Captive to Sin, Freed by Grace

Captive to Sin, Freed by Grace

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Romans 7:15.

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

5A Pentecost – July 9, 2017

If you’ve noticed these past few weeks, our epistle lessons this summer have been drawn from St. Paul’s magisterial, yet difficult, Epistle to the Romans. Well, I’ve dodged him long enough, so today I take up St. Paul and one of his favorite topics: sin. And not only do I hope to talk about ‘sin,’ but even more foolishly perhaps, I shall try to persuade you that ‘sin’ is still a theologically important category, a helpful and true way of talking about the human condition, even if the concept is, at the same time, in need of some modest rehabilitation.

Let me frame our conversation with a story: In the early 1970s, about a decade before I arrived on the Stanford University campus for my graduate work, a young psychologist there had made quite a name for himself because of a controversial experiment he had conducted in human behavior. His name was Phillip Zimbardo, and his study has come to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

What Zimbardo did was this: He ran an ad in newspapers around the country seeking volunteers to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. He sought healthy, intelligent, college-age men, and he screened them to eliminate candidates with psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse.

The young men were then arbitrarily divided into two groups by a flip of the coin: half were randomly assigned to be guards, the other half were to be the prisoners. They were essentially invited to role-play, so as to recreate the atmosphere of prison life. Zimbardo outfitted the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building to serve as the prison.

The guards were given no specific training on how to be guards. Instead they were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order and to command the respect of the prisoners. To give the experiment a feeling of authenticity, the prisoner volunteers were actually arrested by the Palo Alto Police Department from their homes, strip-searched, fingerprinted, given prison uniforms, and then confined in the makeshift prison. They, too, were given no specific instructions as to how to behave, but were left free to react to their captivity in whatever ways seemed real to them.

What happened over the next several days shocked everyone. These seemingly ‘normal,’ intelligent, young men, became utterly different people as they began to assume their roles. The guards became progressively more sadistic, particularly at night when they thought the cameras were off. The prisoners began to openly challenge the guards’ authority, ultimately staging a revolt, which only provoked the guards to dream up increasingly cruel and manipulative tactics for controlling the captives. The situation intensified, and very quickly some prisoners started showing signs of profound emotional distress.

After only six days of a planned two-week study, Zimbardo had to shut down the experiment for fear that some of the prisoners would be seriously hurt. Although some of Zimbardo’s experimental methods have been rightly criticized, and current academic guidelines for such studies would not allow a scientist to subject human volunteers to such treatment, the study’s bottom-line findings about the human capacity for cruelty and manipulation continue to haunt the academic literature of social psychology. The study points to the remarkable impressionability of people and how willing we are to use and abuse power when provided with a legitimizing ideology and social and institutional support.

Zimbardo’s prison experiment is no mere outlier either. There are dozens of other studies I could describe for you that reach similar conclusions about the darker side of our nature. Stanley Milgram’s “obedience” experiments at Yale, Solomon Asch’s “conformity” study at Swarthmore, the list goes on and on. Historians, of course, have evidence enough of the human capacity for evil, for history is replete with real-world examples of seemingly decent and intelligent folk engaging in barbaric behavior when pushed in certain directions: the German people of the 20s and 30s under Hitler; the enslavement of black Americans by white Americans in the Jim Crow South; the Rwandan genocide of the 90s; the ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian wars of the same era, etc.

We don’t like to dwell on this aspect of our nature, and we all have a tendency to think that we, ourselves, could never do such things, that such evil is always perpetrated by others. But this conviction, my friends, is naïve, and supported neither by science nor history. Human beings can indeed be amazingly wonderful, creative, and compassionate creatures; but they also can be cruel and hateful and entirely self-absorbed. We are, as we say, a mixed bag. One of Paul’s points in Romans is his insistence on the importance of acknowledging the darkness in ourselves, lest we dupe ourselves into thinking that we are better than everyone else, and not dependent upon God for our wholeness.

