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    Media-Friendly Sins of Other People

    Wendell Berry says ending political strife could start with recognizing that there are more than two sins – and some that are common to us all.

    By Jeffrey Bilbro

    November 10, 2022
    • Lois Thiessen

      I really appreciate this perspective. As a person of faith (I find it difficult to use the term "Christian" because of the perception on general society) I find myself at times feeling rather smug I my 'rightness.' It is not for me to judge, but to love - even if in the moment it is uncomfortable. Thank you, and I will seek out Mr Berry's book. (I am a Canadian, but we have very similar challenges!)

    Wendell Berry’s new book The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice covers many topics: family history, the Civil War, racism, the nature of good work. But, odd though it may seem, at its heart is an entire chapter about sin. Berry suggests that beneath all the political vitriol and public condemnation of people who don’t share our views lies a distorted understanding of sin. He offers an older, broader conception of sin that might enable us to debate contentious public questions honestly while still loving those with whom we strenuously disagree.

    The public certainly retains a keen sense that some actions and attitudes are wrong, and public figures often condemn particular offenses with totalizing ferocity. As Berry notes, the “old opposition to sin” remains, but he worries we have narrowed the acts that count as sin. He warns that “nothing more reveals our incompleteness and brokenness as a public people than our self-comforting small selection of public sins.” There are a few egregious “media-friendly sins” that provoke “vehement public antipathy,” but as long as we manage to refrain from committing one of those, we can feel pretty good about ourselves. Different political or cultural groups might have different lists of unforgivable sins, but the narrowness of the list – and the resulting self-congratulatory feeling most of us maintain – is widespread. Sure, we may be guilty of run-of-the-mill venial sins that everyone slips into, but we’ve avoided those mortal sins: we haven’t said the n-word or applied blackface or had an abortion or sexually harassed someone.

    The traditional Christian understanding of sin, which Berry affirms, cannot be confined to some discrete list of wrongs committed by political opponents. Rather, sin is “any act or thought that divides us from God or our neighbors.” Berry draws on the work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who traces what he terms “the economy of God” or “neighborly economies” through the prophetic books and Christ’s teachings about the kingdom of God. Seen through this lens, the Ten Commandments become a necessary “set of instructions for people who wish to inhabit a land, to keep it, and to live in it as neighbors to one another.”

    The last six commandments, which outline neighborly relations, may be more obviously germane to neighborly life and more palatable to a modern audience, but Berry insists equally on the importance of the first four, which focus on our relationship to God and raise the stakes for those acts that cause division. The third commandment, for instance, is not a prohibition on certain kinds of cursing so much as it is an injunction to honor God and his creation with our mode of living. When we destroy “precious things that we did not and cannot make,” Berry argues, we violate this command: “To name rightly and exactly this terminal destructiveness of ours, I think we will have to go further in debt to the language of religion and call it ‘desecration’ and ‘blasphemy’ – which, of course, are sins.” In the same vein, uttering a racial slur is wrong not because it will earn us opprobrium but because it blasphemes the God who created all humans in his image.

    There are many reasons why we may be hesitant to use religious language in public debates about racism or other contentious topics, but Berry thinks there is no substitute for naming the sacredness of creation and our obligations to the Creator. In a culture where some people take God’s name in vain by speaking it “with ostentatious piety or blabbingly or too often,” Berry struggles to find the language necessary to speak of God with the reverence due him. Many who invoke God’s name most explicitly blaspheme him most flagrantly. Yet awkward though it may be to rely on theological language in public discourse, Berry sees it as necessary to account for the deep gravity of the wrongs we commit against one another, against creation, and against the Creator.

    At the same time, Berry wants us to see sin as common rather than exceptional. It is trivial in the etymological sense of that word: not insignificant, but something that lies at the crossroads, the “three ways,” and hence is well-traveled. We have all sinned. Rather than taking comfort in our abstention from a limited set of publicly denounced sins, then, Berry would have us reckon with our own complicity. He observes that in denouncing those accused of committing “media-friendly sins,” “the accuser manifests no recognition of a common humanity, no sympathy, no mercy, no readiness to forgive.” By contrast, the neighborly code of the Sermon on the Mount is extensive – none of us fulfills it. That should lead us to identify and rebuke the sins of others with the humility and charity that come from recognizing our own sins and the forgiveness and grace that we have been given.

    Berry notes that “by contrast with the little handful of public or newsworthy sins, the traditional lists of commandments, sins, and virtues have a human and a humanizing amplitude. They serve as a working definition of our species: Here is what is expected of us and what we are to expect of ourselves as human beings, and here are the ways we succeed or fail.” Most of these sins “do not divide the innocent from the guilty, ourselves from our enemies,” but rather confront us all with our common and profound failures.

    Berry isn’t suggesting that these sins we often shrug our shoulders at don’t matter; on the contrary, he finds them grievous: our greed, laziness, and fear are rending the fabric of God’s creation. The structures of an industrial economy allow us to distance ourselves from some of the consequences of our wrongs, but we are no less guilty: “You yourself may not have killed anybody, you may have nobody’s actual blood on your hands, but to whom may you have given your proxy to do your killing for you?”

    An understanding of our complicity shouldn’t leave us wallowing in despair, though. For Berry, it is instead a reminder of our need for forgiveness and redemption. “It is our recognition of sin, of the real and absolute wrongs made possible by our dominance, that brings us to recognize the need for self-denial, temperance, prudence, mercy, neighborly love, repentance, and (we had better hope) forgiveness.” These virtues, by their nature, “work against self-righteousness, division, and exclusion and in favor of the real happiness we may find in life responsibly shared – in conviviality.”

    Though Berry doesn’t say this, it would seem that a people formed by repeatedly asking God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” ought to be more prone to conduct public debates with grace. And a people formed by regular, corporate confession followed by an assurance of pardon might speak with a keen sense of their own complicity in sin. One would expect such a people to no longer label others as on the right or wrong side of history but to confess that we are all guilty, all in need of forgiveness and redemption.

    Berry points to examples of Christians who have exhibited such solidarity. Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed reparations for poor whites – whom he called “the derivative victims of slavery” – alongside descendants of enslaved people despite knowing that many of them were racist. Will Campbell, a white minister, joined the civil rights movement to serve “the least of these.” Berry writes: “But then, realizing that they might not after all be ‘the least,’ or if the least not the only ones, Brother Campbell felt that his own work was incomplete. He then troubled to get to know members of the Ku Klux Klan. … He offered them, instead of correction and retribution, kindness and help, and so he admitted them also into his consciousness and care.”

    All too often, we can be like that lawyer who, “desiring to justify himself,” asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” This lawyer was convinced that he had not committed any of the proscribed sins. Yet in response Jesus tells the radical story of the Good Samaritan, a story that, as Berry notes, reminds us that the conditions for love and neighborliness are never propitious. And Christ’s command to love our neighbor is not suspended simply because we consider our neighbor a sinner, or on the wrong side of history. The neighborliness of the Samaritan “entirely dissolves stereotypes,” and such love remains the standard to which Christ calls us.

    Contributed By JeffreyBilbro Jeffrey Bilbro

    Jeffrey Bilbro is the editor-in-chief at Front Porch Republic and the author of several books.

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