In our American context we often times misunderstand the dynamics of sin. We tend to see sin as a problem between ourselves and God. When it comes to others it’s usually very superficial. I personally think this has to do with the Lutheran understanding of justification which sees sin as something that is purely individualistic in the Western sense. This, in my opinion, is why we often put concepts of right and wrong, of good and bad above human beings so that the law becomes a means unto itself. What I mean is that the law becomes a thing that takes on its own life and in turn no longer serves, helps and protects but rather burdens and hurts. The fundamental problem here is that our humanity is completely ignored in order to uphold rules that are seemingly unfair and ridiculous. I think a lot more injustice happens under the guise of the law, under the guise of institutionalism than people realize. As a pastor, I have heard countless stories of injustice at the hands of a system that purports to be just. When a law impedes our ability to love and treat our neighbor properly then we have a serious problem, when the law becomes a justification for mistreatment and even abuse then we have a serious problem. But when the law is seen in a radical individualistic way this is but the outcome for it rarely goes beyond “me”.
This was the problem with Pharisees that Jesus encountered throughout his ministry. For them the Law had usurped humanity, it
became more important than love and justice. In effect their law was dehumanizing because care for one another was impeded by requirements that were void of common sense but derivative of the Scriptures by way of their traditions. The Pharisees and Jesus clash because Jesus seeks to uphold humanity as created in the image of God whereas they could care less so long as they did what was right in their eyes no matter if they stepped over someone in the process (Good Samaritan anyone?). Remember that they criticize Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, for eating with prostitutes and tax collectors and for his disciples not washing before a meal. Better yet, Jesus criticizes them for their abuse of the people, for laying law burdens upon them that they could not bear and not lifting a finger to help them, for devouring widows houses and seeking the best of the best of their culture at that time. Basically it was the humanizer vs. the dehumanizers. To Jesus, their laws meant nothing in so far as they oppressed the people, in so far as they ignored true justice and righteousness. And that’s key in understanding why they put him to death. They put Jesus to death because he was a threat to their being and their system. In turn the Pharisees broke the Law that they claimed they represented by wrongfully accusing him and murdering him. What’s more, Rome did the same thing as well. They, the purveyors of great justice, put an innocent man to death which could be nothing further from justice. When face to face with the authorities and powers of the day Jesus’ life makes a complete mockery of them and shows them for what they really are – systems propped up above humanity and thereby dehumanizing. Systems that are said and understood to be good failing to be just that.
I think that this subtle understanding that Jesus fights and stands against is very prevalent in the church and government today (and probably always has been). And I think it has to do with our western presuppositions that inform how we understand justification as well as relations between church and state. If justification before God is only understood as something that’s between me and God then of course the sins that we are aware of in ourselves are not going to be understood in a collective sense. We live and breath the individualistic philosophy of John Locke. Hence, the “giving my heart to Jesus” and the wanting to do good and live morally in relation to me and mine (prosperity Gospel). Going further, if who we are in Christ is only relegated to the church then the far reaching aspects of sin aren’t seen as being as far, as not reaching into the left hand realm in the same way. For example, the realm of politics is incredibly antithetical to the way of Jesus but if we understand the way of Jesus as only being truly relevant in the right hand realm then playing by Caesar’s ways is all of sudden okay. Hence, American Christians’ usual support of the state in all of its wars thus limiting Jesus’ command to love our enemies. And so such ways and means creep into our psyches. Before we know it we take on the “elementary principles of the world” playing their games and thinking their thoughts somehow believing that it’s okay because that Jesus stuff only counts over “there”. Such thinking was how the Nazis rose to power with the support of the churches in Germany. For them it was simple, Hitler and his pals were the state and thereby willed by God as the authorities so to stand against them would be to sin against God. They do their thing and we do ours. But to go back to my initial point, I think these issues and problems stem from a larger problem which is our failure to see and perceive sin for what it really is, that it’s more than just me and God but rather me, God and everyone as well as creation. That it goes so much deeper than simple right and wrong, than simple morality but rather has to do with our inability to speak truth and bring our lies and ways into the light. When we fail to do this it results in injustice and dehumanization. When ideas,morals and systems impede our ability to love our neighbor properly we have a serious problem. Take a look at Luke 10:25-37 and you’ll see.
We all fail to love our neighbor but this could be lessened if we understood what love for our neighbor and for God really meant. You see when Jesus comes on the scene he speaks nothing but Truth, he lives in the light and he does not play by the world’s games. This infuriates the authorities because it inevitably calls into question their being and their purpose. His Truth is not relegated to only over “here” but rather to everything. There is no division in his thinking as some would claim, rather his Truth is for all and for all facets of life. We fallen human beings love to make excuses and to hearken to the “real world” but Jesus doesn’t do that he just speaks and lives out the truth of God. He lives in the reality of God always. He truly acknowledges who God is and what he is capable of, that He actually is the God of the living and not of the dead. This understanding sees people as truly human and not commodities or consumers or potential members of our church.
The early Christians were able to convert the Roman Empire not by way of force, political posturing or aggressive rebellion but by the simple way of prayer, non-resistance and the overarching believe in the Lordship and power of Jesus Christ. For them Jesus was and is Lord. For them his kingdom power was and is alive and that thereby they had nothing to fear not even death itself. For they saw that their Lord died and rose again. Death did not have the last say. By not playing by the world’s games they could truly seek to love and to uphold humanity. And look at what happened. We don’t need the world’s approval, all we need is God’s because He is in charge not some president, not some seminary, not some church body and not some “justice” system. Putting God first and then one another before anything else is but an outcome of the Gospel.