In the opening paragraph of his book Whatever Became of Sin?, Karl Menninger, one of the founders of the famed Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, tells a funny but very significant story.
On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-faced, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop. As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word 'GUILTY!'
Then, without any change of expression, he would resume his still stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture. Then, again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word 'GUILTY!'
The effect of this strange accusatory pantomime on the passing strangers was extraordinary, almost eerie. They would stare at him, hesitate, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.
One man, turning to another who was my informant, exclaimed: 'But how did he know?'
The United States was founded primarily as a result of people wanting freedom of worship and fairness in government. There is no question that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
For nearly two centuries the mainstream Protestant Churches and the Roman Catholic Church taught that man was guilty of sin and needed to repent. In the second quarter of the 20th century, liberal Protestantism began putting less emphasis on sin and the negatives of the Christian Faith and concentrating on the positives. In the 1950s, Norman Vincent Peale, famed minister of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, concentrated on the power of positive thinking, which became the title of his bestselling blockbuster.
Peale asserted that by concentrating on the positive things of life one could overcome the many fears of failure and develop the self-confidence needed to capitalize on his/her true God given talents and achieve success. He was criticized by many theologians and medical doctors of preaching false hope, but he was enormously popular. He was followed by Robert Schuller, founder of the Chrystal Cathedral in Orange County, California.
Gradually, mainline Protestantism has concentrated on the positive aspects of the Christian Faith. It has been the evangelical churches that have continued to stress the sinfulness of the human race and the need for repentance.
Does it really make any difference in everyday life whether or not sin is focused on? My answer is a resounding "yes." And here is why.
People around the world are suffering more now than at any time in my lifetime, and probably much longer: brutal religious wars resulting in human atrocities carried out by masked militants; long-lasting civil wars, accompanied by girls and young women being gang-raped with family members forced to watch; wars of words and armaments between nations of the Middle East, resulting in the loss of life and property, with refugees by the tens of thousands left homeless; disease that resists the marvels of today's healing remedies; homelessness and poverty, even in well-established and wealthy nations; hunger; child abuse, resulting in scared lives that never heal; shootings in schools and on college campuses; overflowing prisons; racial violence; violent crimes; dishonesty in business and government; and the list goes on and on.
But the peoples of the world, including we who live in and love the United States, have become increasingly permissive and secular. I suspect that every reader of this column, and its writer, would respond in much the same as the man in the opening story: how did he know? And we probably would add, and who else may know. Know what? Our sins -- sins we have managed to keep to ourselves. Little by little we have become accustomed to, and stopped finding fault with, sin -- our own and the sin of others. We as a society do what we want, find ways to justify what we are doing, and ignore the consequences.
Think with me about the Ten Commandments: (1) You shall have no other gods before me. (2) You shall not make for yourself a graven image. (3) You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. (4) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. (5) Honor your father and your mother. (6) You shall not kill. (7) You shall not commit adultery. (8) You shall not steal. (9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (10) You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife . . . or anything that is your neighbor's. (Deuteronomy 5:6-21)
For those of you who are less religious, take a look at the last six commandments, starting with the fifth; they deal with how we treat one another. If we were to stress the importance of these, the sinfulness of violating them, and the need to repent if we do violate them -- think what a different world this would be. Remember that "repent" is a military term that means "about face," that is, turning around and going the other direction. Just saying "I'm sorry" is not enough! We need to change what we are doing.
Add to the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament the two Great Commandments of Jesus: (1) Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and (2) Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:28-31)
Many people today find fault with evangelical Christians, not wanting them to influence life, religion, or politics. But it's time for us to turn back to our Judeo-Christian roots and spend more time and energy talking about the detrimental consequences of sin and our need as individuals and as a society, regardless of our personal religious convictions, to look to the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the two Great Commandments of the New Testament for direction and guidance in these chaotic times, even though it may not be politically correct.
What has happened to sin?