In the 1950s, a guy named Bill Bright came up with a roadmap for evangelism called, “The Four Spiritual Laws.” This statement of faith became a foundational document for North American evangelicalism. There are a lot of problems with it—and there are a lot of problems with Bill Bright, like that he was one of the five church leaders who wrote a letter in 2002 as theological permission for George W. Bush to invade Iraq, providing Christian language to justify the pre-emptive invasion of a sovereign country. There’s a bit of colonialism that pervades Bill Bright’s vision for Christianity—it’s all about a crusade, either with his evangelism or president Bush’s war in Iraq.
But the thing that I want to talk about today is the second of his laws—a law that pervades Christian belief in the United States, his law about original sin. This is how he put it: “Man is sinful and separated from God.” Bill Bright wrote man, but we could update it and that all of humanity is sinful—or maybe just leave it as man, let men be the sinful ones, not women.
His point is that all of us are sinful, that we can’t help but sin, that it is our nature to sin, that sin is written into the DNA of our bodies, that sin is inside of us. It’s part of our identity, who we are, which separates us from God—as if God has to stay away in order to keep from getting contaminated by us, by the sin that pulses in our veins. The point is that original sin, for Bill Bright and a lot of other people, is something that is inside of us, part of who we are, but we can get rid of it as soon as we accept Jesus as our personal savior, to cleanse us the disease of sin that has infected us from the moment we were born.
I think sin is more devastating than that. Original sin names a reality that’s much more pervasive and not as easily escapable. American evangelicalism is too easy on sin.
Sin is bigger than each of us individually. To solve the problem of original sin isn’t as easy as curing a disease—a disease each of us may have. The problem of original sin is that it’s global, reaching beyond us, beyond our control, beyond our self-cures. Sin is a power around us, invading our lives, possessing us, holding us captive, imprisoning all of us in a cage the size of the world. Original sin is this existence we’ve been born into, through no fault of our own. Original sin is how we name the world—how we name the structure of this world, the architecture, the foundation, all of it built before we happened to be born, with an origin beyond our individual lives.
We glimpse it in the story of Jesus: sin as a system, a network, an organism, an immaterial mechanism that coordinates the efforts of the religious leaders scheming against Jesus, and the crowds shouting their demands for his death, and the disciples who abandon Jesus, and Pilate who has no reason to condemn him but shrugs and lets the people get what they want—a crucifixion. The killing of Jesus is no one’s fault and everyone’s fault at the same time. That’s what the doctrine of original sin is all about—that arrangement of forces unleashed in a world beyond anyone’s control, where no one is to blame and everyone is to blame at the same time, where no one is responsible yet everyone is responsible.[i]
The religious leaders don’t want to be responsible for the death of Jesus, so they take him to Pilate, the Roman governor. But Pilate doesn’t want to be involved so he tells the religious leaders to handle this internally—because Jesus is one of them, a Jew, not a Roman citizen. “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law,” Pilate tells them. This is none of my business, he says. Jesus isn’t my problem. The religious authorities respond: “We are not permitted to put anyone to death” (18:31). They want the Roman government to do the dirty work.
Pilate, for his part, has been given the impossible task of maintaining the peace in the region. It’s his job to suppress unrest among these conquered peoples, the Jews. Israel has been colonized by the Roman Empire, and Jesus has been accused of stirring up trouble. He did start a one-man riot in the Temple that one time, overturning tables and whipping people into a frenzy. He also has gone head to head in theological arguments with Pharisees, calling their authority into question. A lot of the religious leaders in the area were placed in those roles by previous Roman governors—and some of them put there by Pilate himself, chief priests who would be friendly to Rome. And now they are asking him to get rid of a guy who has become a nuisance, a political problem.
