By Molly T. Marshall
Word came last evening of the gruesome death of a Jordanian pilot. Evidently he was burned alive, confined in a cage. This is the latest in a series of brutal executions, which call attention to the so-called “righteous cause” of the perpetrators. And they get what they crave, as news outlets breathlessly describe in detail the horrific killings.
All around the world are eruptions of evil, and we can hardly bear the weight of the atrocities. Genocide is an ever present threat as hatred and fear, a toxic interface, conspire to secure identity at the expense of the “other.” We cry out with the Psalmist, “how long, O Lord?”
The “fall to violence,” the original sin according to Marjorie Suchocki, is experiencing exponential growth in our time. Aggression is a substratum of human nature, in her judgment, necessary for survival of the species. Something else is now required in our evolutionary history: imagination and empathy.
Yet these are regularly repressed, and “the bent toward violence plus a position of power combine not only to unleash violence, but to wed it to imaginative power so as to devise uglier and more devastating acts of violence” (The Fall to Violence, 98). Acts of retaliation feed the spiral of violence, as we are witnessing.
Liberal and progressive Christians must revisit our understanding of the “fall” and the consequent human condition. Seduced by language of “original blessing” rather than “original sin,” many in our generation need a bracing dose of Reinhold Niebuhr’s realism. He was concerned about “the easy conscience of modern man,” as he put it in his 1941 parlance.
I recall reading The Nature and Destiny of Man years ago in systematic theology. That first encounter with his thinking allowed me to reinterpret the so-called historical period before the fall as an illuminative myth; from a fallen perspective we can imagine we were meant for better things. Original righteousness, then, is not an actual state, but the capacity to perceive that our sinfulness is not God’s purpose for us.
In a more recent reading, I find that his perspective on sin remains perceptive: humans are insecure and involved in natural contingency, and we attempt to overcome this insecurity by a “will-to power which overreaches the limits of human creatureliness.” In theological terms, this is our attempt to be God, trying to secure our own destiny apart from the Divine.
Any time we seek to commandeer God for our purposes, using God as a means to an end, or doing things in “God’s name” that are abhorrent, we have practiced idolatry. Any time we aspire to be “as God, knowing good and evil,” we are refusing the limitation of finitude. Finitude is not evil in and of itself; it is when we use our human freedom to try to transcend it that we stumble.
Paul rightly insists that “their foolish heart was darkened” and that “they became vain in their imagination.” The stain of sin touches every aspect of the human, and we are wise to acknowledge our need of redemption from “this body of death.” I hold to an “extensive” view of sin; i.e., no part of us is untainted by our pride and will to power, rather than an “intensive” view, which contends that we are totally depraved.
Profound interpreter of the human condition Kierkegaard wrote: “Anxiety is the psychological condition which precedes sin. It is so near, so fearfully near to sin …” without being the explanation for sin. Anxiety arises from our identity as a creature in between — a mortal made of dust who is, nevertheless, a “little lower than the angels.” We are tempted to deny our limits as well as truncate our possibilities.
When W. H. Auden wrote his book-length, Pulitzer Prize winning poem The Age of Anxiety, in 1947, he was presciently capturing the dread surrounding the Second World War and its aftermath. Every decade since has found his language useful in diagnosing the cultural maladies, but we also need the robust doctrine of sin voiced by Niebuhr.
The biblical narrative tells us something has gone terribly wrong in God’s creation, and humans are responsible for much of it. Like a great funeral dirge, this theme reverberates throughout human history. Scripture also tells us that we cannot begin to eradicate sin and evil; only the redeeming God and people of good will, albeit sinners, can put the world to rights.
I remember a teaching colleague saying, “Sometimes we all need to feel like wretches.” His humorous jibe actually holds significant theological truth. Unless we recognize the sin of humanity, both personal and systemic, we will continue to delude ourselves about finding military, policy or economic solutions to the world’s rapacious violence. A theological problem requires a theological solution, and in humility, God will work through fallen people.