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Watered-Down Sin

So, what is lost?  What suffers when the language of sin fades from the serious discourse of a society?  One could argue, of course, that nothing is lost; in fact, something is gained.  "Sin" has always been a political word, as well as a theological one, and its definition has characteristically been controlled by those in power.  So, "sin" is "uppityness" or "pride," or whatever those who aren't in power do to protest their powerlessness.  The word "sin," goes the argument, is ever defined in the dictionary of the dominant group and easily becomes a weapon in their hands.  Thus, we can just as well do without it.

While acknowledging that grievous sins have been done to-and in the name of-the word "sin", the fact is that the theological concept of sin is considerable treasure.  If we squander it or lose it, we also lose the capacity to speak with accuracy and depth of our humanity.  Like other key theological terms, "sin" cannot be replaced with any other, more accessible, term.  "Immorality" is too tame, too attached to the human will and social codes.  "Estrangement and alienation," existentialist favorites, are too small, too focused upon the individual.  "Evil" paints too broadly and lacks personal bite, while concepts like "codependent" and "psychopathic" are located on a single floor of the human mansion.

No other word gathers up in a single stitch the intrapsychic, the interpersonal, the moral, the ecological, the social, the cosmological, and the theological character of the brokenness of human life and of all of creation.  To be able to use the word "sin" is to be able to speak with honesty about who we are with and to each other.  Because it places us on common ground, it is the soil of compassion, forgiveness, and hope.

- Thomas G. Long, "God Be Merciful to Me, a Miscalculator," Theology Today, June 1993, pp. 165-168.