“Your own nation and chief priests have handed you over to me,” Pilate says to Jesus. “What have you done?” (18:35). Pilate and Jesus go back and forth but nothing comes up as conclusive justification to put him to death. So Pilate goes back to the priests and announces to them his official findings “I find no case against him” (18:38). But instead of releasing him, Pilate does something really strange: he takes it upon himself to use a custom of the high priests to let the people choose who they want killed. They can choose either a current prisoner, Barabbas, who has been sentenced to death; or this newly accused person, Jesus, even though he hasn’t been found guilty of anything.
This is a story full of puzzling legal maneuvering and political manipulation, mystifying schemes and back-room deals. No one wants to be responsible. No one wants his blood on their hands. Instead we have a Roman governor refusing to use his own authority to condemn Jesus and turning instead to a law that doesn’t belong to him, a Jewish custom that the high priests don’t even want to use for themselves—a custom that Pilate uses in order to get the people to decide, to make the people choose, either Jesus or Barabbas.
If you’re confused about what’s going on here—about who has power, about who has legal jurisdiction, about who is authorized to make a decision—If you’re confused, I think that’s the point, that’s the point of the story. Everyone in the story has reasons. They have their justifications. They have their responsibilities to worry about. The chief priests are convinced that Jesus will stir up a rebellion—his riot at the Temple was just the beginning—and that would mean a crackdown by Roman soldiers, those foreign invaders. And Pilate needs to make sure his bosses back in Rome don’t hear about angry priests making a fuss about his leadership. And the disciples, the friends of Jesus—they have their reasons too, for staying away from this trial, to keep themselves on the outskirts, by the fire with Peter who we read about last week, denying any relationship with Jesus, washing his hands of any appearance of guilt by association, trying to keep himself safe, for the sake of the movement: no reason for everyone to get punished with Jesus, the people need them, need them alive, to keep on with the work, to keep the spirit of Jesus alive.
Everyone has reasons, good reasons, responsible adult reasons, worthy justifications. And they all play a part in the death. They are all guilty in the death of Jesus. Because they have become pawns in the hands of an all pervasive evil, a force we call original sin—external to each of them but using them like puppets. Sin is a nonpersonal will that uses people to get what it wants, an organism, a structure, a system, a network—it’s hard to how to describe it, it’s hard to know exactly how it works, because it’s good at hiding itself, hiding itself in the actions of others. The whole scene in John 18 is awash in evil schemes. The whole world suffers under an evil that looks like a bureaucracy, with no one in charge and everyone in charge, with one person passing on a decision to another person—and all of them being exploited by an evil will, a sinister desire at work through all of them, a mindless consciousness that is hell-bent on getting rid of Jesus. This scene exposes sin as a force external to the characters in the story, sin as a power orchestrating the killing of an innocent man.
This is our world. And when I say “world,” I don’t mean nature and creation and the material things around us. I mean our social world, how we have organized our relationships, how our lives have been organized for us—in this city, in this country, at our job, at home, with our money, how we spend and save it, where we go to play, where we don’t go, what we eat, who we eat with. What I mean by world is the coordination of it all, the logic of our society.[ii]
And here’s the big secret—the truth about us: All of us are afraid of our world falling apart. We’re afraid that we might lose what we’re worked so hard to have, the comforts that help us get by in our lives, the responsibilities that give us meaning, that give us purpose. We want this world, the predictability of our social arrangement, with global financial markets stacked in our favor, with military power in our country’s back pocket, ready to maintain the peace—we need this world to be steady and resilient. We want this world because at the end of the day we want what we have, and we want a little more than we have, no matter how many people have to go crazy staring at concrete walls in prisons, no matter how many people get drone-bombed in some region of the world we’ve never heard about, no matter how many of our neighbors have been deported. Our world depends on sin—the bedrock of the lives we have, the foundation laid before any of us in this room were born. And we have good adult reasons for wanting all of it to stay the same.