The Christian tradition calls this dark side of human nature ‘sin.’ Now one of the reasons people don’t like talking about ‘sin’ anymore is because the Church itself, let’s confess it, has had an unfortunate history of abusing the concept of sin in ways that have left generations of people not only deeply scarred, but profoundly alienated from the Church. The language of sin has been used to distort perfectly healthy forms of human sexuality and to condemn people whose sexuality is different from the heterosexual norm; it has, perversely, been used to justify social institutions such as slavery by ruling classes eager to protect certain social arrangements by calling them divinely sanctioned; it has been used to subjugate women and to keep them from their rightful place in society and in the church; it has been used to explain mental and physical disabilities by so-called ‘normal’ folks eager to rationalize their own unwillingness to care for those who struggle with impairments of one kind or another; and from time to time the Church has used the language of sin as a way of wielding power over its people by terrorizing them into believing that if they did not conform their lives to a certain interpretation of Christian rectitude, then their souls would be in jeopardy of eternal damnation. Most of us, for example, read in college Jonathan Edward’s classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a tour de force of hellfire-and-brimstone rhetoric to “awaken” the religious sensibilities of complacent New England churchgoers.

And yet, if we attend more carefully to the biblical text, we see that sin is susceptible to another reading altogether, one that is less about the total corruption and depravity of humanity and more about a fracture in our nature that keeps us from being the people we are called to be. The Greek word for sin – hamartia – means literally ‘to miss the mark.’ Sin is thus a way of describing the gap between what we aspire to and what we in fact do; the gap between who God wants us to be and who we are. We aim to be considerate, kind, and just in our dealings with others; but often, we end up acting thoughtlessly, giving in to mean-spiritedness, or favoring our own interests and desires over others. We strive to be reasonable, engaged and responsible in our conduct; but often, we act on irrational impulse, yield to laziness, or choose the expedient course over the right one.

The reasons for these discrepancies between our ideals and our actions are complex, of course, and frequently their sources remain obscure to even the most searching examination. As St. Paul puts it in today’s selection from Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. . . .I can will what is right, but I cannot [seem] do it. [So often] I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” The Christian concept of sin insists that this the gap between who I want to be and who I am is a real and enduring brokenness, and one in need of God’s gracious healing. We needn’t fall into the despair of self-loathing to recognize this simple truth about the human condition, and our need for mercy.

But here’s the good news. The good news is that Christ stands before us ready to take our human brokenness on his own back, and return us to wholeness. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” Human sin is defeated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the return to human integrity and flourishing is available to all who seek it through Him. We need only place our lives in His hands, let his heart be our heart, allow his will to be our will.

This mysterious relationship between human sin and Christ’s redemptive love is powerfully captured in a simple story I once heard Will Willimon tell. A Methodist preacher, Willimon is the former dean of Duke University’s Chapel, and the story he shared grew out of a coffee conversation he had with a parishioner, a mom with a troubled son.

“How have you been?,” Willimon asks the mom. “Not so good,” she says. “Our son’s been putting us through hell.” “I’m so sorry,” said Willimon.

“We haven’t known where he has been for the last six months, and then he shows up the other night, unannounced, during dinner, just pounding on the front door asking to be let in. We open the door and there he is. And then out of his mouth comes this string of profanity.”

“I said to him, ‘we’re eating, come on in, sit down and join us’; but he refuses to sit down at the table, instead storming into his room, slamming the door shut, and locking it. My husband sits there a minute, then gets up, pours himself a drink, and turns on the TV. His way of coping.”

“Not entirely sure what to do, I get up and go out to the garage. There, I pick up this big hammer from my husband’s toolbox. I go back in the house, upstairs to my son’s room, stand in front of the door, and say: ‘Open the door.’”

“And then, again, a burst of profanity pours out of his mouth on the other side of the locked door. So I take that hammer and I lean back and, with all the strength I can muster, I slam the hammer against the doorknob. I knock the whole knob clean off the door, the lock, and everything. And then I barge through the door to confront my son. He looks terrified. And I go over to him, throw my arms around him in a bear hug, squeeze him as hard as I possibly can, and I say:  ‘I went into labor because of you. The hell if I am giving up on you now.’”

Christ loves us that much. Christ forgives us that much. Even when we let our darker sides erupt, even when the reality of human sin raises its ugly head in our lives, Christ is there, seeking us out, eager to take on our burdens, ready to forgive, and wanting, more than anything, to make us whole again and to give us the joy of a holy and perfect rest.