While sin is primarily a result of an individual’s misconduct—the consent in thought, word, or action to something contrary to the Eternal Law of God (see previous post)—there are clearly effects of sin that disseminate far beyond the original act and remain long after forgiveness has been given.
For instance, if I were to harm another person, let’s say even kill them, I would be gravely sinning. Upon realizing the evil I had done, returning to God with a contrite heart, and wishing to be converted in mind and body, we believe that God’s mercy would prevail and I would be forgiven of that grave sin. End of story, right? Hardly. What about the family of the person killed who must now say goodbye forever and may be burdened psychologically or financially? What about the community that must live with the shock and terror of such a horrid act happening so close to home? What about the children (and adults for that matter) who may become traumatized, or worse yet, desensitized, by such an act and may even become more prone to commit it themselves? The ripples of sin are often so far reaching that it is difficult to conceptualize just how far they go, how they may affect others, and in what ways they may lead to other sins. In a very real sense, God cannot take away these effects because God cannot make someone forgive and cannot take away the memory of what was.
Such is the nature of our fallen state, and such is the effect of Original Sin. While we are ourselves not guilty of the first sin committed by Adam and Eve in a direct sense, we must live with the consequences in our world and in ourselves. Prior to their sin, there was nothing but pure being, obedience, and perfect relationship with God. Sure, while there was always the possibility of scorning God and blemishing that relationship, it had yet to be done. The water was perfectly still. By introducing the world to the first act of disobedience, saying “no” for the first time, a giant stone was cast into the water and its effects could not be undone: the world now knew that “no” was an option. One act of disobedience rippled into another which rippled into another until the once perfectly-still water was nothing but a choppy mess. Paradise was lost, and even those who wished to remain perfectly still in obedience to God had to now live in choppy waters.
So who’s to blame? Surely we can’t scapegoat Adam and Eve for all of our problems, but can I really say that I am to blame for Climate Change and pollution? War and violence? Poverty and mistreatment? Can you? The thing is, many of our cultural problems have no face and have no easy scapegoat because they are our sins; they are the sins of the collective identity we all share. In the same way that than individual sins when s/he consents in thought, word, or action to misconduct against God and neighbor, such is the case for the identity we make up as a whole. Sin in this regard is called Social Sin.
Take pollution for instance. As an individual, I may throw my trash directly into the river. If out of seven billion people I am the only person to do such a thing, the effect would be minimal, and it would be difficult to call this a sin. But what happens when we as a society choose inappropriate means for disposing of our trash? While individually we only throw into the river the same amount as before, collectively we place thousands of tons of waste into natural environments. As an individual I am not culpable, but as a collective we are all at fault. The same goes for war, poverty, exploitation, disease, and energy consumption: while no single individual is the cause of the world’s disasters, each of us has contributed to the whole and has taken part in the collective identity, either in direct support or general apathy, in order to produce worldwide sins.
So once again I ask: why write about sin? Like the previous post, I write with less of an eye for judgment and more of a hope for reconciliation. Sin exists in our world, but it need not! The first step in fixing our world, regaining the perfect union with God, neighbor and self once experienced in Eden, is recognizing that we have sinned, and how we have sinned. Sin is much more than thinking mean thoughts and its effects reach much further than a guilty conscience; it pervades the lives of our brothers and sisters. And it lasts.
What I call for is a consciousness of our relationship with our surroundings, both as individuals and as a collective. At the end of the day, have my thoughts, words, and actions left this world in a better place or have they left someone else, maybe halfway around the world, worse off? While the cause of our social sin may not be due to one person, the reconciliation needed to make things right may be. It takes one person to ask the question; one person to light a spark; one person to set the example; one person to stop the perpetuation of social sin, even if that is in only one case. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: the way we eat, the places we shop, what we do with our excess, and how we treat the least in our society are not trivial issues. To think, speak, or act without answering these questions, while individually having only a minute effect on the world around us, may in fact be sin.
Ultimately I write this to bring to all of our attention the necessity for true reconciliation for our sins. When we realize we have sinned and ask God for forgiveness, we believe that God will be merciful and forgive us. But our act of conversion does not end there. We must seek to fix what we have done. True reconciliation is mending relationships that have been hurt, forgiving those who have sinned against us, and altogether trying to put the world back to the way it was before we sent a ripple of sin through it. If we believe sin to be a relational problem with social effects, reconciliation must also be relational with social effects. How have you affected your world today?