A few weeks ago, a writer and blogger I love tweeted this:
This is where liberation lies: recognizing the systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice, not individual failings.
I can’t stop thinking about it: “The systemic nature of sin as that which feeds on injustice.” I think about all of the ways in which I’m either a bystander or an active contributor to cultures and power structures of injustice, all of the ways in which I’m ignoring or benefiting from those weaker or less advantaged than I am. Cultivating apathy, callousness, inaction; enjoying the easy dividends of injustice; my inhumane habits and stances. Those are what human dark sides look like–not our “sins” of crudeness or immodesty or anger or lust.
Jesus spoke often and passionately about loving the weak and the needy and the downtrodden. He actively and effectively loved the overlooked and the scorned and the pitiful and the annoying and the under-resourced–and he didn’t pay attention to what they were wearing or eating or watching.
I grew up in a deeply fundamentalist Christian culture that understood sin, or evil, as the latter: individual failings. And not just failures of kindness or empathy or integrity; I mean “failings” of a very specific and petty order. It was a culture that cultivated fear at all levels of living. Fear of crossing imaginary boundary lines: interpersonal, emotional, physical, mental.
What strikes me as especially strange about the classic fundamentalist take on sin is the reasoning behind it–the idea that God is supremely and perfectly just, and thus cannot tolerate injustice. So, our individual sin separates us from God, a separation that can only be reconciled through the perfect penance of Christ’s death. It’s clean, incontrovertible logic. But in this paradigm, God’s need for justice seems to taper out beyond those individualized arcs of reconciliation.
It doesn’t tell of a God who’s saddened by the enormous systemic injustices of the world, a God who’s concerned with the the way human nature has spawned a society so tilted that some kids skip three or four meals in a row while other kids glibly let entire refrigerators of food rot away. It doesn’t tell of a God who can’t stand a world in which dead babies are acceptable collateral in national pissing matches. Or of a God who hates when someone doesn’t get a job or a loan because of their skin color. Or of a God who cares about your part and place in that global calculus.
But the God I know is more supremely and perfectly just than I was ever taught; he’s more bent on redemption than I ever knew. And it doesn’t have anything to do with curing my lust/immodesty/anger–it has everything to do with love.
I’ve generally avoided writing about my spiritual and theological formation as a teenager, but this seems like as good an entry point as any. It’s something I keep processing and circling back to again and again, from new angles and with new information, so I’ll certainly write about it again.
From eighth through twelfth grade, I attended an evangelical Christian boarding school in the Kenyan highlands, located about an hour outside of Nairobi. It was populated mostly by missionary kids (with a few children of business-people and expats sprinkled in), and was staffed by missionary teachers and administrators.
The school’s geographical isolation, coupled with its intensely fundamentalist ethos, created what I felt to be a suffocating and even harmful spiritual environment. Many people (insiders and outsiders alike) would have called the campus spiritually vibrant: kids attended chapel daily and went to voluntary worship sessions on the weekends; friends prayed together before meals and teachers worked God into the curriculum; and the administration was hyper-invested in the students’ moral wellbeing.
But enforced spirituality is no spirituality at all.
Fear-driven faith is no faith at all.
We were a young community kept in line by shame, or by fear of being shamed.
The culture that my school cultivated was one in which even the smallest actions were morally weighted. There was spiritual meaning to every tiny decision: how your body moved when you danced, your sartorial choices and music preferences, whether you missed a curfew, or questioned a teacher, or kissed your boyfriend, or cursed, or got into a fight. Everything could be “a sin” or a disappointment to God or a sign of horrific moral disintegration. Everything was punishable. Pretty hard to be a normal teenager in that context. Pretty hard to ask questions or try new things.
You know what was easy in that environment? Ignoring the world’s real and immediate wrongs. Looking inward, not outward. Carrying guilt around my neck. Forgetting entirely what freedom looked like.
For years during high school, I operated in a fog of fear and shame. I cowered at the prospect of being shamed. I was afraid of being exposed as a fraud, afraid to voice my doubts or my disappointment with God. It was paralyzing, like living in a metal cell where all the walls were humming with live electric currents, so you simply could not dance or jump or relax or fall asleep for fear of hitting one of the walls and electrocuting yourself. My actions were considered, measured, fearful.
Attitudes like the ones fostered at my high school plague so much of evangelical Christianity. They quell freedom and foster shame. They deflect our energy and focus away from the real injustices of the world, and funnel all of our energy toward policing ourselves and each other.
Instead of trusting a good God whose heart breaks for the forgotten and hurt and oppressed, we remake a god in our own image–pettiness and prejudice included. I truly believe the promise in John 8:36, that “if the Son sets you free, you’ll be free indeed.” But what did freedom look like for Jesus? It looked like dismantling “that which feeds on injustice.” It looked like pulling out evil at its very roots. It looked a lot like the concept of ubuntu:
I am because we are.
Or, said differently, “I will be free when we’re all free.” Freedom–the way Jesus lived it out, and perfected in his death–is understanding yourself as your brother’s keeper, as someone whose freedom and wellbeing is deeply and intricately tied to the freedom and wellbeing of others. It leaves no room for fear or hesitation.