a nameless third party. Hurt people hurt people, the saying goes; can we really be held responsible for sin when we are born into a broken world and are ourselves victims? David says yes, we must be held responsible; otherwise, excusing ourselves from our culpability, we allow injustice to run rampant.
What he writes is true; however, it is only one facet of the enormous — and in many ways, ambiguous and undefinable — problem of sin and evil.
What is sin? Is it an affront to God’s honor, as Anselm of Canterbury suggested? Or is it disobedience of God’s law, as John Calvin believed? Is it estrangement from God, or is it broken relationship, or is it deliberate rebellion? Is sin simply a way to describe our own actions, or is it a third party agent that acts upon us, such as Satan? Is sin a personal issue or a systemic one? Throughout history, both trained and lay theologians have offered ideas of the ‘fundamental sin of humanity,’ ranging from pride to ignorance, all of which depict an aspect of sin but seem fundamentally inadequate to describe it. Throughout Scripture, sin seems to be such a broad, sweeping category that we hardly know where to begin in defining it. We understand it only in terms of abstractions: it leads to death, it consists in the absence of God, it goes against the created order. But what exactly is it? And how can we fight an enemy which we cannot see or name? The truth is, sin seems to encompass all of these explanations yet still transcends the limitations of our understanding. Derek Nelson, in his book Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed, outlines and addresses many of these different positions on sin, but it seems that we can only nail down a vague idea of what it means: “Sin implies something not being right in the complex relationships of oneself to God, oneself to one’s neighbor, and oneself to oneself” (Nelson, Sin, p. 17).
Something not being right.
Something is about as vague as we can get. Not being right seems fully subjective. This leads to ambiguity and disagreement regarding the nature of sin, something else which Nelson addresses. For instance, some Christians believe homosexuality to be a sin, to be against the created order, and thus something not right towards God. At the same time, however, many same-sex couples consider that Christians try to oppress them and deny them their rights, which would seem to be something not right in relationship to one’s neighbor. Is none of it sin? Is all of it sin? How do we begin to grapple with such an overwhelming topic?
I will admit now that I have precious few answers. To claim otherwise, I would have to claim to be a greater theologian than Calvin or Augustine or even the Apostle Paul. Clearly, as a first-year seminarian, I am not. All I can offer are my own fumbling attempts to understand this massive and complex issue, and while offering no definitive answers, I can offer simply the hope which Scripture gives. Understanding that sin can be explained in many different ways, I nonetheless turn to the social manifestation of sin — systemic injustice — to show why brokenness is indeed a legitimate understanding of this not-right-ness that surrounds us.
To do this, I will use a seemingly innocuous example: quinoa. Some of you may not even know what quinoa is; some of you have jumped on the bandwagon of health food and devour as much quinoa as you can get your hands on; still others mock those who succumb to the latest dietary fads. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, whether or not you consume quinoa matters very little in your everyday life and seems to bear even less relevance to this discussion of sin. Yet when we buy a processed and packaged ingredient such as quinoa, we think very little of where it comes from – and although it makes no difference to us, it may have far-reaching consequences for others.
Quinoa is grown in the Andean highlands, in parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru; and before the quinoa fad hit the U.S., it was part of the diet of those who grew and harvested it. The invisible hand of economics – and ecosystems – is often beyond my power to grasp. But whatever the reason, quinoa suddenly became all the rage, increasing the demand for the popular gluten-free grain and driving up the prices. Farmers are trying to grow as much quinoa as fast as possible to meet the rising demand, which is beginning to abuse and overwork the land. Because of the way ecological factors come into play, quinoa is an unsustainable fad. In addition, quinoa is becoming an outsourced commodity rather than a cultural staple; it is worth more sold internationally than consumed domestically. The farmers who grow the quinoa can no longer afford to eat it.
This is an example of systemic injustice; here, the root cause of sin is ignorance. It is not pride or rebellion that makes an unknowing Christian buy quinoa; it is a far bigger problem than that, and one which we are nearly helpless to fix. If we all agree to stop buying quinoa, then what will happen? Farmers will have thousands of tons of unsellable quinoa, which will cause a severe blow to the economy. Yet I found myself cringing the other night to see multiple pounds of uneaten quinoa cakes in the cafeteria waste bin.
Here is a situation in which ‘brokenness’ seems to be the only way to describe sin. I am not intentionally causing harm to my neighbor in Ecuador; the economy is broken, the ecosystem is broken, the whole societal structure is broken by sin. I am broken by sin, and beyond fixing myself.
Brett Dennen, in his powerful song Ain’t No Reason, poetically describes the hopeless state of humanity:
“There ain’t no reason things are this way; it’s how they’ve always been and they intend to stay. I can’t explain why we live this way, but we do it every day.”
The first time I heard this song, one line seared itself into my memory: “Slavery is stitched into the fabric of my clothes.” In one phrase, this sums up the brokenness of systemic sin. When you touch your iPhone, think of the hands that put it together, worn down by poverty and the unceasing demands of a greedy world. You didn’t know as you stood in line for it that you were the cause of suffering. Are we held responsible for this ignorance? Are we condemned by every bite of quinoa?
When we examine the social effects of sin and the systemic repercussions of it, we are no longer discussing individual responsibility. We can look at an individual person and call out their infidelity, their lies, their theft. But when we zoom out and look at injustices such as racism and sexism, it becomes a victim/victimizer issue – whites against blacks, or men against women. When we zoom out even farther to look at the even larger picture of ignorance in the face of social injustice, the lines become even more blurred. Thus the greater the scale, the more it becomes about brokenness rather than individual sins. To say that we must take responsibility only for our personal sinful acts is to greatly oversimplify this massive disease in our world.
The whole creation groans. This is Paul’s attempt to grasp the enormity of our world’s not-right-ness and somehow address it in a meaningful way. Yet we hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.
While we try to navigate the murky waters of right and wrong, we must take responsibility for our own contribution to systemic brokenness, seeking both to address the not-right-ness within us and to advocate for the not-right-ness of the world. Yet there is only so much we can do. I encourage fair trade, thrift shopping, gardening, and paying a little more to support small businesses rather than large corporations. Yet in the end, we all contribute to brokenness in ways that we simply cannot help. We will all, at some point, buy the metaphorical bag of quinoa out of ignorance. And so we repent of our individual sins, but we also cry out to God for the redemption of brokenness too big for us to fix.
Scripture does not and cannot tell us what sin is, for it is too great for us even to comprehend. Yet it does tell us of redemption and hope that is also greater than we can comprehend. We do our best to live in the Kingdom, yet in the end all we can do is hope for an infinite, unfathomable grace that can cover the sins of the world, known and unknown, confessed and unconfessed, repented and unrepented. Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.
And in times when the hopelessness of sin and brokenness overwhelm us, I find myself comforted by this beautiful quote from Chris Wright:
“We need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. And by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil have touched.”
I don’t have answers.
But I have hope.