What is sin?

For Pride month this year (2023), the Sunday reflections have been inspired by the Rainbow Prayer by Kittredge Cherry and Patrick Cheng as well as Cheng’s 7 models of the Queer Christ from his book “From Sin to Amazing Grace.” Because Cheng talks about his models in terms of a sin and grace, it’s important to know what we mean when we talk about sin.

The language of sin has traditionally been used by the church to condemn LGBTQ+ people. That is also precisely why we need to talk about sin. It’s important we correct the ways the concept of sin is abused and counter the undeserved persecution of LGBTQ+ people by the church. Unfortunately, there isn’t time to repeat a discussion of sin every Sunday in the reflection when there is also so much else to talk about. So I’d like to explain here what sin means to me and hopefully that will help when listening to the series of Pride sermons.

A sin is something that creates estrangement in our relationships with ourselves, others, Creation, or God. For example, when talking about the Out Christ the closet was named as a sin. If we deny who we are by hiding in the closet, then that creates a gap between who we really are and who we believe ourselves to be. At a minimum, it creates estrangement in our relationships with ourselves and can thus be called a sin against ourselves. Hiding our True selves can also potentially create estrangement in our relationships with others, family and friends, or even our relationship with God.

Sin is not about doing something that is wrong. The word sin describes a situation. It doesn’t (shouldn’t) carry judgement with it. Estrangement in our relationships is certainly not helpful, but it doesn’t make us bad people. In fact, I think calling someone a “sinner” is useless because we all sometimes do things that hurt our relationships in some way so that word doesn’t really distinguish anyone from anyone else. “Sinner” is also a dangerous word because it attempts to equate sin with one’s identity, which is simply incorrect. And, it’s doubly dangerous when we equate sin with something that is bad or wrong, which is what most people would probably do if we don’t take the time to explain what we mean.

Sin is also contextual. What might be a sin for me might not be a sin for someone else. For example, does drinking or smoking hurt our relationships? It might for some people but not for others. There are some things like murder that I feel confident calling a sin. But, for a lot of things only I can ultimately decide what is a sin for me and only you can decide what is a sin for you. As another example, when I talked in one of my reflections about the closet as a sin, there is a lot of nuance that I didn’t really get into. Are there situations where being in the closet (about sexuality or something else) is not a sin? What about if we truly accept some characteristic about ourselves but choose not to share that information widely with others? Is it causing estrangement? Sadly, sometimes it can be hurtful to stay in the closet, but dangerous to share ourselves. There’s a lot of gray areas when we talk about sin that there isn’t always time to explore in a 15 min sermon.

Why not just say “estrangement”? As we all know, the word sin carries a lot of baggage, especially for LGBTQ+ people who have heard it as a weapon wielded by the church. One approach might be to just reject the language of sin altogether as no longer useful and instead use a word like estrangement. One reason I haven’t done that personally is because, as the theologian Paul Tillich has pointed out, the word sin carries with it a connotation of responsibility that the word estrangement doesn’t. Sin implies a responsibility on my part to correct the situation, to do better in the future, whereas estrangement doesn’t tend to imply anything at all about a responsibility for reconciliation or restitution.

I hope these thoughts on sin are helpful as we reflect on the sins and graces that are revealed, according to Cheng, in the Queer Christ.


Rev. Ken Arthur

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