Sin and Atonement

Excerpt from “Peter Pan” by J. M. Barrie
“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver


When I was five years old, I did something bad.  It was in school – my first real school – where they expected us to sit quietly and actually learn to read.  Mrs. O’Leary was the teacher.  She was ancient, I thought.  It’s possible that she was in her forties though.  She was nice, but she was a bit intimidating to me.  

I was generally a very good, well-behaved little boy.  But, Mrs. O’Leary had this wonderful pair of scissors…  I don’t know exactly why I found them so attractive.  They were sharp and pointed – not like the dull, rounded, safety scissors we children we were allowed to use.  It may have been this adult sophistication of the tool that so drew me to them.

When no one was looking, I took those fine scissors.  I hid them away and brought them home with me.  My life of crime thus started out pretty successfully, but it collapsed rather soon afterwards when my mother noticed the scissors.  ‘Where did these come from?’ she asked.  I lied.  Badly.  ‘I found them under the post box at the bus stop.’  Really! – even at five, you’d think I could do better than that.  Well, my mother knew immediately where they came from and made me return them to the classroom the next day.  Mercifully, I was allowed to return them without confessing my crime to Mrs. O’Leary – which I think would just about have killed me!

Was this theft by a five year old child a sin?  We will have very different reactions to this word - sin.  Some of you may squirm because it is a word with which you were bludgeoned in experiences of other religious traditions.  If so, I apologise and I assure you that you will neither be forced into a confessional here nor threatened with hellfire and damnation.  

A related concept may come to mind when we talk about sin, and that is ‘original sin’ – the doctrine that says human beings are born enslaved to sin and evil and are irredeemable except through belief in and acceptance of Christ as the sacrificed incarnate God.  In this way of thinking, of course I was a sinner and it was no surprise, since evil would have had its imprint on me from birth. I was obviously headed for the flames of eternal punishment.

Thankfully, Unitarians long ago rejected the doctrine of original sin.  It is a doctrine that has done a tremendous amount of harm: lowering the worth and status of women, perpetuating the notion that sex and the body are dirty and unworthy, creating divisions between the saved and the damned, and generating a tremendous amount of human self-loathing.

To my perspective, it is a wonderful thing that we have taken original sin off of the theological menu.  Our religious ancestors developed a profound faith in the goodness of human nature.  I like the way that theologian and defrocked Catholic priest Matthew Fox has playfully substituted a new doctrine for the old.  He describes humans as being born into “Original Blessing” rather than “original Sin.”  

And yet, the notion of original sin is not entirely without value nor is its opposite without challenges. 

In one of my favourite quotes, Lord Acton, warned that "every institution perishes by an excess of its own first principles."  A strong faith in the goodness of human nature is central to our way of being religious, but this faith also has its hazards.  Taken to excess, it leaves us with no place to go with the darkness that we all carry. 

I am not perfect.  I am not even close to perfect, and I’m afraid that goes well beyond nicking Mrs. O’Leary’s scissors. I hesitate to think what Mrs. Darling would find were she to go about tidying up my mind.  I have acted in ways that have harmed others, both indirectly and directly – both by failing to do what is right and by doing what is wrong. I know that I am not alone in this. Not one of us is free from these imperfections.  

And our failings can be a source of suffering to us.  I suspect that most of us feel the pain of knowing we have done wrong – that we have caused hurt in others – that we have at times not been the people we wanted to be.

With its positive view of human nature, the liberal tradition has generally lacked a sound approach to wrong-doing.  In our hearts, we know we’re imperfect. Without a theology that recognises the tension we feel between what we do and what we know we should do, we tend toward one of two options: First, we can rationalize our deeds – that is to redefine wrong action as right action – something that I fear happens all too often in our society as self-interest becomes enshrined as the greatest good.  

