A display of snacks in a cafe I used to visit was labelled “sinful treats”. I never asked in which religion the consumption of peanuts is regarded as a sin.
After a fascinating linguistic journey, the word “sin” can now mean “appealing”. On the other hand, some Christians throw the word around fairly unthinkingly. Many other Christians have become rather embarrassed about the term “sin”, worrying that its use will make them appear judgemental.
Understandings of sin have undergone many changes. After the Church became linked to the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Christians gradually accustomed themselves to Christendom – the system that united church and state. The theologian Augustine developed two major new doctrines that still exert huge influence.
The first is 'just war' theory, designed to replace early Christian nonviolence. The second is 'original sin', according to which everyone is born a sinner. Augustine taught that original sin is passed from one generation to another by sex.
Oppressive rulers and church leaders have made much use of these doctrines. The strict criteria for 'just war' were soon stretched out of all recognition. Contempt for sex, pregnancy and the body fuelled the subordination of women and sexual minorities. And it is much easier to condemn the sexual sin of deviant individuals than the violent sin of imperial oppression.
In short, Christendom placed the focus of sin firmly on sex and away from violence.
In post-Christendom, this distorted outlook often continues. Many churches focus excessively on sexual ethics, while treating questions of peace and war as a side-issue at best.
Our society is deeply inconsistent about both sex and violence. The government condemns gun crime while subsidising the arms industry. The media scream about paedophiles but forget that most abused children are abused by their own relatives. People who claim to be sexually liberated still unthinkingly use the world “rude” as a euphemism for “sexual”. And the ongoing association of sin with physical pleasure means that tasty food is advertised as “sinful”.
A clearer understanding of sin is vital if Christians are to develop a more just approach to questions of both violence and sex.
One of the problems is that we tend to think of sins as individual acts – such as murder, lying or putting the cheese in the fridge without wrapping it so that your flatmate finds it’s gone hard at the edges. But I suggest thinking of sin as a condition rather than an activity. Sin is all that separates us from God, each other and creation.
Actions that perpetuate this condition are indeed sinful. However, because of the state of the world, we are all complicit in sin to some extent, for example by participating in an unjust economic system. We cannot opt out of the world, but we can, with God’s grace and power, work to change it – in both personal relationships and political structures.
Students of peace and conflict emphasise that they are concerned not only with violence in a physical sense but with emotional violence, oppressive structures and all that harms relationships. This can help us to see that violence is something very similar to sin.
In asking whether a particular form of sexual expression is sinful, we can ask whether it is violent in this broad sense. For example, sex that is not between consenting adults, or involves deceiving someone, is basically violent. On the other hand, a couple who enjoy spanking each other in a loving context are doing no violence in a meaningful sense of the word.
This method of discerning whether something is sinful is not easy. Different people give different answers in the same situation. The level of prayer, reflection and responsibility involved means that this is not an excuse for casual immorality. This is an approach that is more concerned with our relationship with God and each other than with the convenience of prejudice, the cop-out of tradition or the hypocrisy of conventional morality.
While violence overlaps greatly with sin, sex should not. Sexual violence is a particularly vile form of sinfulness because it involves the intrusion of violence into an area of life – sexuality – that should be the context for love, affection and mutuality. Sexual violence is sinful not because it is sexual, but because it is violent in a sexual context. Expressing sexuality ethically does not mean less sex, or less sexual diversity. It means sexual expression that is without violence, abuse, selfishness, deception – and sin.
As I have campaigned for changes in church attitudes to both violence and sexuality, I have become convinced of the strong connections between the two. If we are to save ourselves from churches that bless armies but will not bless same-sex partnerships, then we must tackle our whole approach to sin. We must shift the focus of sin away from sex, and back to violence.
(c) Symon Hill is co-director of Ekklesia. This article was published originally in the spring 2010 issue of Movement magazine, for which Symon writes a regular column. See http://www.movement.org.uk/movement-magazine .