I Have Sinned, but It Wasn’t My Fault

As part of my series on the Bible, I’ve been doing a sort of sub-series on dualism.  In the comments section of the last post on dualism, Hector, with whom I’ve had cordial discussions on several blogs, left a thoughtful comment that made me realize I’d been a bit loose in something I said there.  I thought I’d respond to the comment when I had a chance, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized my response would be more appropriately given in a full-length post, not least because it touches on some issues that have lain dormant as I’ve been blogging theology this last year, but which would do well to be discussed explicitly.

Hector and I agreed that Christianity cannot be characterized as “pacifist” or as completely prohibiting capital punishment or just wars–in theory, at least–and that nevertheless it has made too extensive use of those practices.  Perhaps my case was worded more strongly towards a pacifist perspective, and Hector rightly pointed out that the tradition doesn’t really support that, with even passages in the New Testament capable of being put forth in support of the idea that there is no banning of war or capital punishment in all cases.  On thinking about this, I realized that what I had had in mind, but failed to express, was my framework.  This is what confused the matter, and this is what I will try to articulate more clearly. Consider this Orthodox Christian prayer before communion, attributed to St. John Damascene (my emphasis):

O Lord and Master Jesus Christ, our God, who alone hath power to forgive the sins of men, do thou, O Good One who lovest mankind, forgive all the sins that I have committed in knowledge or in ignorance, and make me worthy to receive without condemnation thy…life-giving Mysteries….

Other examples of this kind of thing could be put forth, but this is representative.  When I first read Orthodox prayers and liturgical texts some twenty years ago, I was really puzzled by statements like those in bold.  I mean, how in the world can you sin in ignorance?  Partly as a result of more extensive reading in Eastern theology, and partly from lived experience over the years, I have a much better grasp of what such seemingly puzzling things mean, and I have embraced the underlying theology.

A personal anecdote:  Years ago, I taught in a job-training program.  A student, call him B., often dropped by between classes.  I never had him in any of my classes, but we got on well, and we’d joke around, or I’d talk to him about this or that.  Months later, when graduation came, he was thanking everyone, and he came and gave me a card.  Rather surprised, I opened it, and read, “Thank you for making me laugh sometimes when I thought all I could do was cry.”  I was both touched and given profound food for thought.  Here I had known this young man casually, not known much about what was going on in his life, and without even realizing it, had made his life easier.  Perhaps I’d even given him enough strength to finish the program and make something of himself.  I had done all this without even knowing I had done it.  

I thought, “Wow!  How great it is to have been a good influence in a person’s life without even trying!  How many others may I have helped unawares?”  But later, I had the far more troubling thought:  “How many may I have hurt, hindered, or impeded unaware?”  A somber and frightening thought.

This is the kind of realization that has led me towards a more Eastern theology. In the West–by which I mean both Protestants and Catholics–the regnant view of sin is extremely juridical and forensic.  The questions are whether the act is sinful, whether one understands that, what (if any) mitigating circumstances there are, and so on.  All very external.  In the West, one could not sin in ignorance, since understanding that something is wrong and full consent of the will are needed, in traditional Western moral theology, for an act to be mortally sinful.  Even if the act is objectively sinful–e.g. shooting someone dead–there is no sin incurred if the full understanding and consent of the will are absent; as in a child playing with a real gun.  Even venial sin requires at least a certain amount of understanding–minimally, you know you’re doing wrong.

One sees this kind of thing also with the principle of double effect.  The idea (to oversimplify a bit) is that if an action (going to war, treating an ectopic pregnancy, etc.) has both good and bad effects (killing and destruction vs. repelling an aggressor nation, terminating the pregnancy vs. saving the woman’s life by removing the uterus), then under certain conditions one may proceed with the action as long as the good outweighs the bad, and the action does not directly intend the evil effects.    In short, in a just war, there is no intention to kill and lay waste, just the intention of repelling an invasion that might cause more damage.  There is not an intent to kill the fetus in an ectopic pregnancy, but to remove the uterus and save the mother.  Thus a soldier who kills an enemy in battle, or who brings about civilian deaths inadvertently (e.g. dropping a bomb) is not only justified but does not commit a sin.  The doctor who treats the ectopic pregnancy is also free of sin.

Frankly, I think such theology is juridicalism and forensic thinking run amok.  The idea is that one may never deliberately will an evil action under any circumstances, even to bring about a good.  Thus, there are legalistic twists and contortions to argue that in such cases as described one is not really willing an evil action–just the good action, and the evil results are just unfortunate consequences.  So, for example, the solider doesn’t really want to kill the foe–just to achieve some greater good that happens by means of killing him!

The same legalism is on display in the earnest (and complicated) arguments by some moral philosophers that if one lied even to save a life, it would still be a sin, albeit a minor one, since lying is wrong always and for any motivation!  To me, at least, such thinking is so confused that, as Wolfgang Pauli would say, it’s not even wrong!

Orthodox theology has generally been very different in emphasis.  Whereas the West, both Catholic and Protestant, has seen sin in legal terms, the East sees it in medical terms.  Sin is not so much a crime as a sickness.  This doesn’t mean that people don’t know better or can’t  help themselves or lack free will; rather, our knowledge, wills, and personalities are weakened by sin, making it harder for us to resist and easier for us to give in.  Moreover, dispensing with complex casuistry, the Orthodox would say that given the fallen, imperfect, state of the world, and the moral sickness of sin with which we are all infected, there are sometimes situations in which anything we do is sinful.  Just as with the physically sick, where sometimes the most one can do is to palliate the symptoms, likewise we sometimes can choose only the least of a set of possible evils.