The other approach we might take is what we could call ‘make believe.’  If we think that we’re supposed to be all good but know that we’re not, we’ll just have to pretend we are.  In fact, we might even try to convince ourselves that we are all–good in our nature and character.  This is not a simple superficial thing that is achieved lightly.  It is a painful process of rejecting, condemning, and walling off parts of our own characters.  It leaves us cautious and guarded – unwilling to be open to others for fear they will discover the darkness we are so carefully concealing.  So very much is lost when we find parts of ourselves unacceptable.

And we are all made up of many different and often seeming contradictory pieces.  A few years ago, the story of Lucy Wightman was big news in Boston.  
By all accounts, Wightman was a successful psychologist.  She had built two thriving practices in wealthy suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts.  She had many adult clients, and she also saw a large number of children and adolescents.  Her reputation was excellent, and her younger patients were usually referred to Wightman by paediatricians, school counsellors, and fellow psychologists who held her in high esteem.    

Everything seemed perfect until suddenly, it all began tumbling down.  Lucy Wightman was revealed to be the very same person as one Princess Cheyenne – a famous Boston exotic dancer of the 1980s!  Worse yet, it emerged that, although Wightman had been enrolled in a programme to earn the advanced degree she needed to practice as a psychologist, she never completed it and was therefore in violation of the law.  Wightman had left that training programme – after nearly finishing – when a fellow student learned about and threatened to reveal her secret past.

Who is Lucy Wightman?  Is she Princess Cheyenne, celebrity stripper?  Is she the well-loved therapist who helped so many of her patients and was held in such high esteem?  Is she the fraudster who practiced psychology illegally? 

Lucy Wightman is all of these and more.  She may have committed criminal fraud and been a caring therapist and a former stripper all at once.

Why was this such a sensational story?  Why was it one that everyone wanted to read about and talk about? Well, of course it has sex, which always sells newspapers, but I think there is something more – Wightman’s story represents something universal and frightening to us. In Lucy Wightman, we may recognise the many apparently irreconcilable parts of our own characters. And in her story, we catch a glimpse of what we fear about those elements being brought together – that they may somehow annihilate one another. 

For Lucy Wightman, walling off the past ultimately did not work.  It never does.  

Philip Simmons, a Unitarian author, says this: 

“We do not heal ourselves by scourging or rejecting our sinful parts but by drawing them into a circle of holiness made large enough to include them. There’s nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight, nothing that confuses them more than our embrace. Our goal, always, is to transform evil through love.”

The way to deal with the darkness in each of our hearts is not to rationalise or to reject it, but rather to accept it.  “You do not have to be good” Mary Oliver tells us.  “You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” 

Acceptance of ourselves as we are is essential.  “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”  Acceptance is not about choosing to turn to our worst and weakest aspects, but rather an essential step in becoming the person we want to be. In the words of pioneering psychologist, Carl Rogers: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

Of course, this kind of acceptance is not at all easy to do. Accepting ourselves as we are – especially the parts we disapprove of or dislike – is a struggle. 

When things are important but not easy to do, we often find that religion has – over the thousands of years – developed helpful solutions. Yom Kippur, which was observed yesterday, is Judaism’s response to our need to reconcile our personal aspirations with the reality of our actions. On Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, Jews pray and fast, but most of all, it is a day for confessing sins to God and for making amends for wrongs done to other human beings. Yom Kippur provides – as does confession – a ritualised way to accept that we are not perfect.  They allow us to break down those interior walls to recognise and reconcile with the ways we have fallen short.

In Judaism, the word that is translated as sin is taken from archery.  It literally means “missing the mark.”  Sins are those instances where we have failed to be who we know we should be or do what we know we should do.  The obvious implication of this approach is that we do aim for what is right and righteous.  The work of Yom Kippur – and in fact the work of our lives – is to continue to aim high and then to recognise, accept, and try again when we fall short.

Please join me in reading responsively the Litany of Atonement reading printed in your order of service. [responsive reading by Rev. Robert Eller-Isaacs]