All the people who I talk to about reforming the money bail system, for example, agree that it’s unjust. They say that it’s wrong to keep people in jail, to punish them, even though they haven’t been convicted of a crime, just because they don’t have money to buy their release as they await a trial. Judges, attorneys, magistrates, elected representatives—everyone knows it’s wrong to punish people for being poor, for people to be punished with jail time before their guilt has been proven. But none of them can do anything, they say. Their hands are tied. It’s always someone else’s decision. Everyone has a good, responsible reason for everything staying the same, or for minor adjustments, slight reforms. Because we don’t want our society to fall apart. Our lives depend on the world as it is—on prisons and borders and guns and militaries and violent economies.
And Jesus will have none of it. “My kingdom is not of this world” (18:36). That’s what he says. He won’t play the world’s game. He won’t make a deal with Pilate. It’s what Audre Lorde said: “We cannot fight old power in the old power terms.” We need a whole new structure for our existence. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” When we use them, we end up building the same thing all over again. Every reform ends up bolstering the power of the people in charge, securing their authority as they implement our improvements, providing them with justification for the world as we have it, a world we want because none of us really wants the collapse of our privileges, the undoing of our benefits.[iii]
Only people who have been unhinged by this world want another world. Only people who can no longer live with the injustice of it all, who can’t bear the violence that undergirds our societies. Only someone who loves without reserve, someone whose love is fierce and pure, someone who risks love in a world full of violence, who love without demands. Only someone who has given themselves to the joy of love without conditions is willing to let their lives die with this world, awaiting another.
I started out by explaining how Bill Bright got it wrong in his “Four Spiritual Laws” about sin—about his claim that original sin grows from inside of us, with Jesus offering the cure of our individual bodies once and for all. Instead, I explained, sin is the structure of this world. Original sin is an external force overpowering our lives, exploiting all of us, making us all guilty, because we live as if we want the world the way it is, despite the damage it causes people.
But Bill Bright did get something important right—his first law: “God loves you.” That’s it. It’s so simple and true. And it’s a truth that is the crashing of our world—a truth that Pilate walks away from in the story because it would mean his end.
The Gospel of John is the story of Christ’s love, the love of God made flesh, the life of Jesus poured out for us. Nothing would get in the way of that love. In Jesus God made a promise to all of us—that God will love us, and that love will be the undoing of our world as our lives are redeemed from the grip of sin, and it might feel like our lives are falling apart as our old world dies and we are reborn into Christ’s love.[iv]
[i] Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters (London: Continuum, 2002), 168-169: “The time has gone when we could think of bad actions in isolation, as random results of the individual free will. We have become aware of the way in which cruel and destructive behaviour in, say, the family is related to the very structure of the family, and the way in which this structure is determined by relationships of exploitation and domination in the whole social order, and how this is linked in its turn with violence and oppression in political affairs. We have become aware, in fact, of a whole system of human exploitation, a balanced and self-adjusting system, almost like an animal organism, a very resilient and flexible system… We now realize that the evil and inhumanity in the world is not for the most part, or hardly at all, due to individuals being especially wicked, being wickeder than we are. On the contrary, there are just hundreds of thousands of people playing the roles assigned to them in the structures. President Nixon was not, I suppose an abnormally corrupt man. The reason why you trace a direct line from him to the children covered in clinging phosphorous jelly and burning to death in Vietnam and Cambodia is simply that he occupied a key point in the system. It is not as though by changing his mind he could have altered it all. It would have been no good shouting obscenities at him and telling him that he was a criminal. Millions of people spend their days and nights just being parents or teachers or salesmen or soldiers or priests—ordinary decent people. And what they are doing is dominating, exploiting, humiliating, and tormenting other people simply because this is the way their roles fit into the system.”
[ii] Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, 169.
[iii] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984), 102-103, 112, 123. Also see McCabe, 170: “In John’s view we cannot tinker with this world. We need to be redeemed from it. The attempt to work within it to improve it only means in the end that you are co-opted by it and find yourself working for it.”
[iv] McCabe, God Still Matters, 168. “The author of the Gospel of John doesn’t want to improve the world. He wants it destroyed. John thinks violence is inevitable, especially if the gospel is preached. Salvation for him is not making this world a better place. It is salvation from the world. It means smashing and defeating the world. John has no use for the world at all.”