Thursday, 11 August 2011

Original sin?

We all know the story. Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden for being disobedient; maybe they'd eat the fruit of the other tree and become immortal, like gods. So either they got punished, or Daddy booted them out for their own good and told them to grow up - maybe a bit of both - and off they went. In the next generation, Cain was sent off after killing his brother, afraid of being killed by the people out there. What people? Then, it appears, he went on to marry a foreigner. What foreigner?

At the very least, we need to see that these stories aren't particularly consistent, and that we therefore shouldn't make a shibboleth out of them. They say that evil is there from the beginning, and attribute it to a breach of God's commandment. We soon find that sin isn't just individual. Adam and Eve sin together, as a couple - as the most basic community - but that's easily overlooked. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably the most obvious example of what I mean.

We're told how wicked the people of Sodom are, and God promises to spare them if he can only find ten righteous men there. They attack Lot and his family - it's not about homosexuality, but about the abuse of a guest - and God zaps the lot of them. It's not individual sin, it's systemic sin; they're all guilty. Somehow, though, the church has failed to see how a whole society can be guilty; it's individualised sin; for centuries, original sin was about Adam's guilt being passed from generation to generation in sperm, like eye colour.

Systemic sin is still with us, unfortunately, and one of its results is the riots of the last week. It's a recurring problem, which was with us before the present generation of rioters was born. The police are still making the same mistakes they made in the 1980's; the same deprivation is still with us, the rich are still getting richer, the poor, poorer, and another generation go out on the streets to express their frustration in the same old way. I'm not certain that it's best regarded as a consequence of original sin, but it's the best I can come up with at the moment.

Unfortunately, with our individualised, forensic approach to sin and salvation - about an endless string of individuals being found not guilty at the divine court - we don't currently have the tools to address evils of this sort properly. Perhaps the people who wrote the Bible did, in their own way. I think we've thrown out a great many babies over the centuries, along with the theological bathwater of a multitude of church reforms.

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