Jesus nailed to crossIn yesterday evening’s post, I suggested that it may be much more helpful to think of sin as a kind of sickness than simply as wrongdoing.

One of the issues I touched on is that when you suggest that sin is a form of sickness, some people get very nervous because they feel that this diminishes personal responsibility for sin. I suppose the logic goes that if sickness is a sin, then just as you can’t blame a child (or anyone else) for catching a sickness to which she is exposed, neither can you blame a sinner for “catching” the disease of sin.

I’d like us to think about this in light of some words that Jesus famously spoke as he went to the cross. Consider the following passage:

And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said,“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

(Luke 23:33-34)

Jesus utters these words as his executioners are going about their grisly business. Since everything Jesus says and does reveals the Father’s heart (“I only do what I see the Father doing“), these words clearly demonstrate that even amid the horror of the murder of Jesus, God’s heart is to forgive his murderers. That alone should be enough to stop us in our tracks.

But what I’d like to focus on is the next part of what Jesus says: “they do not know what they do”. I used to think what Jesus meant by this was that if the Roman soldiers had known who they were dealing with – the Son of God – they would not have proceeded to kill him. I now think that’s a nice theory but one that doesn’t really hold water.

At face value, Jesus’ words appear quite shocking. He is, after all, referring to Roman executioners: soldiers who are paid to excel at inflicting painful and humiliating death upon those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. In other words, professional killers. Surely they knew exactly what they were doing?

On one level, I would say that they did indeed know what they were doing. The fact that they were acting under orders does not entirely absolve them of personal responsibility. But on another level, were they solely responsible for their actions? I would say not.

Imagine a child who grows up in a violent home with a physically abusive father and a crack addict for a mother. In an all too familiar narrative, the child grows into a violent and abusive adult who in turn inflicts pain and suffering on those around him.

The question is this: to what extent is this child responsible for his evil actions, and to what extent is he merely the product of the environment in which he has been brought up? You might say that such a child never had much of a chance to grow up into an honest, decent, upstanding member of society. Is it not reasonable to say, then, that this child is at most only partly responsible for his actions?

I think the same could be said of Jesus’ executioners. While we know next to nothing about them, we might well surmise that they had been born into a culture in which violent oppression of the other was seen as good and necessary. By the time they eventually became executioners, they were merely assuming their role in an ongoing narrative which they themselves had done nothing to set in motion. Does this mean they were not at all responsible for their actions? No, of course not. But I think it certainly means we cannot simply condemn them out of hand.

Let’s bring this closer to home. All of us say and do things we know are in some way wrong – i.e. damaging, destructive or hurtful. A retributive view of God requires us to believe that because of this, we deserve punishment. Yet every one of us was born into a world filled with brokenness; even the most balanced and well-adjusted of us were exposed to terrible and fearful things from a tender age, outside our homes if not inside them. Even in this supposedly enlightened age, we live in a culture that is steeped in competition, scapegoating and violence. It is in this context that we commit our acts of wrongdoing.

I’m not trying to argue that we are not in any way responsible for our sins. But please think about this: if Jesus, speaking of his executioners, said “They do not know what they do”, what does he say of you and I when we similarly act under the influence of our upbringing, experience and culture?

Again, if your view of God’s justice is entirely penal/retributive, then you will most likely conclude that we are fully responsible for our sin and deserve the due punishment for it. What I’m suggesting, however, is that God, in his perfect justice, sees us a little differently: as children struggling to survive a debilitating illness, or as people doing our best to live our lives while carrying a great burden that has been placed on our backs through no fault of our own.

So, as we stumble along, we can be confident that God sees us both justly and compassionately. And, where we would so often condemn ourselves for our sins and failures, God in Christ speaks a different word:

“I understand. I know why you do these things; I see every little factor that has shaped you and led you into the destructive patterns that ensnare you. And, taking all that into account, here’s my verdict: I forgive you. Now let me help you.”

[ Image: contemplative imaging ]