Meditating On Sin At The End Of The Year

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.
Audre Lorde

O Lord all my longing is known to you. My sighing is not hidden from you.
Psalm 38

I first approached the question 'what is sin, and what does it mean to be a sinner' as a theological problem when I was a seminary student back in the early 1990's. A logical place to begin such an inquiry for the most part my concerns, at least at the beginning were intellectual ones. I wanted to know what was wrong with us as a human race. What was the substance of our tendency to stray so far away from what was 'good' or 'right' or 'true' such that violence, degradation and the perpetuation of systems of social injustice -- on a large and small scale -- seemed to be the recurring and inevitable theme of human existence? Why God, I queried, are we like this? WHAT is wrong with us?

At that time the desire to understand if not alleviate the grandest injustices of human existence fueled my interrogations. Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia -- these obvious distortions of our individual and collective capacities to recognize, engage or cultivate the full humanity of ourselves and one another -- these sinful-'ims' begged for a critical spiritual analysis of their causes and continuations. And while my liberationist commitments animated my belief that such queries could make a practical difference in the struggle to interrupt their worst social and political effects, still I recall approaching the question from a decided scholarly remove. The facts, apostle Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and because I was trained at a liberal seminary - James Cone, Rosemary Ruether, Gustavo Gutierrez -- just give me the theological facts.

And then in 1999 I began to starve myself to death, and with an experience of sickness that infiltrated into every fiber of my physical, mental and spiritual being, Christian sin-talk no longer appealed to me as a grand theological problem to be interrogated. Instead 'what is sin' and 'what does it mean to be a sinner' became intensely personal questions for me. They became personal not because I equated having an eating disorder, or indeed any sickness with being sinful. By the grace of God, I was never tempted to go down that road. But rather it was the window my sickness provided into what it means to be undone by a thing; to be twisted by a desire; to be unmade by a willing whose force pulled me away from the recognition of the good thing God had created me to be in the world, that gave me a sudden and visceral sense of what is wrong with us.

I am a sinner and I sin; we are sinners and we sin when we would stand outside of, or in opposition to the fundamental rightness of our status as beings created in the image and likeness of God. Genesis 1:31 says, 'And God saw everything that She had made and indeed it was very good.' But when we lose sight of not only God's goodness all around, but the personal and singular aspect of that goodness we are called to embody for ourselves, and with and for one another in the world we fall into sin. We are, by God's design and for God's holy purposes His own very good and beloved people. But it is our tendency to fall so utterly and completely outside of this knowledge; to forget at the most profound and intimate levels of our lives that this is who we are - broken in fact, but beloved indeed -- that is the substance of our unmaking.

I recall what it felt like to fall away from this knowledge, and the larger backdrop against which that falling away took place. Caught up in the usual struggle to believe in and enact my belovedness as a Black Queer girl in America, one day the enormous weight of this struggle just became unbearable. 'Dear God, how can I continue to stand upright,' I cried, 'when there are so few practical and real-world affirmations of my existence on which I can consistently rely?'

I let myself feel the pain of the persistent failure of Christian communities on either side of the so-called Left/Right divide to embrace me as an integral as opposed to an exotic member of the faith. I let myself feel the anxiety around and take on the disdain for my flesh that is in part a sorry outcome of the historical ordering of the tradition. And as these feelings began to well up inside of me I responded, not by beating a path toward God's always ready embrace. Instead I began to long for, desire and actively refashion my being as something small, starved and disappearing right before the unseeing eyes of almost everyone around me.

An Eating Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified was the official diagnosis attached to my condition. And today, more than a decade later, when I can claim to be on the other side of that experience, I neither dispute the categorization nor the blessing of the medical interventions that saved my life. But there is also that part of the story that begs to be told beyond both the clinical certainty of a label of sickness and the kind of grandly theological articulation on the human condition that I first pondered.

How best to fully speak of it remains unclear; but twenty years after I first began to wonder 'what is sin' and 'what does it mean to be a sinner,' I know that our small and seemingly private tales of brokenness and shame; of fear and longing matter. They matter, not because we are called to heap blame on ourselves, or anyone else because of them. But we are called as a people, broken in fact, but beloved indeed, to bear witness to all that we are, as a testament to the fullness and richness of our Maker.