It was probably during a flannel graph lesson on Adam and Eve — with extensive leaf coverage of their once naked bodies — when as a child I was introduced to “original sin.” No one explained, much less showed, what their guilt-free, nude life in the garden was like beforehand.
The conveyed idea was that the first couple’s mess-ups had messed up all of us. We were tainted without even trying.
The associated guilt then motivated us to get rid of that stain through a prescribed religious solution of confession and repentance. Then we were taught to live as cleanly as possible — yet with keen awareness of an easily recurring guilt-stained soul in need regular rewashing.
Paul the apostle — and some three centuries or so later, Augustine of Hippo — helped shape and promote this perspective.
In many ways, both history and current happenings prove the point. Humanity’s propensity for sin is quite obvious when we note how easily and often evil is chosen over good.
This idea of an implanted seed of sin, however, seems to take humanity off the hook from personal responsibility — and be somewhat at odds with our created state that God deemed good. What makes more sense to me is to see “original sin” in a more specific way: that is the human proclivity to seek control over others.
While one can embrace or reject this desire, it is so often freely chosen.
So much damage and destruction have been — and continue to be — rooted in the devilish desire to lord over others for one’s own benefit. It extends from ancient stories to today’s news.
A recent visit to historic colonial sites in Massachusetts and Rhode Island reminded me of how this reality has played out in our nation’s history. Those who escape oppression will often use the very freedom they so desperately sought for themselves to oppress others.
And we see that same tendency today when “religious freedom” — hard earned by those once oppressed — gets distorted and used as a tool for imposing one’s faith and values on others.
Racism has been rightly called “America’s original sin.” Yet the twisted roots of racism grow out of this larger sin-sown field of the human desire to control others for one’s own advantage.
“The root of the problem” is a common phrase. Yet, too few trace the fruits of discrimination and other evil acts — so often justified by religious jargon — back to the source of demeaning and controlling those who are different in some way.
In the Massachusetts Colony, minister Roger Williams found the same heavy-handed, state-supported religion he had left in England. In his banishment for espousing liberty of conscience over conformity and control, he founded a refuge (that became the state of Rhode Island) with unfettered religious freedom.
Yet his providing an environment in which control over the hearts, minds and lives of others caused him to be branded as a radical and heretic. Others who stood for freedom suffered similar fates or worse.
Williams acted boldly out of Baptist convictions. Yet much of today’s white Americanized Baptist flock (along with other evangelicals) choose the original sin of control over others — seeking to impose their beliefs and practices through the heavy hand of government. Even the most unethical practices are excused to accomplish this pursuit of raw power.
Sin has broader application than is often told in the ancient story of a couple in a garden who messed up and messed up us all. Sin is self-absorption. It is found in the repeated choosing of an insecurity-fueled desire to control others rather than live with fairness, compassion, and freedom for all.
Power dynamics are the playing field on which such sin is advanced. Politicians know this and often exploit those who feel their control slipping away.
Demeaning minorities to justify their subjugation is precisely how this original sin has played out in the American experience. The thread of control runs through the gross abuses of Indigenous people and imported African slaves — and anyone else whose religious expression or personal values don’t align with colonial powers.
For a nation and a faith tradition that speak, pledge, and sing so much about freedom, there must be something that keeps them from fully living into this treasure. The only feasible answer seems to be the consuming desire to control others.
For the church and individual followers of Jesus to truly deal with matters of evil (or sinfulness, if you choose) will require giving more attention to how our freedom in Christ is corrupted any time we seek to use religious or secular power to control others for our benefit.
That is not only sin — but the summation of sins.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.