A Progressive, Reformed Take On Original Sin

Today, we’re going to talk about…


Sirens blare, cars begin crashing into one another.  In the distance, a child screams.

But seriously, original sin isn’t something that we like to talk about much as progressive Christians. There’s some good reason for that; feminist, liberal, and other critics have noted how the doctrine has been used to hurt others, especially women, the poor, and people of color.

But before we critique something, we should seek to understand it. So what is Original Sin anyways?  What questions does it solve?

I believe that Original Sin describes the inherent problem of power within the human condition. It concerns our tendencies to dominate rather than cooperate, and to hurt rather than make whole. Original Sin is our tendency to see other humans as less than fully human, and to fail to acknowledge God as sovereign over creation rather than ourselves.

For me, Original Sin arises out of one of the deep questions confronting the Christian:

 If God made creation, and thus humanity, good (Genesis 1, especially verse 31), then why is there so much suffering, evil, and separation from God in the world? 

This question reminds us that something is clearly wrong in our world.  We cause pain, misery, and suffering, intentionally, and unintentionally, to ourselves, our fellow humans, our natural world, and to God.

Why do we do this? Is it part of human nature?  Our Culture? Is it capitalism’s fault? White Supremacy? Are there some folks who are immune to it?

Original Sin says that we all do it, and we can’t help but do it.

My own understanding of Original Sin has been heavily influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, whose Nature and Destiny of Man was one of my favorite seminary reads, and Daniel Migliore, whose Faith Seeking Understanding was my systematic theology textbook.

I believe that Original Sin is an emergent property of humans as social beings.  In human relationships, there is a tendency to seek power over one another.  As we do so, we start to realize that power feels good, and begin to believe that being powerful means that we’re better than someone else, and that therefore, they, and others like them, are less than human, while me, and others like myself, are more than human, more like God.

Original Sin distorts our relationships to other people, and to our creator.  These distortions of our relationships to our fellow humans allows for evil to develop, while the distortion of our relationships to God is sin. Sin and evil are intertwined deeply with one another, as God despises the evil we do to one another. I believe they are separate categories for one reason: the way to heal the damage done in those relationships is different.  Resolving our contributions to evil takes hard work, while reconciling with God requires our faith and trust.

We see this in King David, who in his power, majesty, and hubris, rapes a woman, and then has her husband killed. Paul describes these same dynamics in the church of Corinth, which is struggling with issues of socioeconomic status in their worshiping life. James tells us about the intersecting nature of Faith and Works, on how we need them both to achieve wholeness in our relationships.

Today, White Supremacy, Misogyny, Homophobia, Racism, Nationalism, Runaway Capitalism and all other forms of systemic evil, are symptoms of this Original Sin. I don’t mean to oversimplify; each of these “isms” are immensely complex, and each has its own context. That said, each one puts some of us (those of us like me, or whom I would like to be like) above others of us. They turn White men into Gods, and foreigners into monsters. Poverty and addiction become signs of moral deficiency, punishable by the force of law, rather than symptoms of larger societal diseases that desire reform and compassion.

So I think there’s a place for Original Sin still, even in our progressive Christian churches. It’s not because Adam and Eve ate apples and suddenly realized they were naked, but because we’re human.

Merely, and blessedly, human.

HOT TAKE: The United Church of Christ should have an ordained diaconate.

The United Church of Christ, over the past few years, has had a number of discussions and debates about revising and “fixing” the Manual on Ministry.  The proposed changes have been controversial, particularly in the collapsing of the categories of licensed and commissioned ministers into one ordained minister category.  This has been met with concern, and some derision.

I’m going to propose an alternative: an ordained diaconate.

My proposal is to create one order of ordained minister with two forms: the presbyter and the deacon.  The presbyter (or elder?) would probably look like what most of think of when we consider a Protestant minister serving in a church today: primarily called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament within a local church or chaplaincy.

In my vision, an ordained diaconate would be intentionally bivocational, focused on the intersection of church and society, and be tied intimately into the life of our local churches

Let me expand on what I envision…

Continue reading “HOT TAKE: The United Church of Christ should have an ordained diaconate.”

Tradition for Progressives

Church, I must confess.

I made a mistake.

I got into an argument about communion on the internet.

My advice: Don’t do it.  Never, ever, ever.  Folks who are normally extremely charitable and loving can become petty, smug, and vociferously uncharitable.  This is especially true among clergy.

That said, it does give us an opportunity to think about the role that tradition plays in our theology, and especially in the life of the church.

To define what I mean by tradition, I turn to GK Chesterton, an early 20th wit who wrote in his book “Orthodoxy” that tradition was “…giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

Although I believe that more often then not, our interactions with tradition should resemble a dinner table discussion rather than a parliament, the sentiment stands.

Note the distinction between  and language that is being used here: tradition should serve as a conversation partner, a voice in the room, not necessarily the sole decider.  Tradition is invitation to for the past to have a seat at the table, not that they should run the whole show.  Tradition is not a dictatorship of the dead.

