Sin

Are Sinners 'Hellbound?'

Kevin Miller, Creator of 'Hellbound?'
Kevin Miller, Creator of 'Hellbound?'

This year we are presenting the Raven Award on Nov. 12 to Kevin Miller for his documentary with a question for a title: Hellbound?. Autocorrect doesn’t like the question mark, especially when it’s followed by a period, but I’m glad Kevin used it. Because the idea of hell raises all kinds of questions, particularly about the relationship of God to sin. (For Adam, it raises questions about God’s justice – read his reflections here.) For me, the idea of hell raises questions about punishment, like these:

Does God punish sin in this life and if so, how?

Does God punish unrepentant sinners in the next life with eternal suffering?

These questions have corollaries, of course:

Does God reward the righteous in this life and if so, how?

Does God reward a life of righteousness with eternal bliss?

'Rev. Riverkeeper'

THE ANACOSTIA RIVER is a river of contrasts. Often called “the nation’s forgotten river,” it flows for eight-and-a-half miles through some of the richest and poorest communities in and around D.C., through residential and industrial zones, through marshes and military installations. In fact, the federal government owns so much land in the watershed that when all those federal toilets flush during a heavy rain, they drain directly into the river.

The Anacostia River watershed is home to more than 800,000 people, 43 species of fish, and nearly 200 species of birds—including our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, and the majestic great blue heron. Yet the trash in the river is so deep and wide at times that you’re just as likely to see a heron walking across a flotilla of trash rather than flying over the water.

As the Anacostia Riverkeeper—part of the Waterkeeper Alliance movement to protect local waterways—it was my job for three years to be the eyes, ears, and voice of its watershed. Of the nearly 200 waterkeepers worldwide, I was the only riverkeeper who was also a minister. I was called “Rev. Riverkeeper.”

The antiquated sewer system that pumps more than 2 billion gallons of raw sewage, mixed with polluted runoff, into the river each year is not just a shame, it’s a sin. African-American churches along the Anacostia used to baptize their members in the river. Nowadays, the river wouldn’t wash away anyone’s sins. My goal as Rev. Riverkeeper was an Anacostia that was not only “fishable” and “swimmable”—as required by the Clean Water Act—but also “baptizable.”

THE ANACOSTIA RIVER is in desperate need of healing. “How has one river fallen so far from grace?” asked one community leader.

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Racism: America's Original Sin

IN SPIRITUAL AND BIBLICAL terms, racism is a perverse sin that cuts to the core of the gospel message. Put simply, racism negates the reason for which Christ died—the reconciling work of the cross. It denies the purpose of the church: to bring together, in Christ, those who have been divided from one another, particularly in the early church's case, Jew and Gentile—a division based on race.

There is only one remedy for such a sin and that is repentance, which, if genuine, will always bear fruit in concrete forms of conversion, changed behavior, and reparation. While the United States may have changed in regard to some of its racial attitudes and allowed some of its black citizens into the middle class, white America has yet to recognize the extent of its racism—that we are and have always been a racist society-—much less to repent of its racial sins.

From the Archives: July 1994

THE FUNCTION of healthy religion and church is to provide individuals and society with a collective container that carries the objective truth of reality for individuals. The Great Truth is too grand and transcultural to be entrusted to the vagaries of individuals and epochs. Otherwise, society becomes a massive runway for unidentifiable flying objects—each claiming absolute validity and turning their subjectivity into the only sacred.

The ground for a common civilization and shared values is destroyed if our religious experience is basically unshareable or without coherent meaning. We end up where we are today: pluralism without purpose, individuation but no community.

By a necessary “container,” I mean a human structure that holds together and somehow reduces the scale of events—so that I can deal with much larger events: the cosmos, salvation, sin, and grace. The arrogance of the literal West is that it will not take its place in the “cleft of the rock” (Exodus 33:21-23) and allow God to pass by.

Life, like theater, demands a stage. Church is the stage that keeps us all as necessary actors, with God as the unavoidable protagonist and director. The mystery of church keeps reminding us that our script matters, although it is never the last word. That, thank God, is “mercy.”

Richard Rohr, OFM, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M., was a contributing editor to Sojournerswhen this article appeared.

Image: Vintage script, danielo / Shutterstock.com

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What Jesus Didn't Say

photo by Lawrence OP / Flickr.com
Jesus and a woman at the well, painting in museum of the Dominican priory of Santa Sabina in Rome, photo by Lawrence OP / Flickr

In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus speaks with a woman when they find themselves alone at a well at midday. We can learn a lot from what he says to her, and from what he chooses not to say.

Jesus tells the woman, “Go, get your husband, and bring him here.” She replies, “I have no husband.” Jesus tells her “That’s right. You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re now with isn’t your husband.”

These could have been shaming words. In her culture, to be without a husband is to risk economic ruin, and to have been divorced by your husband is to be shamed.   

Had he wanted to, Jesus could have scored some serious points here: I’m a prophet, and you’re a sinner. I’m celibate, and you’re promiscuous. You are living in sin by living with a man who is not your husband.

Evidently, he didn’t want to say those things.

A Man Had Two Sons — Luke 15:11

Cain and Abel depiction, claudio zaccherini / Shutterstock.com
Cain and Abel depiction, claudio zaccherini / Shutterstock.com

It’s one of the deepest and most enduring themes of the Bible; from Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, and many more — the two sons, with jealousy, strife, and even murder between them, and almost always, the younger brother takes the glory – or the blame – for the acts of the older brother.

