Talking about sin—and redemption—in the quest for justice – by Paul Heidebrecht

Spirited Reflection – March 9, 2014 (First Sunday of Lent)

Paul Heidebrecht directs Mennonite Central Committee’s advocacy office in Ottawa; he has also served in short-term assignments with MCC in Bangladesh and Nigeria. From 2009 to 2013, Paul was MCC’s representative on the KAIROS board. This ecumenical connection has heightened his appreciation for the role the liturgical calendar plays in uniting Christians around the world.

As we enter into the season of Lent, it seems appropriate that this week’s lectionary readings would offer a stark reminder of our need for Jesus’ death and resurrection. In short, these passages have a lot to say about sin.

serpent in tree - Visible SpiritThe reading from Genesis recounts Adam and Eve’s succumbing to the temptation to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—what has come to be characterized as the entrance of sin into the world. The Psalmist underscores the burden that sin brings, and the relief that God’s forgiveness offers. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul emphasizes the inescapable nature of sin, contrasting its origin with its ultimate defeat via the free gift of grace offered by Christ. And the reading from the Gospel of Matthew describes the intense time of temptation that Jesus experienced following his baptism (and a forty day sojourn in the wilderness), just prior to initiating his public ministry.

Clearly we live in a broken world. We experience temptation. We are subject to pain and suffering. All too often injustice often seems to triumph. At the same time, I find that I don’t like to dwell on sin or, even more so, on my sinfulness. Things fall apart. Bad stuff happens. Don’t ask me why.

The readings for this week remind us that sin is an inescapable part of the human condition, and that we bear responsibility for sin because of the choices we make. They also make it clear that we bear responsibility for sin not only because of the choices we make. Indeed, this is why sin is so pervasive—it is rooted not only in the hearts of individuals, but in the systems and structures that rule our existence. Because sin has been institutionalized, good people end up doing bad things. Of course, none of us is ever perfect, but even when we are at our best we can end up contributing to suffering and injustice.

The good news is that Jesus not only managed to overcome temptation, but that he triumphed over the fallen systems and structures that rule our existence. Christ’s reign brought an end to the dominion of death. As the Apostle Paul puts it, his ultimate “act of righteousness,” his death and resurrection, leads to “justification and life for all.”

Advocacy presumes that the institutions of our own day are also fallen.

For example, churches embark on mining justice initiatives such as the Open for Justice campaign not because we relish the opportunity to condemn the sinfulness of individuals who are employed by, invest in, or otherwise benefit from the work of mining companies. Rather, we seek to uncover the underlying reasons why the extraction of natural resources, more often than not, benefits a few at the expense of many. The quest for justice demands that we address the reality of sinful structures as well as the sinful behaviour of a few “bad apples.”

The quest for justice also demands that we bear witness to our conviction that, thanks to the power of Christ, “many will be made righteous,” as we read in Romans. Christian advocacy presumes that redemption is ultimately possible, even for fallen institutions.

As we begin our own forty day sojourn in preparation for the celebration of Easter, let us face the reality of sin head on. And let us do so in the spirit of the Psalmist: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”