Thus, for example, there is not nearly the kind of development of just war theory in Orthodoxy as there is in Western Christianity.  From here, for example, is the following statement from St. Basil the Great, my emphasis:

Our Fathers did not consider the killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that they are not clean-handed.

Please note–refusing Communion is done in the case of sin; and a period of three years is not insubstantial!

This is also a stark contrast to Catholic just war theology.  Once more, the idea is that if the criteria for a just war are met, not only is one not guilty of sin, but one should not pursue the war “with long faces” as C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, and young men shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to go cheerfully into battle, as either he or G. K. Chesterton said (I’ll update this later when I can find the exact quotes and sources).  Such thinking often, I think, partakes of an over-romanticized notion of chivalry, and is affected by one’s experience of war (Chesterton, who could be rather bombastic, never was in the military; Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both served in WW I, but Tolkien had a much darker and more traumatic experience, apparently, and seemed less inclined towards blithe chivalry in his novels than did Lewis).

Having looked at all this, let us get back to my perspective on the issues which Hector brought up.  This is what I believe:

1.  The Commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” means exactly what it says.  In other words, killing a human being for any reason is always sinful, period.

2.  However, given our fallen nature and the fallen world we inhabit, we are sometimes in situations in which the tragic reality is that we sin by not going to war and we sin by going to war; or we sin by executing someone and we sin by not executing them.  In short, contra Western forensic moral theology, we are sometimes in a position of being unable to choose a non-sinful path, and in fact of having to directly choose an evil, albeit the least one we can manage.

3.  Finding it necessary to sin doesn’t make it not sinful.  Killing in war or doing your duty as a hangman isn’t muder–it is, in a sense, the “right” thing to do in some cases, and is not as grievous a sin as the opposite action would be in such cases–but it’s still a sin, and should be treated as such.

4.  This is why we can “sin in ignorance” or have “unintended” sins.  We may find ourselves in circumstances in which the course of action we follow has bad results–in short, is infused with the “sickness of sin”–even though we might not be aware of it or understand it.  If I innocently buy something made in a sweatshop, I don’t voluntarily sin as such, but I do help perpetuate a sinful system that has real effects on real people.  Similarly with unintended sins.  If I’m the surgeon who removes the uterus in an ectopic pregnancy, it is not my intention to take the fetus’s life, but nevertheless that’s exactly what I do.

5.  Such “necessary” sins are probably far commoner than they ought to be.  Few of the wars fought, by us or anyone else, are truly just, and our pursuit of justice by capital punishment all too often borders on blood lust.

Now, I’m not suggesting that one be neurotic about it.  To agonize and punish oneself over the inadvertent or unintended sins one commits would be scrupulosity, if not obsession.  The other end of the spectrum, though, which declares such actions not to be sins at all, however, is in my mind the worse error.  Better to risk neurosis by honestly looking at ourselves and calling sin what it is, than to absolve ourselves from it with the sacrament of casuistry.  Through our “most grievous fault” or not, we have all sinned.

Posted on 18/08/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi Turmarion,

    Great post, as usual.

    I don’t know if I agree with you, but I’m not sure I disagree either- I need to think about it more. Like C. S. Lewis, I think there can be something chivalric and noble about a just war, and something inherently just about certain executions, so I don’t know if I’m comfortable with calling them inherently sinful. On the other hand, this is just my intuition talking, and my reason tells me that there are strong and compelling grounds for the Orthodox position that you espouse. I think I need to do a better job, in general, differentiating between my own sense of right and wrong, and my own moral intuitions (which are crucial, and which must be obeyed, but which are also fallible), and the witness of scripture, tradition, and reason.

    One criticism I’ve heard of the Orthodox point of view, that sin is sometimes inevitable, is this. If it’s true that there are circumstances in which sin is truly inevitable, and which any choice we make is sinful, then how can we say that Jesus (and depending on who you ask, His mother as well) was truly morally perfect during his life as a man? We know on biblical authority that He “was in all ways tempted as we are, *but did not sin.*”. But if that was, in part, due to not being placed in any of these ‘hard cases’, then he was only contingently sin-free, and his moral perfection wasn’t necessary and ontological. If it was at least possible that Jesus could have been placed in a position where any choice he made was sinful, then his perfection was merely contingent, and thus he wasn’t truly perfect.

    A counterargument to this might be that Jesus had miraculous and supernatural powers at his disposal, at least in extremis, as well as moral and intellectual resources that we can’t fathom, not being morally or intellectually perfect. It’s possible that if he had been placed in any of those hard cases, where every choice he was faced with was sinful, then he would have found a solution that we are incapable of conceiving of. If faced with the choice of executing a murderer or letting him go, for example, He could theoretically have used some miraculous supernatural power to try and convert the murderer and lead him to repent, which obviously isn’t a power available to us. We know that Jesus had powers at his disposal which he never used: “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” And it’s possible that drawing on his power to perform miracles- which is not an option open to us- would have allowed him to preserve His sinlessness if he had been placed in a situation in which every other moral option was sinful. I don’t know whether that solves the dilemma that the Orthodox, medical view of sin poses, but it might.

    I’m generally a virtue ethicist, I think, and that’s the form of moral reason that seems to make the most sense to me both from a secular and Christian point of view. (The big rival to virtue-ethics and natural-law theories within Christianity, divine command theory, seems like a no-go to me, at least in most cases). The medicinal view of sin seems to be one that fits quite naturally within a virtue ethics framework.

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