Feb  2016 16
Progressive Christians Need More "Talk About" Sin

Thirteen years ago, I interviewed to be president at another seminary. The opening interview with the trustees was the weirdest job interview I’ve had, before or since.

The atmosphere was hostile. The questions were barbed.

It turns out the trustees did not have a high opinion regarding the possibility that a former dean could make a decent president. After the search process was over and the board “went in another direction,” the principal with the search firm called me to say the hostile, barbed-question interview was the strangest he’d encountered in his long career.

He told me he advised the board members they should apologize for the way they treated me and my wife. One board member retorted, “No! Trustees don’t apologize.”

Persons, institutions, and nations that don’t apologize are bullies or tyrants. Such entities implicitly claim an exemption from the human condition of finitude and brokenness. That claim of exceptionalism is itself an expression of sin.

Whatever became of sin? That was the title of a popular book written by a psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, in 1973. In a recent lecture at Phillips during Remind & Renew, the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, spoke on the conference topic of race and Christianity. She said, “For mainline, liberal, progressive Christians, sin is kind of a tough topic.”

I concur. For progressive congregations, at the level of congregational life and practice, the language of systemic sin used by political and liberation theologians has not really taken hold. If it had, there would be more mobilized action to address systemic sins.

The language of individual sin, so much a part of the Protestant vocabulary for centuries, has diminished greatly; while we pray prayers of confession in the church I attend, I can’t remember when was the last sermon I heard that dealt substantially with sin. Sin is not a common topic.

Surely, there have been problems with the meaning of “sin” for much of Christian history. Sin as pride, sin as lack of self-assertion, sin as offense against the Holy, sin as connected with sex—there are problems with all these meaning systems.

But sin is an enduring theological word that needs more discussion among progressive Christians.

A cardboard understanding of sin, coupled with a necessarily thin understanding of grace, diminishes our capacity to see ourselves, our communities, and our nation clearly, as neither more or less than we are.

During Lent, I will reflect particularly on how a more robust understanding of sin among progressive Christians might help us contribute to the discourse about the United States, during an election season, when a major tension is manifest in how baldly candidates embrace American exceptionalism—the claim that the United States is innocent, righteous and perfect, at least when the right people are running the country.

In the reflections, I will elaborate on the judgment that exceptionalism, whether claimed by a person or a nation, is an expression of sin and that Christians should name it as such.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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