The Roar of the Faithful Tide
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:1-7
Dorothy Sölle was a theologian and writer. As A German who watched the atrocities of Auschwitz, Sölle wrote passionately that humans are to struggle together against oppression, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of authoritarianism. For Sölle, the idea of a God who sat in “heaven in all its glory” while Auschwitz was organized was unbearable. Sölle she developed a powerful “post-Auschwitz theology,” an understanding of God who does not float above history and its trauma but who shares intimately in the suffering of the victims.
In an article in The Christian Century, published in 1982, Sölle thought about sin and suffering. She wrote a caricature of a woman named Marianne, which I want to share with you today.
Marianne is an attractive young woman who owns her own home in the suburb where she lives with her two children. She talks about the gold jewelry her husband gave her for Christmas. The gold comes from South Africa; but she doesn’t see the blood on her gold chain. She hardly understands the connection between racism, infant death rates and exploitation, on the one hand, and profit and the low price of gold, on the other hand. Another thing she doesn’t (yet) know is that gold can’t keep her warm.
For her, “sin” is a ridiculously old-fashioned word, connected with eating too many calories, illegal parking or uncondoned sexual behavior. You really can’t take any of that seriously. Marianne feels guilty about her mother because she doesn’t visit her often enough; occasionally she asks herself if she takes proper care of her children. But sin?
Like so many people, Marianne is superficially Christianized. In her youth she was taught that sin means separation from God, turning away from the Creator, revolt against God, worship of other gods. But all of these are empty phrases which have nothing to do with her life. She experiences the actual meaning of this word sin -- namely, being separated from God -- most closely when she is depressed.
Recently she’s been depressed a lot without being able to say why. Soon, the emptiness of her life will catch up with, her. Then she will either have to change her life, or she will go right on living in her modernized doll house and denying, repressing, sweeping under a thicker and thicker rug everything that disturbs or challenges her. She will remain underdeveloped rationally, emotionally, socially and therefore individually as well. A colonized being, governed by trends in which she has no say but to which she submits, cut off from life.
Thanks to her feminine upbringing, Marianne feels like a victim of her environment. She doesn’t know her own strengths and capabilities. She’s been brainwashed long enough to believe that she can’t patch an electric wire; that only young, attractive women have anything to say on television; that she doesn’t understand anything about business and politics.
Marianne’s relationship to her neighbor is very reduced. She has to do only with people of her own class. She keeps her children away from contact with different people, different experiences, different cultures (unconsciously, of course). Unrecognized racism has become an integral part of her life. But even her relationship to people of her own class is essentially based on competition and envy.
Marianne’s relationship to the creation and to nature is perhaps somewhat less disturbed. She rides a bicycle, but she’s lost her original joy in the returning birds, the rise of the moon. Everything she loved as a very young girl is further away now, more indifferent.
Marianne’s relationship to the human family, to her sisters in the Third World, is troubled. I’ve given up even trying to answer her occasional “But what can anybody really do?” This question just masks the fact that she really doesn’t want to do anything.
I wonder if there is some resonance – some truth in this caricature? I wonder if there is a little bit of Marianne in each of us; people who have been trained to live a water-logged existence. How many of us would like to experience the abundance of love while denying the death-dealing power of sin. I ask that question because I don’t think we can have one without the other. We can’t understand love without also experiencing separation. We don’t understand light without shadows. Artists call it negative space: the area that surrounds an image. Negative space helps to define the boundaries of the main image and brings balance to a composition. In the same way, can we understand fulfillment without yearning? Peace without violence? How can we know forgiveness without sin?
