Sin, Redemption and the State

So you've sinned. Now what? Gary A. Anderson, a professor in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame, may have an answer for you. In his book "Sin: A History," published by Yale University Press in September, Anderson explores the roots of sin and atonement. Hint: help the poor. But what if the state moves in, as it has in the past 500 years, and takes on a large responsibility for aiding the disadvantaged? How, then, does the average sinner pay off his debt?

GUEST BLOGGER: Gary A. Anderson

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama gave a landmark speech on race relations. He remarked that the "original sin of slavery" had left a "stain" on our nation. The usage of the biblical metaphor of sin as a stain allowed President Obama to say something quite profound.

In the Bible, sin is not just a vague mental notion that something has gone wrong. Rather, sin has a certain "thingness" to it that cannot be lightly dismissed. Its indelible mark is not easily washed away. Horrible human sins, the Bible teaches, have lasting consequences.

Yet one should not despair. Though sins can linger, there are ways to bring their baneful consequences to closure. But everything depends on what we imagine a sin to be.

One of the most common ways of describing sins in the Bible is as a form of debt. Consider the fifth petition of the Our Father: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Behind this metaphor is the idea that God records our misdeeds as debts and awaits their repayment. But how are they repaid?

The answer is as simple as it is striking - by transferring funds to heaven through direct service to the poor. Already in the Jewish Bible we learn that he who is generous to the poor makes a loan to God (Proverbs 19:17). Jesus is even more graphic: charity toward the poor funds a treasury in heaven.

According to these images, the hand of the poor person is like a full service ATM - the money it receives is instantly deposited in a heavenly treasury. For this reason, Jewish beggars in antiquity would approach potential donors and say: "make a deposit in heaven through me."

The influence of this sort of thinking on Western culture was profound. Both synagogue and church spent a great of effort distributing goods to the poor. Building on a Jewish foundation, Jesus declared that those who had fed the hungry and clothed the naked would enter his heavenly kingdom. The stakes were certainly high when it came to showing charity.

In the 15th and 16th centuries the position of the church as a purveyor of goods to the poor changed dramatically. In country after country across the face of Europe, the burgeoning power of the state absorbed more and more of these responsibilities.

This transformation was troubling to many. If the state became the primary distributor of charity, how could spiritual debts be paid off?

In our own day, it is clear that the state is, and must remain, the primary social service agency.

But the importance of faith-based giving is still an issue of considerable debate. Because God's grace does not simply float down from the heavens but is mediated by human hands, there may be some social utility in putting those charitable impulses to work in ameliorating some of the social ills that plague our country.

For the religious believer, however, giving to poor does more than fill a social need, it is the most effective way of channeling the love of God into a fallen world.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 17, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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