Oh dear, poor Tim Farron, daring to walk the long, narrow, and precarious tight-rope of being politically liberal and theologically conservative. Sooner or later, somebody, somewhere (by that, I mean a journalist) is going to test your balance and throw you one of the touchstones of a liberal society to see if you will catch it: “Do you think gay sex is a sin?”
Drop the stone by avoiding the question and a metropolitan witch hunt ensues, doubting your suitability to hold public office. Catch the stone and say no, then the evangelical inquisition will quickly light a Facebook-fire under you that will be difficult to extinguish. Either way, you are going to take a fall.
Sadly, one can’t help feel that both question and answer were driven by different motives than defending theological integrity, or a desire to shed light on humanity’s relationship with the Ground of All Being. What’s more, both engaged each other with a very real sense that they were approaching this from a rather reductionist position when it comes to the grammar of sin.
But then why should this surprise us? Neither Tim Farron, nor the journalist pressing him took Plato’s sage advice to first ‘define your terms if you would converse with me.’ Perhaps this is because the only definition of sin we appear to be left with in a secular society can be summed up in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘An immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.’
Therefore, it might be fair to speculate that what Tim Farron hears the journalist ask is something like, ‘Do you think gay sex an immoral act transgressing divine law?’ To which it is not unreasonable for Tim to answer, ‘No, I do not.’ After all, there’s nothing in the Ten Commandments banning it, which is most people’s measure for what God expects in terms of moral behaviour. And so that was that. Well it would have been, except that in the name of fairness it would appear that other political leaders have now had to face the same question, the Prime Minister included.
The problem with our reductionist understanding of sin, so beloved by evangelists, journalists, and advertisers alike, is that it does not sufficiently reflect the biblical narrative. As the Old Testament Theologian Mark Biddle points out, it fails to, ‘provide a sufficient basis for the Church’s ministry in addressing human wrongdoing and its consequences . . . [because ultimately it is not a] a thorough description of the problem of being human.’
This then means that it cannot engage meaningfully with a primary assumption of a secular, liberal society: I am free to do what I please, so long as I don’t hurt anyone. This, of course, has some reasonable merit provided we are indeed free as human beings to act in such a way that we are capable, not only of loving others, but loving ourselves without injury.
The problem, of course, is that sin is something more visceral and primal than the relatively simple act of failing to keep a divine moral code. It is the recognition that the living God has made us to reflect his image into his world, and that we haven’t done so. Both in the Hebrew (ht’) and the Greek (hamart), the root of the word we translate as ‘sin’ does not denote wilful rebellion or wrongful transgression so much as an unintentional falling short, or missing the mark of authentic, fruitful, Christlike humanness that God has set for us.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it: ‘Sin is an offence against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbour . . . . It wounds the nature of human beings and injures our solidarity.’ In short, sin has limited our freedom to make good choices that allow us to flourish as individuals and as a society, which in turn impacts the right of the creation itself to flourish and give forth the goodness that pervaded it at its inception?
In his recent publication, The Day the Revolution Began, Tom Wright suggests that within the biblical narrative, sin is primarily, ‘the outworking of a prior disease, a prior disobedience: a failure of worship. And if we want to know what that is, we need look no further than some challenging words found in the book of Isaiah:
I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the Lord. Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly. Free those who are abused!
Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless.
Give clothes to those in need; don’t turn away your relatives . . .Don’t mistreat others or falsely accuse them or say something cruel.
Then your light will shine like the dawning sun, and you will quickly be healed . . . your darkest hour will be like the noonday sun.
I’m not against journalists asking politicians if they think certain things are a sin, in fact it might be interesting for sin-talk to properly make a comeback in our public dialogue. Image a politician being asked if they think their policy on child refugees is a sin, or the removal of benefits from those in our society who can’t work because of disability.
Perhaps one might like to ask whether the need for food banks is something that reflects the way God would have us run an economy, or how failure to act on climate justice while investing in weapons of mass destruction can ever be truly justified.
Indeed, is a hard Brexit a sin full decision which will ultimately undermine human solidarity? Sin is a cross-party issue that reaches far beyond any questions about an individual’s views on the use of our god-given sexuality. So, when you stop playing silly journalistic games and really begin to speak of sin, then all our political parties are falling short and missing the mark.