In my day job, I work as a therapist in a public high school brimming over with talented, resourceful and intelligent adolescents. Yes, some of them live in poverty. Yes, some of them are failing geometry. Some curse and punch things – or persons – when they’re angry. Some show up for class after trying (and failing) to sleep off whatever happened the night before. And, yes, some are acutely aware that they are “problems.”
After introducing myself in my first session with a student the other day, he greeted me with an extensive list of his previous diagnoses from other clinicians “in the system.” Once I was finally able to sneak in a question about whether or not he found these diagnoses helpful for navigating life as an adolescent, his response made me quiver with joy: “S____, no. I just thought you would, cause you’re a therapist.”
The longer I work with “high-achieving” or “problematic” or “depressed” or “exceptional” kids in high schools and churches or in my private practice, the more I’m struck with just how much sense the Christian doctrine of Incarnation makes.
According to many theorists and clinicians who have studied adolescence and counseled adolescents over the past 50 years, this teenage population is the perfect incarnation of family and societal values, beliefs, hopes and bad behaviors. Adolescents are the living, breathing “symptoms” of our family units, educational systems and societal institutions, and they manifest these symptoms with a panache, creativity and guttural wordlessness that I think echoes our Lord and Savior’s ability to clear a room with obfuscation on the one hand or cutting clarity on the other.
It’s their trademark lack of filter that often makes adolescents so much like Jesus.
“I struggle to find a more apt term for what we’re all living under than sin.”
If we’ll let them, “the teens” can teach us a great deal about the kind of world we have built around them, its values, beliefs, hopes and bad behaviors, and what living in this kind of place does to a person before he or she learns to more appropriately swallow the pain of existence with home renovation shows or arguments about identity politics on Facebook.
One of the things I’m learning from these incarnate symptoms is that we are – all of us – in desperate need of liberation from sin, which, frankly, is not a sentence I ever expected to type.
In another life I was a Baptist minister performing lock-ins and ski trips professionally (Christian Cruise Directing®, as it were). In many churches, one of the expectations of caring for the souls of people between age 12 and 18 is the annual summer trip to hear a man (always) in ripped jeans yell at the teenage crowd gathered in a small-college auditorium about how much God hates premarital sex and Internet pornography. In one of these auditoriums I heard the claim, “God cares more about his own glory than he does about any of us.”
There is a clinical term psychologists and therapists use for moments like these: “Bummer.”
This man went on to say it is only because of Jesus’ death that God can even bear to look upon our inherent and inescapable “sinfulness.” From that point on, I decided if there’s one thing that takes the edge off of growing up in the powder keg of anxiety and self-loathing we call adolescence in America, it’s knowing that God had to kill the kid he really loved in order to remember to pick us “problems” up from soccer practice.
So, I largely quit talking about sin and substitutionary atonement, because it seemed like piling on. I’ve noticed many of my contemporaries have done the very same thing. However, as I see more and more adolescents whose “normal” anxiety baseline mirrors what clinicians would have hospitalized people for in the 1950s; or who cook, clean and care for siblings because both of their parents work 60 hours a week just to pay the mortgage; or who feel like failures “constantly” (as one recently put it) for not being able to successfully navigate in this kind of world, I struggle to find a more apt term for what we’re all living under than sin.
“Mercifully, whenever the world needs a scapegoat, God volunteers so we don’t have to find an alternative.”
Philosopher Alain de Botton noted in his book, Religion for Atheists, that the concept of sin is due for a resurgence amongst the non-religious, precisely because it provides people across the religio-cultural spectrum an opportunity to externalize their pain and frustrations onto a scapegoat. Which, from an atheist, borders on revivalism.
What if we’ve been misunderstanding the point of sin? What if this theological and moral concept – instead of inviting normal people with long commutes and weird family baggage to blame themselves on a cosmic scale for coming up short – is actually about giving people a way of externalizing or exorcizing their failure and pain onto something we can universally struggle against, together?
What if sin, more than sinners, is our problem? And, what if the cure for the problem of sin isn’t for us to talk less about sin as a theological concept while continuing to take more individual responsibility for its reign on earth, but instead to talk more about how sin is what currently passes for domestic and foreign policy, while we begin to struggle against it together with every fiber we have left?
Sin is why elementary school kids know what the phrase “active shooter drill” means. Sin is why healthcare is not an unalienable right for all people in America. Sin is why corporations have more power over our political process than actual communities of humans.
Sin is why religion always has a cut list. Sin is why our political dialogue reads like graffiti on the bathroom wall at the high school where I work. Sin is what forces moms back into the workforce almost immediately after giving birth to their children.
What if, in our reticence to harken back to the bygone eras of sweaty revivals and tearful altar calls, we have lost the ability to demonize the demonic? It would seem that reclaiming a way of talking collectively about the great harm our culture demands we do to one another in order to survive – without turning ourselves and others into the problem (into sinners) – is the whole purpose of atonement: to scapegoat the scapegoat and not one another.
In the absence of sin-talk, we haven’t done away with the demonization entirely; we’ve just transferred it to the living, breathing humans we have bound to the altar atop Mount Moriah. In my experience, we’ve all got somebody we’re trying to sacrifice for the good of everyone else.
“What if we’ve been misunderstanding the point of sin?”
Mercifully, before Abraham plunged the knife into his son Isaac, the divine screamed “Stop!”
Mercifully, before the world turned on itself, Jesus took up his cross and walked the lonely road to his death.
Mercifully, whenever the world needs a scapegoat, God volunteers so we don’t have to find an alternative.
You could say God is willing to die for us, because God cares more about us than God does about God’s own glory.