On a sunny day in September, 1972 in Chicago’s downtown business loop, a plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner. “As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’
Then without any change in expression, he would resume his stiff stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture. Then again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’
The effect of this strange [behavior] on the passing stranger was extraordinary, almost eerie,” reported the noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger. “They would stare at him, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.
One man, turning to another who was [Dr. Menninger’s] informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?!’” (Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin, p. 72)To borrow from the Apostle Paul; my brokenness is ever before me. In his work Menninger chronicled the “disappearance of sin” as a general concept and as a part of our cultural language. He noted that the concept of sin had migrated into crime, symptoms of illness or disease, and collective irresponsibility. At the close of his still appropriate book (perhaps even more so than when originally published), he delivers a plaintive defense of the need to reclaim and reapply an understanding of sin. The closing words of his work linger hauntingly in the air above modern society like smoke after a fire. “Yet, how is it, as Socrates wondered, that ‘men know what is good, but do what is bad?’ ” (Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?, p. 230). Culturally we are not far from the Duchess of Buckingham’s famous complaint to the Countess of Huntingdon on Methodist preachers and their understanding of sin. I thank your ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers. Their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. (Letter from the Duchess of Buckingham to the Countess of Huntingdon in the early days of Wesley’s ministry.) It may be monstrous, but it is also true. What stands in marked contrast today is that many Methodists (and Methodist preachers) are inclined to at least subconsciously agree with the Duchess of Buckingham. As noted last week, while exceptions abound, a weak doctrine of sin is the general rule. We don’t teach or preach on sin to any significant degree. Thus there is no real need to be saved from anything. We need merely to improve. “‘Gospels of Sin Management’ presume a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind … [and] they foster ‘vampire Christians,’ who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven” (Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, p. 76). We have limited the label “sin” to something others do … those who aren’t good. We have applied it to a certain class of actions (usually involving errant sexuality) or relegated the concept to our enemies. Yet everywhere we live with the consequences of sin, our own and others. Consider this list (that I shared in a previous blog) which Professor Scot McKnight has put together.
- Individualism – the story that “I” am the center of the universe
- Consumerism – the story that I am what I own
- Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation
- Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good
- Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter
- New Age – the story that we are gods
- Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
- Salvation by therapy - the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration