There was a saying that my father had when I was younger, which I recall clearly, as he often used it to try and push ultra conservative fundamentalist theology on me. Most often his insistence that anything we wanted to accomplish or have for ourselves as individuals which was not “biblically correct” and square with a literal interpretation was an affront to and an offense before God. The saying was, “At the center of all sin is the word ‘I’.”
To some extent, I would agree with that, although I feel his interpretation of it was a shade skewed. His interpretation that anything which we wanted for ourselves as individuals which was not square in alignment with a literal interpretation of the Bible was a sin, which I am in complete disagreement with.
He constantly reminded me not to pray until I had asked for full forgiveness for all of my sins. I asked him, “Well, what if I had an entire day where I did not do anything that would be perceived as a ‘sin?’ What if I spent an entire day doing good for others and doing no wrong? What if I did the right thing instead of the selfish thing every time that day?” His response was, “Everyone sins, and no matter how selfless and good a person is, or how much they worship, they are still a sinner on a daily basis. Look at yourself carefully, you’ll find something you need to ask forgiveness for every day.” (Is it any wonder I suffered from low self-esteem for so many years with this type of input?)
But I would agree with the concept that whenever we place our needs over the well being of others, then it would be what I feel to be a “sin.” I want to suggest that what I would define as “sin” would be borne of something else other than the ego or the “I,” a force working in tandem with it, but first let me establish what I define as a somewhat unorthodox liberal Christian as “sin.”
First off, the word “sin” translates a Greek archery term, meaning, “to miss the mark.” And in a way, that makes sense to me. I do not feel that the Presence I know to be God sits upon an ethereal throne passing judgment over which Creations are “perfect,” as I feel God sees us all as perfect and equally valued Creations despite the mistakes we sometimes make, but rather when we “miss the mark,” so to speak, it is not that we are falling short of a set of harsh rules God has set for us, but rather we fail to live up to our fullest potential. This could result in consequences such as remorse, regret, or brokenness that can lead to the illusion of separation from God, which is what I feel “hell” is. Or it could simply mean that we learn a valuable lesson, seek to correct the error of not being “on target” and move forward. In any case, I honestly do not feel that the term “sin” should mean that we fall into a pit of regret and sorrow, and especially feel as if we are never going to “make the mark” with God, others or ourselves.
This is one reason that I feel that the term “original sin” is so damaging and detrimental to spiritual and emotional growth and well being. All too often I have seen the teachings about all of humanity being intrinsically flawed and “born into sin” or that all humans are guilty due to “original sin” to deliberately perpetuate and fosters a sense of low self esteem, all the easier for someone to manipulate others into following their desired political agenda, giving over their money, or keep them under control.
Personally, I find the idea held by some churches that newborn children must be baptized and “cleansed of their sins” shortly after birth to be outright appalling. Don’t misunderstand what I mean here: I fully believe in Christening and Baptism as Holy Sacraments and that they have intense symbolic value. But couldn’t it mean something a little different than “cleansing them of their sin?” Why not make Christening or Baptism a symbol of something different; Christening a ceremony to honor and signify that this is one of God’s Precious Children, whom God has great and wonderful things in store for in their lives, and a symbolic and positive ritual to indicate that no matter what, God will always be with them, and Baptism a ceremony signifying that this individual may have acted in error in their lives but is beginning anew?
In addition, I truly feel that the phrase “all have sinned and fallen short” should be interpreted a little differently than it is. Rather than perpetuate the thought that all humans are “born sinners” and wretches whom God has difficulty keeping in line, why not take it to mean something different: the idea that God created all humans with the capability of great and wondrous things and a capacity to demonstrate the Highest Love, and as intrinsically good, but the fact remains that it is very difficult given human nature and the nature of life to always, consistently and every time act out of a loving heart.
The fact is, as humans, we may have the potential to be as loving, as forgiving, and as selfless as Jesus Himself was, but we don’t always hit that right on. No one is always perfect in the way they treat others. No one has all the answers. No one can always do the right thing, as much as we may try or as much as we would like to. We do get hungry, angry, lonely and tired. We don’t always go out of our way to help our fellow person, for whatever reason. We allow the pressures of life to overwhelm us, and say things to others, even those we love dearly in a heated moment of frustration and create hurt feelings. We sometimes do become selfish and not as considerate of those around us. We sometimes do become afraid, letting our fears create the illusion that God is not fully within us and allow ourselves to deceive another out of fear of confrontation. And it is for those reasons and others that I feel the Bible addresses “sin,” or “falling short” of the best which God Created us to be. Plain and simply, I feel it could be better translated to mean, “Everyone makes mistakes, and does not always act out of unconditional Love for others as God alone does.”
There are those who subscribe to the conservative Christian party line of “love the sinner, hate the sin” as it applies to LGBT people, insinuating that as actively gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people that we must “repent” of being who we are in order to be “truly” acceptable to God. Or, there are those who insist that if we are “unrepentant” in our ways that we must ask forgiveness for the basic root of who we were created to be. In my opinion, to do so is bordering on insulting to the Wisdom of God; not to mention that it fosters a sense of false guilt and low self-esteem that all too often manifests itself in self-destructive behavior among LGBT individuals. I feel that the LGBT individual does not need to ask “forgiveness” for their sexuality, sexual desires or sexual orientation (provided they are acting upon those things with love and respect for others, but more on that later) any more than they need to ask forgiveness for eating, sleeping, or breathing.
To determine if we are “missing the mark,” I feel it is not about examining our behavior to see if we are too often doing what makes us feel good or makes us happy. It’s about examining our behavior to analyze what we are doing to another, and how would we feel were this being done to us; to me the Christian way, to be a follower of Christ, is about pursuing happiness and fulfillment in life, having life and having it abundantly, in a way that is never hurtful to others and as helpful as we can be. That is why I feel Jesus’ teaching of “Love God with all thy heart mind and soul, and love they neighbor as thyself,” is far more adequate than any list of rules and regulations drafted in a scared and primitive culture, who were just beginning to understand the complexities of life, would ever begin to be. In fact, as I have written before, I feel that the first and second of Jesus’ New Commandments are dependent upon one another: we cannot show our love for God unless we show love for our neighbor as we would ourselves, and in love for one another, we are saying we love God.
But before I get into more of a definition of “sin” and what I think is the real root of it, I want to talk about some of the other issues that the LGBT Community is often confronted with, and that I as a bisexual and polyfidelitous Christian am often confronted with.
We often hear from Christians who are not accepting of LGBT people that we are guilty of the “sin of sodomy.” There was much talk in recent months in regards to the Supreme Court ruling which abolished “sodomy laws” as unconstitutional, which I feel is an answered prayer, but which many conservative Christians feel was a tragedy (One comment that amazed me was a person who responded to news of the ruling with “God has been defeated today”… as if!). I am far from a biblical literalist, but wanted to reflect for a minute what the real sin of Sodom and Gomorrah were according to the Bible. In the outstanding book, “What The Bible Really Says About Homosexuality” by Daniel A. Helminiak, PhD, he devotes a chapter to the matter that the actual transgression that suggests that it was the coldness, inhospitable nature to visitors to the city, and lack of concern for the needy that could have been the actual “Sin of Sodom.” He alludes to several verses, but the one that has always stood out to me has been Ezekiel 16:49 – This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
Nowhere is any specific sexual activity mentioned, unless one counts the thought of the story that the crowd intended to perform a violent, non-consensual sexual act in the form of rape. But rather the suggestion is that “sodomy” is a term better suited to describe those who are so caught up in their own world that they either have no concern for the well being of others and it is demonstrated in their actions, or they are willfully and deliberately hurtful of others. In other words, even by biblical standards it is a misnomer to even refer to oral sex, anal sex or any form of non-procreative sexuality among consenting adults as “sodomy.” (And quite honestly, the concept of those who have excess pride, excess food and abundant prosperity and are inhospitable to outsiders and do not aid the poor and needy describes to me the attitude of many groups which invest a great deal of time and energy condemning LGBT people that they could be using to help and show more concern for the poor and needy.)
Now, I do not consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to be literal. I do think that there is an allegory there, though; the city (or the person) who becomes greedy, arrogant, and self centered and acts with disregard to others will eventually destroy itself and fall into brokenness. Just as the tale Lot’s wife looking back on the destruction of the city and turning to “salt” to me represents the pitfalls of dwelling in the past or focusing too much on negativity rather than learning and moving forward. But my reason for mentioning all of this was not to debate whether the story is allegory or historical or perhaps a little of both. The point I wish to illustrate is that “sodomy” as the Religious Right refers to it has no biblical basis. And it is my belief that no sexual act between consenting adults of any sexual orientation is “unnatural,” “against God” or a “sin.”
Just recently, there was media attention drawn to the issue of whether or not there should be a Constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriages, and it was tragic to me that many people spoke out decrying same sex marriage as “sinful.” That is strictly a matter of their opinion. My feeling is that anyone who wants to pledge their love before God and with God’s blessing should have that right. To me, the party committing a sin would be the one who attempts to thwart such a union of love.
The issue of “sin” as quite often a rather touchy one for bisexuals who are also Christian because of the different types of relationships that exist. While some bisexuals are comfortable with a monogamous relationship with one gender, others among us feel the need for a relationship with partners of both genders. One thing that hurts me deeply is when another gay or lesbian Christian accuses me of “sin” because I am committed and in an emotionally and sexually intimate relationship with both a woman and a man. Just as some of us were born homosexual or heterosexual, some of us were born bisexual and some of us feel the need for intimacy with both genders. It’s essentially being faithful to two people the same way another would be committed monogamously to one person, and I in my heart know there is nothing “sinful” or in error in that. (I recently heard another bisexual Christian in the same type of relationship refer to it as “bi-nogamy.”) Just as the gay or lesbian person should not be made to feel by conservative Christians who feel everyone has to be heterosexual and that “marriage is between a woman and a man” as if their meaningful relationships with a same sex partner are “sinning,” neither should bisexuals who choose to commit to two people. While it is something that while Jesus did not specifically address in His teachings, just as He did not address homosexuality, it is something I feel He would understand. After all, I feel His primary concern was not the sexual behavior of individuals but the spiritual behavior; how we treat one another. While He would certainly be opposed to someone deceiving another, I do not feel He would judge those who have an agreement as being “sinners.”
I know other people, of all orientations – gay, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual and transgender – who choose to have more than one partner. Although it is my choice to remain faithful sexually and emotionally to one woman and one man, I cannot bring myself to judge those who choose more open relationships, or those who may not identify as bisexual but choose to have more than one partner as “sinners”, provided they are acting with honesty and all involved are doing so consensually and not under any form of duress or pressure. It is not my place or my right to decide what choices are right for anyone other than myself, but rather to do my best to live my life in a way in alignment with my own beliefs in a fashion that is not hurtful to others.
Does my liberal thought on matters pertaining to however individuals choose to express their sexuality mean to say I feel “anything” goes? Hardly. It is not the acts, nor the desire that makes something sinful. It is how we choose to express it, with love and respect for others or deliberate or careless disregard for others.
For example: I have known a lot of bisexual men married to a women and pretending to be straight (and many times, acting said role by displaying homophobia fervently) and leading their wives to believe they were completely heterosexual and monogamous while having anonymous and/or unprotected sex on the side with men. It is my opinion that this would be a sin, not only betraying trust but also putting their partners at risk. On the other hand, I have known bisexuals who were out to their wives, but were having sexual and emotional relationships with gay men and leading them on, hiding the fact that they are married, and making them think they were the one and only just to get their needs met, and I feel this also would be a sin as it would be exploiting someone to meet an need. Someone may desire sexual intimacy with someone, and if they take physical and emotional advantage of them, or lie and go behind someone’s back to obtain it, that would be a sin. I feel that unless everyone is honest with everyone and agreeable to the situation, communicating and respecting and most of all deeply caring about one another and each other’s well being, then it is in error.
So some might say, “Well, if he doesn’t think any particular sex acts between consenting adults of any gender are a sin if they are consensual, and he doesn’t think same sex marriages, relationships or intimacy is sinful, and he doesn’t even think having more than one sexual partner as long as it is agreed upon is sinful, does he even believe in the idea of ‘sin’ at all?” The answer is, unfortunately, yes. But as with most of my theology, I simplify it: I think that the only time we sin or, as I prefer to refer to it, “miss the mark” or miss the highest possible goal at all which is love, or the Great Commandment of Jesus to love one another as God has loved us, which is unconditionally.
Even though I do not feel it is a sin for adults to engage in any consensual sexual act, I think there are still sins that involve sexuality. I strongly believe that any type of non-consensual sex is a sin, be it rape, assault, or any type of molestation. I believe that animals cannot give “consent,” and that children cannot give consent, therefore I would consider any form of bestiality or pedophilia to be a sin. Although I am a supporter of free speech, I consider the sexual exploitation of people for financial gain to be a sin. I would consider the idea of one going out and having sexual encounters for no other reason for their own fulfillment with little to no concern for the feelings of the other persons as a “sin” as well. I feel that sexuality, however it is expressed and whoever is involved, is sacred and a gift to be shared.
Then there are other issues that one may consider when thoughts of “sin” come up. Say for example, a person goes to Las Vegas for the weekend and spends a few hours in the casino (it’s not my cup of tea, but I have friends who enjoy that sort of thing). That person has a little extra money they have saved and decides to “try their luck.” Some Christians might consider that act a “sin.” I would not, but if the same individual tapped into their spouse or partners’ bank account and used part of next months mortgage payment at the Keno table, then I feel they’d be “missing the mark!” I’d definitely consider stealing and dishonesty to be “missing the mark.”
How often in our culture do we hear foods described as “sinful?” Whenever something is “good” or “delicious” often it is referred to as “sinful,” and to me this says a lot about how many have internalized the idea that anything which brings pleasure, joy or happiness must somehow be displeasing to God. (I feel that the only time it would be a sin to enjoy dessert is if one person decided to take the whole thing and not share it with others!) Someone desiring something good would not be sinful provided they are going about getting it honestly and not allowing their desire for it to cause them to slight someone else.
Say there are two men and both desire a new car. One chooses to work hard and save money, until he can finally buy the car he wants. The second steals one. The first man has a desire and has realized it without doing harm to another; the second has done harm to anther person. Yet in the case of the second man it was not his desiring something or having a car that was in error, or unloving, it was how he chose to go about achieving it. I feel that when we allow something we want or need to disregard the feelings or the well being of others then we have sinned, or missed the mark.
And the same can apply to the issue of sexuality for me as a bisexual. It is not that I am actively bisexual or what I do and who I do it with, but how I go about it with respect for others that lets me know that I am not committing a sin by doing so. If I were married to a woman and pretending to be straight and leading my wife to believe it while I was having anonymous and/or unprotected sex on the side with men, then I feel I would be committing a sin. If I were out to my wife, but having a sexual and emotional relationship with a man and leading him on making him think he was the one and only just to get my needs met, I feel that would be a sin. One might desire sex with someone, but if they raped or assaulted them, that would be a sin. It is not any sex act, nor the sexual orientation, nor even the need for more than one partner or fulfilling that need…it is how I choose to express these things, in an honest and loving or a dishonest and destructive fashion that I believe renders them sinful or not sinful.
Everyone is different and unique, and I feel that those rights should be respected. Even if I disagree with something, it is not my place to judge. Although all of us are a part of God, so many of us attempt to BE God when we judge others or attempt to decide what is absolutely right or wrong for another when aside from those actions which thoughtlessly or deliberately hurt another, many things are, in fact relative. To deny a person that which they need to feel wholeness and fulfillment, provided their pursuing such things are acted on with love and not inconsideration of others, is to me a sin in and of itself. Or, to deny one’s true self, the person who God made us to be, I feel is in error as well. It may not be hurting others, but I feel it keeps us from being the joyful people we need to be in order to better conduct God’s love to others. Whoever we are, it is the way we were made I feel we should choose to honor the creation God made us to be in the most loving way possible.
If I had to choose a one sentence definition of the idea “what committing sin is” it would be “anytime when we, whether out of fear, not being fully aware of Gods Presence in us and others, or simply putting ourselves and our needs above the well being of others act deliberately or carelessly and hurt another of God’s Children.” Some choose to believe that the root of all “sin,” or acting in error, is either a temptation that emanates from an external “being” that exists in opposition to God, or that it is our “selves” or our ego. But I would suggest that, although these things we define as “sin” may have some bearing on our putting our own needs or our ego above the basic rule of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves, that the root of all sin is actually fear. That is why I feel that fear, allowing our fears to have more power than God or Love, is the true root of all times we “miss the mark” and the highest that God desires for each of us. Some examples of that:
- The fear of another, the fear that someone is better than we are or whom we perceive as a threat to us or our well being can lead to the sin of murder, or bearing false witness and creating lies about another in order to try and discredit them.
- The fear that we will not have enough to survive, or what we need or that God will not provide leads to the sin of stealing, taking that which does not belong to us. The fear that somehow there is “not enough” of everything, which often comes in difficult economic times seems to become widespread and rather than focus on possible solutions, many panic and take desperate measures.
- The fear of the vulnerability that we open ourselves up to in being totally honest leads us to the sin of deceiving others.
- The fear that possesses some who are insecure in their beliefs and cannot accept things on faith often leads them to a deliberate attempt to destroy or discredit any other belief system than theirs, or at worst, leads them to justify hatred and discrimination against those different from them. Tragically, just as there are many sites as this one that preach love, diversity, and acceptance of those with different thoughts, beliefs and ideas, there are many more which preach fear, ignorance and hatred.
- The fear that our partners would never understand our sexual needs leads us to seek dishonest affairs behind their backs, which hurts trust. As a bisexual man, I have known a great many bisexual men who are so terrified of being honest with their wives about their bisexuality, even when, in many cases their wives would have been open to their having a special relationship with another man, if it were safe, honest, and consensual, have chosen instead to feign a life of totally straight, heterosexual monogamy with their wives and seek anonymous, often unprotected sex in secret. Being honest is scary, and there are so many who fear honesty.
- The fear that someone homophobic might find out we are LGBT causes us at times to commit the sin of choosing to keep quiet about our own orientation and not speak out against injustice.
- The fear that someone may overpower us in some way, or ridicule us will often cause us to be silent about our convictions and beliefs.
- The fear of others who might take advantage of our kindness often results in what could be called “sins of omission.” Sometimes error comes not from doing something but not doing something, not being loving as we know we could be.
So what then, would I feel the root of all fear to be? Not trusting in God’s love, or, allowing ourselves to suffer the illusion that God does not love us or has “forgotten” us. But to remember that God never leaves us, all we really have to do is not seek God externally in some way but rather learn to see God in the seemingly insignificant; every breath we take, every heartbeat, every moment. Letting every minute we live be a miracle in and of itself. And allowing ourselves to be conduits for God’s love to others. To try and pretend that life is always going to be a fear free experience, well, it doesn’t always work that way. But faith can outweigh fear.
Regardless of what particular things one considers to be “in error” or a “sin,” what about the consequences of such actions? Is “sin” mortal? In my opinion that choice is up to the individual. For someone to act in a deliberately hateful way consistently, asking forgiveness but never truly correcting the errors they are making, I think it can lead to spiritual death, which I believe is the “second death” alluded to in the Bible. It can also lead to a place of seemingly endless regret or “burning” in the soul. I feel that “hell” is not a place, but a condition of the soul that can exist in life or what lies beyond this life as we know it, when it is consumed by the worms of regret, remorse, brokenness and loss that can come from hurting others through selfishness, carelessness, or cruelty borne of fear. Yet I feel that the love of Christ can even resurrect those who have died such a spiritual death, and whose souls are in torment and hell from the regret they may feel from past mistakes. I cannot imagine a God who would eternally torture someone for merely making mistakes as a human being, and I feel that such images of God merely perpetuate more fear — something that I feel Jesus is the antithesis of.
Another thought to be considered is with a different definition of what “sin” is, is how do I now interpret the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins”? I think He did sacrifice His entire life to show us a better way, a way that is not “missing the mark” but rather, one that always strives to be “on target” with the absolute best and most abundant life God has planned for each and every one of us, however diverse, however different we may be. In a time when others were dictating lists of religious rules and mandates created in a very young and primitive understanding of humanity, still seeking to understand the nature of God, He came along with a new way of seeing God, seeing the God in each other, treating one another as if each and every one of us is a sacred part of God. He knew we were all perfect creations who would make mistakes, and showed us the way to be physical manifestations of God’s Love on Earth. I do not think He died to “save us from our sins” as some sort of sacrifice to a jealous God. I think He died to liberate us from our fears, to show us the way of love and how to have life more abundantly. And most of all to have faith in God, who will help us to attain the desires of our heart, in a way that is loving to everyone else, for each of us is a part of God, and God is a part of each of us.
So in closing, I would say that the concept of “sin,” although I define it in radically different terms than what one may be accustomed to from the Christian tradition, still holds relevance in the lives of LGBT Christians, those of us who are more liberal in theology as well as more conservative. I think each of us comes built in with an inner gauge to help us to regulate as individuals whenever we “miss the mark.” To access it, I feel that all is necessary is to stay present, aware, and focused in love. If we are full of God’s love, then I feel that we cannot as easily fall into a situation where we are less likely to do the kind and loving thing, or “what Jesus would do,” if you will.
I think that to maintain that focus in our lives, to keep the spiritual balanced with day to day life, one need look no further than the teachings of Jesus, more specifically, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If we hold fast to the idea that when we are negligent of the well being of others and the feelings of others that we are falling short of the best life God has planned for us and that Jesus showed us the right mindset to attain, rather than fear that God will “punish” us for some transgression, then I feel that doing the right thing, the loving thing, becomes far easier a goal to attain, an easier target to hit, as often as we can.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.