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Sin and the Big Spill

Liberals must reclaim a robust notion of sin.

Yes, you read that correctly. Liberal Evangelicals, insofar as we have shied away from the term “sin” and allowed Conservatives to claim it as their property, must reclaim this classic Christian idea. I would even go so far as to say that we need to put a renewed emphasis on “original sin.” Now don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting a reclamation of a cartoon devil with hooves and the old snake and apple yarn. Nor am I suggesting a return to Augustine’s overtly sexual notion of sin as concupiscence. Rather, we need to get our heads around an uncomfortable truth, one that we Liberals have frequently ignored; sin is universal. No program of social justice, no educational curriculum, and certainly to set of rules or laws can pull us beyond sin.

So let’s look at the spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a reminder. What can we learn here about the pervasive reality of human sin?

Let me begin my saying that I don’t trust myself. I know my own limitations as a father, a husband, a friend, and a professional. So I set limits. I don’t even walk down the bakery aisle in the grocery store because I know I’m not up to the challenge. The proverbial “devil on my shoulder” will win every time. So I recognize my inherent weakness and find ways of working around it.

I force myself to do the same when I’m grading papers. Every teacher who has spent a semester working with students knows about the problem I’m about to describe. Some students are rude and lazy while others are polite and hardworking, so when the end of the term rolls around and it’s time to grade finals and term papers, can any teacher really trust herself or himself to look past the name on the top of the paper and pay attention solely to the content? I know that I cannot trust myself entirely. Inevitably I will give the benefit of the doubt to hard working polite students, not to those who I perceive as lazy or rude. I do not trust myself, so I go to great lengths to build in rigorous accountability. I write up grading paradigms and try to quantify as much as possible on every exam and paper. My students quickly get used to having their papers returned with notations like “6/10 citations, 7/10 clarity of prose, 25/30 analytical content.” I find that the more I can quantify a student’s grade, the less prone I am to allowing my feelings about a particular student to cloud my judgment. In a meaningful sense, what I am doing when I grade exams and papers in this peculiar fashion is acknowledging my own tendency toward sin and self-serving actions. And it is because I know better than to trust myself that I am better able to avoid those most problematic behaviors.

“Far all we, like sheep, have gone astray.” What a wonderful summary of human nature, but let’s add the following: “and will continue to go astray again, and again, and again”

Why did the spill in the gulf occur? Behind the talk of failed blowout preventers and liability ceilings lies a deeper truth about human nature. We shouldn’t trust ourselves too much. Or as President Obama recently declared (borrowing a classic phrase from President Reagan, one that Reagan used in an entirely different context), “Trust but verify.” Regulators trusted the oil industry too much. Industry executives trusted themselves too much. Platform workers, eleven of whom lost their lives in the original explosion, trusted their bosses too much. We citizens of the U.S. trusted our government too much and we trusted the oil industry too much. And everyone trusted everyone else largely because we all told one another exactly what we wanted to hear. All over the U.S. folks will spend the next several months pointing fingers at Dick Cheney, at BP, at President Obama, and at any number of targets. But beneath the recriminations will still lie that fundamental fact of human nature that the Christian tradition calls sin. We trusted ourselves and one another to do the right thing when we should all know better. Trust but verify.

Liberals originally gained their reputation as trouble makers because they actively distrusted public institutions. This fact has been lost in American political discourse because we tend to think of public institutions as exclusively governmental and in the second half of the twentieth century Liberals gained a reputation as advocates of big government. We should not, however, lose sight of the fact that Liberals advocated “big government” as a necessary counterweight to other institutions: Jim Crow laws in the south, large corporations, entrenched industrial interests, and corrupt state and local governments. At its core Liberalism is a social philosophy that distrusts human institutions: police forces, legislatures, the military, educational institutions, corporations, religious institutions, and any other public body that makes a claim for our loyalty. As Liberals we do not trust these institutions, but this does not mean that we think that they are evil. Rather, it simply means that we recognize all institutions as human constructs, as collectives of sinful human beings that we ought to we wary of. Trust but verify!

I realize that this view of Liberalism seems jaundiced and cynical, but there is good news here. As a Liberal Evangelical I know that the good news of Jesus Christ speaks to our world, a world in which trust must always be verified and never naively given over to a human institution. To hear the Gospel at full volume and in all of its complexity we need to see the ubiquity of sin and the depth of our problem. Salvation from sin does not mean an end to sin. Let’s not be naïve. Salvation from sin does not end at the notion of confessing individual transgressions. Let’s not be immature. In order for us to see the radical quality of Salvation, we must first appreciate the depths of human depravity and the universality of our plight. We cannot trust one another and we cannot trust ourselves. We have all gone astray. We are all going astray. We will all continue to go astray. And that confession points in two directions.

First, only with a radical appreciation of the thoroughgoing quality of sin can we appreciate the real miracle of Salvation.

Second, only with a radical appreciation of the thoroughgoing quality of sin will we be able to see ourselves and our world as we and it really are. We must expect oil companies to act irresponsibly. We must expect our governments to let us down. We must expect our employers to have their own best interests in mind, even if this means making us less safe. We must expect politicians to worry more about assigning retroactive blame and less about providing proactive solutions. We must expect all of our human institutions to be, well, human. And this means we should expect sin. And we should expect it in ourselves as much as we expect to see it in others.

So the spill shouldn’t shock us. The blame game shouldn’t shock us. Nor should we be shocked that others are shocked! When we lose sight of the ubiquity of sin, we open ourselves up to shock and disappointment.

Let’s not be shocked.

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