Traditions reckons that the dead have a place in our democracies.

This does not make me some kind of hardboiled reactionary.  Sometimes our ancestors did very bad things, and sometimes we are only beginning to realize our (and their) complicity in systems that have hurt people.

Sometimes our ancestors left us with legacies that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, or imperialist. Most assuredly, these legacies should be grappled with. But it is hard for me, at least, to pass ultimate judgement on them as people without listening to their reasoning, if its available.

After all, most assuredly our children and descendants will think the same  of us one day, and I hope they give us the same benefit of the doubt.

I also hope that we are good conversation partners when that time comes.

5 Things Every Good Church Website Should Have

I’ve looked at quite a few church websites in my day, as someone looking for a church, as a denominational official, and as a pastor.

Here’s five things I believe every church website should have.

  1.  Worship Times Visible On Every Page
  2. Pictures of church members being joyful in worship
  3. Pictures of church members and guests interacting in positive ways outside of worship (including coffee hour)
  4. Video or Written Testimonies about life in the church, and what it means to be a part of it.
  5. Staff Names and Contact Information, available through one or two links from the home page

If you notice, this includes a lot of visual media; don’t be scared of this!  If your church doesn’t have any professional or amateur photographers or videographers, someone probably knows someone who would do that work, and do it well.  This is also a great project for teens and youth to get involved with.

It’s worth it.  A website (and facebook page) is a virtual front door and window into your congregation.  If all visitors see are pictures of your empty building, they might assume that your church is more of a historical building preservation society (which it’s not!).

When I go to a website, I want to be able to imagine my family there, worshiping with you. I want to feel the warmth of a passing of the peace that goes on too long, or a hymn that is sung with gusto (but a little off key). I want to know how YOUR church can become OUR church.

Blessings, Curses, and Vulgarity, Part 1

So this image has been circulating lately around my pastor friends on Facebook.  It certainly rings true, for the most part, with some friends commenting that the blue slice is entirely too big (thanks, Rachelle), or that the Orange should have a footnote that includes profusely apologizing for earlier “cussing’ (thanks, Claire).

I would also add, considering the spaces I often find myself in here in progressive Massachusetts, there should be another sizable chunk that is “Assumes I’m a judgmental bigot who hates them for their gender identity, sexual orientation, or non-Christian religious beliefs.”

But there’s a couple of serious questions and theological questions that arise for me from this meme. They are: “What is cursing?” and “What should offend us?” In this post, I’ll address the first question.

Cursing is one of those Biblical words with multiple meanings in English, and one of those special cases that a formerly ancillary definition has become the main one in popular use.

In the Bible, cursing is the opposite of blessing. A blessing typically is an invocation that God should keep whatever it is being blessed in His sight and favor.  Some famous blessings in the Bible include, the priestly blessing from the Book of Numbers, That said, blessings are also a recognition of the holiness that already exists in something- hence the Taize chant, “Bless the Lord, my Soul.”

Thus, a curse is an invocation or acknowledgement that God rejects something.  My favorite cursing in the Bible is Amos’ cursing of the surrounding tribes of the Kingdom of Judah for war crimes, as well as Judah and Ephraim(Israel) for damage done to the poor(Amos 1-2).

Blessings and Curses are especially associated with the biblical prophets; prophets are folks who stand as intermediaries between the people and God. Typically, they see problems in the world around them and declare oracles and prophecies, warnings of what will happen if and when the people do not get back into right relationship with each other and with God.  Amos’ curse upon Israel and Judah is a public declaration of the rending of the relationship between God and the Israelites because of their treatment of the poor.

This comes not only from the Hebrew Prophets, but also from Jesus, who stood firmly in that tradition, and the Apostle Paul.  The Beatitudes and the larger Sermon on the Mount is quite literally a list of blessings and curses, a description of who is favored in God’s sight and who is not.  Paul, for his part, calls out the Corinthian church for not sharing the Lord’s supper (then practiced more as a potluck and shared meal than the more ritualized, but equality driven version we have historically practiced) in an equitable manner(1 Cor: 17-22,32-34). Although this isn’t a direct curse, his letter does imply that those who fail to carry through with this will have God’s favor withdrawn from them, with consequences including death (1 Cor 11: 27-32).  As such, I believe Paul clearly stands in this tradition.

That cursing now almost exclusively refers to vulgar language is a sad evolution of language. Rev. Dr. William Barber is reminding us, first through the Moral Mondays movement, and now through the revival of the Poor People’s campaign, that we have a duty to call out evil in society, cursing that which damages the poor and destroys our relationships to each other.

So yes, pastors, prophets, poets, Christians, we are allowed to call out the evil which exists in this world and curse it, particularly if it involves those who are hurting most. Do this through discernment within the context of your communities, and with consultation in scripture, prayer, and through listening to those who are hurting.

Oh, and if you’re using vulgar language to get a rise out of me, it probably won’t work…But more about that next time.