Sin is real. Let’s call it by name.
“Hi. I’m Bob. I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi. I’m Mary. I’m an addict.”
So begins what people in recovery say at AA meetings held every day of the week in Forest Park. Most of the participants in 12-step programs aren’t trying to put themselves down when they begin their statements in that way. Some have been sober for 20 years. Nevertheless, when they want to say something to the group, they begin by identifying themselves in that way.
The reason is they have come to recognize that there is this “something” in them which until it was acknowledged and managed by participation in “the program,” ruled their lives. I use the word manage intentionally, because 12-step veterans insist they never eliminate that “something.” The best you can hope for is to keep it in a place where it can’t regain control over you.
I’ll never forget the first AA meeting I attended when I was a pastoral intern in 1977. It was called a “spiritual rap session” and took place in a mental health facility in Minnesota. A new guy who had just joined the group began by saying that his drinking was due to his controlling wife. To which all the AA old timers responded in chorus, “Bulls–t.”
He got the same response when he tried to blame his drinking on his boss, his childhood and the long Minnesota winters. Within an hour, these wise alcoholics had stripped away every excuse for his behavior besides that “something” in him which they knew he was denying.
In this two-part series of columns which I began three weeks ago, I am making a pitch to call that “something” sin and restore the term to credible public discourse.
At my church, we don’t allow our pastor to handle the money, and we publish a financial report every year which accounts for every nickel. If you ask us, “does that mean you don’t trust her,” our answer would be, “we don’t trust her, because we wouldn’t trust ourselves with that much money.” We are very aware of that “something” in us which constantly gets us into trouble when we don’t acknowledge its existence and take steps to manage it.
I like and respect our mayor, council members, village staff, chief of police and fire chief … but I don’t trust them to operate in secrecy. That’s why we have the Freedom of Information Act and events like the meeting last Tuesday evening at Village Hall where Steve Glinke, Tony Calderone and Tim Gillian explained to about 30 Forest Park residents the ordinances governing fire alarms, standpipes and sprinklers which they plan on revising.
To my observation, our public officials do acknowledge that there is that “something” in them and are on the whole very willing to submit their plans to public scrutiny, not only to get good ideas from the people whom the revisions will affect but also to manage that “something” so that it doesn’t cause them to abuse the power with which we’ve entrusted them.
That “something” is what religious folk have for millennia called “sin.” It is a religious term, and for that very reason cannot be empirically verified by social scientists. But it does label a factor which influences our behavior which concepts like genetics, parenting and culture can’t account for.
The reason why this distinction is important is that when bad parenting is the cause of socially unacceptable behavior in a child, the school social worker knows he has to deal with mom and dad to turn the situation around. If bad parenting is the cause of problems you have as an adult, you see a psychotherapist. But if sin is the cause, then the route to change goes through confession, forgiveness and intentional steps to keep that “something” in its place.
When that “something” has been called sin for 3,000 years, I see no reason to change the terminology now for the sake of political correctness. The biblical assertion that we human beings are somehow created in God’s image and at the same time fallen stands undiminished as a window of insight into human nature. All I’m asking for is that we call a spade a spade.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.