Like Marianne, we may think of sin as a ridiculously old-fashioned word. Some of us were taught that sin is any willful act against God’s rules for us – an open revolt against God. Or, there are sins of omission – failing to do the things God wants us to, like all those rules about loving our enemies. In this worldview, God becomes the moral lawgiver who establishes the boundaries of proper human conduct. Since we are always overstepping the boundaries, God has to judge our sin. We become candidates for some of God’s renowned and notorious wrath. When I was growing up, I was taught that sin was an individual problem that could be solved with some good old fashioned prayer and repentance, or some blood atonement from an innocent victim that sacralizes victimization. As today’s scripture says, “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
At this point in my life, I have some problems with this definition. First and foremost, the idea of individualized sin as rebellion against God tends to keep marginalized people down. It’s so easy to say, “That person must be poor, or sick, or jobless, or suffering because of some rebellion against God. That person must be afflicted because God is punishing some sin.” If my life is going well, then I must not be sinning enough to get God’s attention. I can claim that if my life is good, then God must be on my side. So now there are sinners and saints. Them and us. Outsiders and insiders. Locking our doors, building our fences, clutching our purses, we begin to hide from the possibility of relationship with “those people.” Now I can marginalize those who are suffering while praising my own inherent goodness. Now I can look at people who are different than me with fear. Now I can judge others. Now I can protect ourselves from “them.” Now I talk about “those people” but fail to think about how we function in the system. Now I can use religion as a justification to hurt others. Now I can use violence as an instrument of God’s wrath. It’s a tactic as old as time: use religion to blame and hurt the victim. As we remember Holocaust Remembrance Day, we realize that what I’m describing is a world view that takes us only a few steps away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. As the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide approaches, we recognize that religion-invoked murder begins with theology that flourishes by creating outsides and sinners who are worthy of God’s wrath.
I think Western Christianity got this one wrong. I think we did the exact thing that 1 John warns us against: we say we have fellowship with God while walking in darkness. What if the people I thought were saints are really part of the sin? What if calling other people out on their sin is a way to distract others from the big problems of organized, systemic immorality? For example, I can mistakenly think that the level of personal happiness in my life has to with how pleasing I am to God. In reality, my happiness can be attributed to the fact that our culture affords me privileges as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male. If I unconsciously benefit from white supremacy, then who is really involved in sin? Is it those who are devalued because religion says they suffer due to personal rebellion against God? Or is it me? Am I caught up in sin because I can benefit from unjust social structures that reward me for the arbitrary color of my skin, or my gender identity, or my sexual orientation? If there is sin, then where does it lie?
Yes, we were taught that sin is the destruction of our relationship with God. But let’s think this through some more. When the tradition says that sin destroys of our relationship to God, it doesn’t mean individual “sins” but rather the destruction of our human capacity for relatedness. Let’s get back to Dorothy Sölle’s image of Marianne. Sin means that life around us seems to us to become shadowy and unimportant; it loses its taste. We can take it or leave it. Sin means being separated from the ground of life; it means having a disturbed relationship to ourselves, our neighbor, the creation and the human family. Sin means not knowing one’s own strengths and capabilities; never experiencing solidarity; giving oneself credit for nothing; having no self-confidence. It means living without self-determination, without power, without hope – it’s what Black theologians define as the apathy of those who have given up.
I think we need a different kind of discourse. Instead of heaping judgment on the sinner, we attune ourselves to the voices of those who have been sinned against. So, using my example of white male privilege, I can lament my own complicity in racial injustice and the ways white supremacy continues to leave racial relations undone in the United States. I can listen to the pain and anguish of my sisters and brothers who are hurting and suffering, and then do something about it. I can relinquish my economic and racial advantages, beginning with ways that whiteness has been used to name God and define the human condition.
The same can be said about hetero-patriarchy (that’s fancy talk for being a straight male). What might it mean to hear those who have been sinned against and relinquish heterosexual male advantage? What an uncomfortable conversation we must have about this! And yet, we cannot talk about sin in ways that render us comfortable in the face of rampant injustice. If our sin-talk can lead us to healing, it must disrupt the idolatry of the individual and the veneration of the narcissist
What we need is a different method -- a different relationship with the world that has borrowed the eyes of God. A different set of ears that hears God summoning us, like the lulling, rhythmic roar of the faithful tide, eternally wearing away immovable pillars of stone on the shoreline:
Solid stones of separation,
Towering rocks of recklessness,
Conceited cliffs of chaos,
Prideful pillars of prejudice,
Ceaseless shores of injustice,
Venerated veins of violence,
All of those sins, those obstacles that seem like they will never change, those boundaries that separate us from one another – they are not as fixed as we think. The roar of love’s faithful tide wears them all away.
You are I are living in a condition that God wants us to change. Love erodes our defenses and opens us to fullness. Love ashes over all the obstructions and helps us give way to God. All will be gathered in God. All will be made whole. And each moment, each wave, each demanding and insistent tide of love crashing upon us, helps us live as forgiving and forgiven people.
The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology, by Marjorie Suchocki
Beyond Apathy: A Theology for Bystanders, by Elisabeth T. Vasko
Reclaiming the Faith; Sermons by a Liberal Christian Wil Bailey by Carlos David.