I was speaking with a friend and colleague who, like me, is deeply committed to LGBTQ advocacy within the faith community. We had long bonded over our shared experiences of church camps, seminary classes, and the call to faith-based advocacy within a “secular” organization.
As the conversation turned to current events, I threw out a phrase I tend to deploy when discussing terrible news, or broken relationships, or when things don’t work out the way they should: “It’s a broken, sinful world.”
He quickly took umbrage to the phrase. “I don’t believe in sin,” he responded.
“What do you mean, you don’t believe in sin?” I asked. “We were just talking about the messed up state of the world.”
“Well, for so long, the idea of ‘sin’ has been thrown in my face for being gay that I think that the idea of sin really holds us back as a movement,” he explained.
On one level, I understood what he was talking about. Those of us working in the LGBTQ movement, and especially working at the intersection of faith and LGBTQ advocacy, have long had to deal with the “sin issue.”
LGBTQ oppression sits on a three-legged stool. One leg is the idea that being LGBTQ is criminal. The second is being LGBTQ is a sickness. The third is that it is a sin. In most of U.S. culture, thank goodness, the first two have been overcome, as fewer and fewer people subscribe to those beliefs. However, plenty of people still hold to the idea that being LGBTQ, or acting LGBTQ is still a sin.
In response to a lifetime of being told that his sexual orientation was a sin, my colleague decided that the best notion was to rid himself (and presumably me) of the notion of sin altogether.
But I can’t do that.
I do vehemently reject the idea that being LGBTQ is a sin. I believe that LGBTQ people are created by God, known by God, and loved by God, just as they are. They are meant to live out their lives as fully and richly as possible. Being or acting LGBTQ is not inherenly sinful, nor the root of our sin.
However, I do think that sin is pervasive, embedded into our human culture. It’s systemic, such a part of the air we breathe that we cannot recognize how we harm other people, God’s creation, or even, on occasion, ourselves. It manifests itself in systemic racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and all those ways we push ourselves up at the expense of others, even when, and perhaps especially when we don’t realize we are doing it.
Paradoxically, while we are in sin, we are still doing incredible things in the world. For many of us, we give money to charity that helps make the world a better place in real and tangible ways. We volunteer. We try to be good people and treat people the way that we want to be treated. But it’s never enough. Whatever good I do in this world, it isn’t going to eradicate the problems we face here. Whatever good we do, isn’t going to overcome the sin baked into our world.
Even with all the good that we may be doing, we face a brutal reality. If we are really honest, we know we don’t always act in just and righteous ways. Just by simply living our lives, as comfortable as they are, we continue to contribute to systems of racism, sexism, discrimination, oppression, homophobia, etc.
I have spent my whole career working for social justice-oriented organizations. I really do believe my work makes the world a better place. But I also realize when, and perhaps especially when we are trying to be social justice advocates, we exhibit the very behavior, or sin, we deplore.
Within our work to make the world a better place, we can posture ourselves to ensure we get the credit for our work. We withhold information so that we can be the hero. Sometimes, we work for the preservation of our infrastructure more than increase the impact our work has on this world we live in. I often, somewhat euphemistically, call this phenomenon, “movement politics.” When I really feel like preaching, I quote the apostle Paul, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Everything I see around me — and within me — reinforces my belief in Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will.” Luther emphatically declared that we, as humans, can never work out our own salvation for ourselves. We will continually fail, even when, or especially when, we believe we are doing good in the world. Our good works cannot be purely altruistic, just as they cannot curry favor with God.
Some might find that realization completely depressing. For the Christian, what’s the point of doing any good in the world if we cannot secure our place in the afterlife with it? For the not-quite-as-Christian-but-still-a-do-gooder, it’s easy to get bogged down in the pettiness and posturing and “movement politics” and see it corrupting any good they do in the world.
Personally, I find “bondage of the will” incredibly freeing. I won’t be driven to inaction under the fear of imperfection. As a Christian, I can be free to do good work in the world, imperfectly, knowing that what I do is for the benefit of others — and not for me.
I know that I won’t always be the perfect advocate or ally. There will be times when I fail to think intersectionally, when I step on someone else’s work, or abuse the privilege I have.
When that happens, I pray I’ll be issued a gentle (or not-so-gentle) course correction. It doesn’t stop me from trying.
In short, I will still sin. We all will. Nothing safeguards us from falling short of the ideals we’ve set for ourselves, and we continue to live in a broken, sinful world. But sin does not and should not prevent us from striving to do, and actually achieving, some good in this world.