Brokenness and Sin

A clergyman — an old friend, actually — remarked to me recently that he is inclined to view sin and hurt as synonymous. Such remarks arise, surely, from the wish to be compassionate. The idea would be that we mortals stagger along under such burdens and pains laid on us by heredity and environment that any “sin” that might be put to our credit — or debit, shall we say — is actually just a case in point of our “brokenness,” as the saying goes now. We are “wounded.”

Hence, we have no warrant to rush at someone and beat him about the ears over his sins — his irascibility or sloth or cruelty, or over some carnal false step. He is hurting. In the Dark Ages they did that sort of thing; in the 17th century, Geneva and the Plymouth Plantation belabored their poor congregations in just this ferocious way. Sin incurs guilt, they said, and the proper antidote here is punishment and repentance. Various texts in Sacred Scripture would seem to call for such an approach. The herald of the gospel — the greatest of men, St. John the Baptist — started out with, “Repent!”

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But this approach is not widely brought into play in our own time. It seems to run counter to all that our epoch has learned about the wellsprings of human behavior. It seems to bespeak a harsh and pharisaical attitude. Who is in any position to accuse another, much less to harry a man for his sins? Insofar as I take up such a fierce tactic, am I not like the man in the Gospel who pursued his neighbor for a small debt, when he himself had just been forgiven an enormous sum?

Well, yes. The situation that arises when my neighbor’s churlishness or outright injustice cuts across my own path is a delicate one. What I would like to do is to knock him on the head and insist on reparation. Oaf that he is, somebody’s got to sort him out.

That’s as may be. But one thing is sure: I have not been entrusted with the baton of the Avenger. And then, let us be sure that it is a wholly just and wise man who undertakes the matter. Such a man will perhaps not start by railing on the offender. And the chances of my being that just and wise man are nil. Our Lord’s approach at the Well of Sychar exhibits how perfect love handles such things. For all we know, the woman may have been a slattern of the most abandoned sort; but Love saw a woman in there — and Love also called her “lifestyle” by its real name: sin.

My friend is a minister in the Episcopalian church. Hence, he hears confessions. I have sometimes wondered whether he offers pardon and absolution to his penitents, as well as solace and the promise of healing for their hurt. (It is not, of course, my business.) I know him well enough to know that he is disinclined to speak of guilt. We mortals are, in his view, “hurting.”

The difficulty here, surely, is that I don’t need pardon for my hurt. What I need for that is comfort and healing. And it is perhaps worth noting in this connection that, as often as not in the Confiteor in contemporary Catholic liturgy, stress is laid on healing rather than on absolution from my guilt. A penitent who has heard all of the readings in which the Lord is spoken of as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and as having been wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, may be seeking some assurance that his confession of sin brings about forgiveness, pardon, and absolution, as well as healing for his brokenness as a mortal man.

I, like everyone else, find myself twisting my hankie
when I come upon the theme of the wrath of God, which peppers the whole of Scripture. Surely if our human problem is merely our brokenness and hurt, “wrath” is scarcely helpful as the nostrum? St. Paul, in his characteristically brisk approach, announces that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness” (Rom 2:18). In the face of this sort of dictum, we may reach for various ameliorating suggestions: “Oh well, that’s old Paul at it again”; or, “We don’t so much speak in that way in our more enlightened era”; or, “Hah: do you who cite such imprecations wish to drag us back into the thunderous days of medieval terror and Puritan hypocrisy? Come. We have long since found our way well beyond such inconvenient themes.”

But if we are serious about such demurrals, then we will have to come clean and admit that what needs to be done next is to expunge the mystery of God’s wrath, certainly from the New Testament. And such a task would oblige us to offer a new and fumigated Gospel. The blood of the Lamb, at least in the Gospel that we have (distasteful as it may appear to modern sensibilities), is for the remission of sin. There is the nub. “In Adam’s fall we sinned all.”

But sin. Such a hoary and barbarous notion. Don’t we all agree now that, insofar as there is a fundamental problem in the human scene, it is to be found in the region of violence, hunger, greed, and cruelty? These matters are at the top of the list of the political, sociological, and charitable efforts to cut through our troubles — and the guilty parties are ordinarily spoken of as “they.” The rapaciousness of big business, racial prejudices, stupidity, and parsimony on the part of the electorate — here’s where the trouble lies. And none of these can be laid at my door (or so one likes to tell oneself). The villains are “out there.” It is they who are at the root of humanity’s problems now. I, surely, am free of taint . . .

I know a man — a mild, amiable, civilized, amusing, well-intentioned citizen who, on the surface at least, could perhaps be exonerated in the guilt sweepstakes, if guilt is to be attached solely to the items listed in the above paragraph. But then he looked into his own heart; and over the course of some months, he wrote down what he found there. Here is the list: vindictiveness, petulance, irascibility, perfidiousness, arrogance, humbug, inconstancy, malice, vanity, fatuity, venality, cravenness, pusillanimity, parsimony, fretfulness, officiousness, duplicity, sloth, vituperation, pettiness, impatience, contempt, disdain, sullenness, gossip. These are the sins that lurk inside of an ostensibly nice and harmless man, and for them the Church offers absolution.

They are not mere “issues” or disorders or hurts. Certainly there is brokenness somewhere at the bottom of it all, if we find that word suitable. But the real point is that, if the Church and Sacred Scripture have not been deceiving us all for 2,000 years, the man will sooner or later have to give an accounting for that list. He will be taxed about it at the Tribunal on the Last Day. His least favorite stanza in the Dies Irae is this one: “Liber scriptus proferetur/In quo totum continetur/Unde mundus judicetur “A book will be brought forth/In which everything is contained/From which the world will be judged” –the “world” in this case being he.

If this line of thought seems grotesque and archaic, we may all have to revisit the ancient gospel. A choice between that gospel and softer, more reassuring, more up-to-date notions may have to be made.


  • Thomas Hibbs

    Thomas Hibbs is currently Distinguished Professor of Ethics & Culture and Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. With degrees from the University of Dallas and the University of Notre Dame, Hibbs taught at Boston College (BC) for 13 years, where he was full professor and department chair in philosophy. At BC, he also served on the Steering Committee for BC’s Initiative for the Future of the Church and on the Sub-Committee on Catholic Sexual Teaching. At Baylor, he has been involved in ecumenical discussions of the work of John Courtney Murray and John Paul II. In addition to teaching a variety of interdisciplinary courses, Hibbs teaches in the fields of medieval philosophy, contemporary virtue ethics, and philosophy and popular culture. Hibbs’ popular BC course on Nihilism in American Culture was featured in a Boston Globe article. Hibbs has written scholarly books on Aquinas, including Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa Contra Gentiles, and a book on popular culture entitled Shows About Nothing. Hibbs has recently published scholarly articles on MacIntyre and Aquinas (Review of Politics), on Anselm (Anselm Studies), and on Pascal (International Philosophical Quarterly). He also has written on film, culture, books and higher education in Books and Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, New Atlantis, The Dallas Morning News, The National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, for which his latest piece is a study of the ethical implications of the films of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Called upon regularly to comment on film and popular culture, Hibbs has made more than 100 appearances on radio, including nationally syndicated NPR shows such as “The Connection,” “On the Media” and “All Things Considered,” as well as local NPR stations in Boston, Massachusetts; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Dallas, Texas; and Rochester, New York.

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