We see it again in the Boston Marathon bombings – the elder brother portrayed as cynical and brutish, while the younger brother, taking the blame, is shown as charming and innocent.

The Growing Wealth Gap

IN AMERICA, WE honor the ideal of equality and the myth of equal opportunity—but the secret we refuse to acknowledge is the debilitating, dehumanizing effects of poverty. As a pastor serving the South Side of Chicago, I witness firsthand the pain that poverty inflicts upon our congregation and the scars it leaves on the most vulnerable: children. Faith in Christ should mean a commitment to the poor.

There is a growing wealth gap between African-American households and white households. A Pew research study, for example, shows the dramatic change between 2005 and 2009. In 2005, the typical white household had a net worth of $134,992 (in 2009 dollars), while the typical black household had a net worth of $12,124—9 cents for each dollar the white household owned. By 2009, that fell to 5 cents, as the typical black household saw its net worth drop more than 53 percent, as compared to a drop of 16 percent for the average white household. And, alarmingly, 35 percent of black households in 2009 had a zero or negative net worth.

A few seek to blame this damaging downward trend on the current administration's policies. This is unfair and incorrect. Black families have traditionally built wealth through homeownership, but since the mid-1990s we have witnessed a dramatic increase in bank mergers—and predatory lending. Local banks, now owned by large corporate institutions with little interest in community investment, increasingly close branches in poor communities, then check-cashing establishments fill the void in financial services. At the same time, our nation faces the loss of manufacturing and the dismantling of organized labor. The triple threat of regressive economic policy, unchecked expansion of large, unaccountable financial institutions, and the economic crisis of 2008 devastated parts of cities across the nation: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, New York, Buffalo, Flint, and many others.

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Faith and Doubt Dancing on Good Friday (Rob Bell Blogalogue Part 4)

Faith and doubt,  iQoncept / Shutterstock.com
Faith and doubt, iQoncept / Shutterstock.com

(The Controversial figure Rob Bell has created another firestorm with his latest provocative book What We Talk About When We Talk About GodRaven Foundation Education Director, Adam Ericksen and Tripp Hudgins will share our thoughts on the book in this blogalogue. We invite you to join the discussion by leaving a comment below.)

Tripp Hudgins always gets me thinking. He is right that Rob’s chapter “Open” in What We Talk About When We Talk About God is about science and religion but that it’s also not about science and religion. This is the longest chapter of the book, and it’s full of scientific information that points to the mystery of the material world. What’s the point? As Tripp states, Rob is “asking for a little humility. He’s asking for a little poetic imagination. He’s asking for curiosity.”

That’s the point of the next chapter, too. Titled “Both,” in this chapter Rob points out a major problem we have with “God-talk.” That problem is language. Tripp set me up for this at the end of his post by asking, “Are words actually enough? Ha! Write about that. Words. Words. Words.”

When I was in seminary I learned about apophatic theology, or negative theology. It tries to define God by what God is not. A 9th century apophatic theologian named John Scottus Eriugena asserted, “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally, God is not because He transcends being.”

Good Friday: How Deep the Father's Love Is For Us

Image of the crucifixion, Daniela Sachsenheimer / Shutterstock.com
Image of the crucifixion, Daniela Sachsenheimer / Shutterstock.com

The first Christians confessed that Jesus is "God from God, light from light, true God from true God." Jesus is, they finally confessed after centuries of dispute, who the Gospels and the apostles plainly tell us: God without qualification. Bethlehem's baby boy grew to be the man from Nazareth, who is also from before time and forever the only begotten Son.

Jesus tells Philip that he and the Father are one; that if Philip has seen Jesus, then Philip has seen the Father. Paul tells the Colossians that Christ is the visible image of the unseen God. The Hebrews are taught by their apostle that Jesus bears the very stamp of God's nature.

If anything we think we knew about God before Jesus arrives in Mary's womb contradicts what we see and hear of Jesus in the Gospels, then we are the ones who are mistaken, the ones who weren't paying close enough attention before he came (yes, Jesus reveals the same relationship-initiating God of holy love we encounter in the pages of the Hebrew Bible); we are the ones who have, since his decades of extravagant humility among us as one of us, forgotten the Christ.

Walking in the Father's Embrace

Alone man,  luxorphoto/ Shutterstock.com
Alone man, luxorphoto/ Shutterstock.com

I try to be a diplomat, to err on the side of patience, when it comes to theological differences between Christians.

Reconciliation and peacemaking come natural. My wife says I stop sounding like myself when I'm hard-nosed or critical.

But recently, sitting across from a young man who heroin ("that boy") very nearly got the better of just days before, I lost at least a layer of my irenic self, lost a bit of my cool. When it comes to certain teachings, I'll not be as diplomatic in the future.

When are we going to stop teaching that the Father has to look on Jesus to love us? Why do we teach that the Father turns away from us, abandons us because of our sin? When are we going to stop teaching that the Father is angry with men and women or hates us (or stop projecting any other merely human emotion on to God?), conveying by our messages (verbal and nonverbal) that God despises that which he gloriously made in God's image?

The message we too often send is that Jesus must persuade the Father to love us, must plead with his Father not to forsake us.

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