Unoriginal sin

Oct 16, 2017 by

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As far as sins go, a rich older dude using his power and influence to sexually prey upon young women is about as unoriginal as they come. As long as men and power imbalances and women have been in existence (which is to say, forever), the former have been indecently and inexcusably forcing themselves upon the latter. As depressing as the story of film executive Harvey Weinstein is, it is also about as predictable as they come.

Equally predictable is the inevitable politicking and mudslinging that follows a revelation like this. Conservatives seize upon such stories in all kinds of embarrassing ways. You see, you “liberals” have your slimy predators, too… Weinstein was, of course, an avowed Democrat, a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, a champion of, ahem, women’s rights, etc. And liberals gnash their teeth and fire back in response. Well, at least we didn’t put a slimy predator in the White House! On and on it goes. The internet dutifully receives a few days worth of fodder to keep the whole angry, righteous machine grinding ceaselessly along.

Human misbehavior is so miserably inconvenient, isn’t it? We wish people could just behave themselves and slide into the right categories — our team playing nice and the other team engaging in all kinds of sordid (and preferably public) behavior. Alas, things are rarely so simple. Robyn Urback wrote an appropriately despondent article today acknowledging as much. It was delightfully titled “Hypocritical scumbags like Harvey Weinstein come in all political stripes.” Her incredulous despair almost dripped off the screen:

It seems so obvious, which is why I’m loath to even acknowledge it. But apparently it bears repeating: being a scumbag knows no political orientation. Being a hypocritical scumbag knows no political orientation….


The point here is not to determine whose putrid sexual advances are more offensive, or which political leader had the better response, or on whose side the hypocrisy is more glaring. The point here is there is no side to really take up. This sort of creepy predatory behaviour is not of a particular domain: left or right, black or white, young or old and so forth. It is unfortunately ubiquitous, making it everyone’s sin.

Everyone’s sin. Indeed.

I regularly remark around here that I take a strange kind of refuge in the Christian doctrine of original sin. I don’t mean that this doctrine excuses or explains away any of the innumerable awful things that human beings do. God help us, no! And I certainly don’t think of original sin as some throughout history have — as a kind of a moral stain or condition that is passed down genetically or that needs to be inoculated against via baptism or anything like that.

I simply think of “original sin” as a theological way of describing an empirical fact. Human beings sin. Rather a lot, actually. And roughly 100 percent of us. It’s as close to a human universal as you could hope to find. We don’t all sin equally or in the same way or at the same rate (thank God!). Our sins aren’t all as serious in their consequences. Some sins are relatively easy to keep hidden. Some sins mostly damage only ourselves. But sin is something that we all do, alas, and it is something that we’re all affected by.

Original sin is rather unpopular as far as doctrines go, I know. It’s an embarrassing theological relic unworthy of our enlightened and progressive selves. It’s a tool used to oppress and shame others. Well, yes, that may well be true. And yet, here we are, all of us still rather inconveniently sinning, still finding new and creative ways to assert and inflate ourselves at the expense of pretty much anything else. I suppose we could call it something else if we don’t like “sin” and all of its unoriginal originality. My favorite option comes from Francis Spufford who, in his truly delightful book Unapologetic, came up something a bit more memorable: The Human Propensity to F*** Things Up. He even helpfully shortened it to an acronym: HPtFtU. Yep, that about sums it up.

And, as Urback has reminded us, this propensity is, indeed, a human one. Black, white, Republican, Democrat, straight, gay, rich, poor, progressive, traditional, powerful, powerless and everything in between. We do well to acknowledge this, I think. It saves us from wearisome tendency to imagine that we and those like us unavoidably occupy the moral high ground. It teaches us to gently apply the brakes before gleefully seizing upon the transgressions of others to make political or theological hay. Original sin (or, if you prefer, the HPtFtU) ought to chasten us into at least some semblance of humility.

Particularly if we call ourselves Christians. Jesus did, after all, say something about looking at the log in our own eye before digging around for specks in those of our neighbors (Matt. 7:3-5). He knew that one of the surest ways to stain the world with our wrongdoing is to convince ourselves that sin is mostly someone else’s problem. He knew that we are, indeed, the most unoriginal of sinners.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings, where this post first appeared.

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