"…Oh, hold them up, hold them up
Never to let them fall
Prey to the dust and the rust and the ruin
That names us and claims us and shames us all…"
- James Taylor "Never Die Young"
I've asked people for many years what it is they love about their faith communities...faith communites from many different religious traditions. I hear stories of hymns that have brought comfort, Sunday School classes where questions are listened to....and answered, families that pray together, church members who have shown kindness, healings experienced, and congregations that serve the poor. But I have also learned that when you ask someone about the things they love, they will often place it in the context of the things that they don't love. And the thing I hear most often that people, especially teens, don't "love" about their faith communities is "the way people treat one another". Gossiping in the back of the fellowship hall, people talking behind one another's back, arguing about the color of the carpet in the entryway, discussing a fellow member's failures or indiscretions at the dinner table, a son-in-law's lack of ambition...these are the things that sadden and disillusion them.
So often we feel justified in looking at another's behavior, or choices, and responding in a way that "sends a message"....but once again I am getting ahead of myself...
In her primary work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy wrote, "It is not the purpose of Christian Science to "educate the idea of God, or treat it for disease, "…and elsewhere avers, "Healing physical sickness is the smallest part of Christian Science. It is only the bugle-call to thought and action, in the higher range of infinite goodness. The emphatic purpose of Christian Science is the healing of sin…" She doesn't say the correction or punishment of a sinner, but the healing of sin.
Early in my study and practice of the science of Christianity, I searched for an understanding of the word "sin" I could really get my arms around…if, in fact, this was to be the most emphatic part of my work. The big fat dictionary at the University library gave me a wonderful array of ways to look at this word. But it was the etymological root of this word that I liked the most. The word "sin" has at it's root the same base as the word "sunder" or "to separate". In fact even my old worn Webster's includes this definition: "a vitiated state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God".
Ah, this resonated with me. Sin wasn't a list of aberrant behaviors based on a variety of cultural norms and values. Sin wasn't just about a human "missing of the mark" as if God were asleep and we had the free will to take aim in the wrong direction. Sin was merely the belief that there could be any separation from an omnipotent and omnipresent Creator who never leaves His post in maintaining the integrity of His creation. And because this could never be true and could only exist in the realm of belief, it didn't matter who was believing it to be true…the one reacting to the belief by "sinning" or the one who felt he/she was witnessing the sinning.
I began to see that it was only a sense, a perception, an awareness of sin which needed to be given up or rebuked. But this wasn't what I was observing, or even experiencing, in faith communities. In fact I was seeing quite the opposite approach to "sin". Instead of dis-embodying sinful behavior from a person, the response seemed to be to hammer it home to the "sinners" that those behaviors or choices were clearly "theirs"…attached to them, springing from them, forever linked to their human history. As faith communities we did everything we could to separate ourselves from this deformed perpetrator under the mantle of giving them space to "work it out" or come to their senses. But what it felt like to the person being shunned or rejected was a further confirmation of the absence of good in their experience, in themselves…that they were indeed a sinner.
When someone does something we deem sinful we tend to want to send a message of disapproval. We want them to remember that there is a God…and that He is not happy with them. We think we are rebuking sin by withdrawing affection, kindness, compassion…by rejecting, or dismissing the person. But if sin is only the belief that there is, or can be any separation from God, or good. When we withdraw affection, love, goodness, we are only enflaming the belief in God's absence. What rebukes sin is not the absence of love, but the presence of it in our lives. As Christians, we are not in the business of rebuking sinners, but destroying the belief, ours or anyone else's, in sin. To see sin…to see someone as separated from God, is just as much a headlong capitulation into the belief in sin, as is behaving in a way that is deemed sinful. To react to that belief in the absense of God…by being dismissive, withdrawing, reproaching another… is to perpetuate that very belief and act contrary to the very thing we hope to identify ourselves with…our Christianity…our kindness, compassion, grace.
These "sinful" behaviors we tend to focus on and be impressed by, are nothing more than a reaction. A reaction to the feeling that God is absent from our experience. Stealing is just a reaction to the belief that God is absent as a caring Father who provides for our every need. Lying is no more than a reaction to the belief that God is not present in our lives bestowing an experience that we are content with, proud of, or at peace about. Cheating is merely a reaction to the false belief that God is not present as Mind, an infinite flow of intelligence and wisdom. Judging others is just a reaction to the belief that God is not present as Principle upholding the integrity of His creation.
Promoting this false belief about God's absence in someone's life by withdrawing any good…kindness, forgiveness, charity, understanding…love, only further confirms in our own lives the belief in sin - God's absence. Punishing the "sinner" by retracting our humanity and benevolence does nothing to rebuke the basic false premise that our omnipresent God could ever possibly be absent, and therefore in this abyss of God's being there could crop up an aberration called a sinner. The real rebuke to sin comes in pouring in more of our certainty in God's all-present love.
When Mrs. Eddy heard that President's Garfield's assassin was being held in prison she didn't reject or dismiss him. She didn't withdraw her company, or kindness, from him. She took her dear love into his prison cell. She says that her "few words touched him…" It was this dear affection that rebuked sin…not the sinner…and moral idiocy. It is this Love that destroys hate, it is this Life that consumes death, and it is this kindness that refuses to see a sinner and therein deprives sin of an identity or life…in ourselves…or others.
But, we may ask, doesn't loving them send the message that what they have done or chosen is "okay"? Jesus didn't send the message to the woman who washed his feet that her behavior was "okay" by loving, forgiving and exalting her actions…at that moment…above those of his esteemed host. He didn't send the message to Zaccheus that his behavior had been "okay" even though he went and had dinner with him…as those around him worried it would. What he did in each case was give them a reason to want to make better choices, to live more noble lives. To continue to see themselves as he saw them…one with God, His child, their dignity, identity, and integrity forever held intact by an ever-conscious, ever-present Father who is Love and never leaves us on our own, alone and struggling, subject to errors or mistakes. It is this false concept of our God as negligent that is the real offense. But to see one another as a brother or sister in Christ with one omnipotent loving Father-Mother honors the entire family of God…held in the gospel of Love.
At a time when I had made choices that were being questioned by others, I experienced this kind of withdrawing of affection and "society". I often found myself standing in a crowd within a bubble of distance and reproach. If I tried to make contact eyes were averted and when they weren't, looks of disapproval and disdain were shot glaringly in my direction. I had never felt more lonely or misunderstood in my life.
One afternoon I was standing on the playground of our young daughters' school again wrapped in this bubble of reproach, when one parent, someone who I had once thought of as almost too attentive…in those years prior to my fall from grace when I enjoyed general kindness and approval…approached me. Her greeting was extended with the same generous love as always, but in the absence of any other friendship or affection I suddenly saw the rarity of her gift. Her simple greeting and interest in my welfare made my knees buckle with gratitude. She had penetrated that bubble of disdain and suddenly I was, even in my own eyes (because even though I knew my heart, I had begun to accept that if so many people could believe this about me, maybe it must be true) "No longer regarded as a miserable sinner, but as the blest child of God." (Eddy).
This friend's consistent, genuine kindness thrown around me like a blanket of light, separated me (and her) from the darkness of sin - believing that anyone could be separated from God - and began the healing in my heart…and my life. She didn't separate me from good by seeing me as a sinner, but separated both of us from sin by including me in the light of her love…her genuine Christianity.
Mary Baker Eddy goes on to describe this Christ-like viewpoint when she writes, "Jesus beheld in Science the perfect man, who appeared to him where sinning mortal man appears to mortals. In this perfect man the Saviour saw God's own likeness, and this correct view of man healed the sick. Thus Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is intact, universal, and that man is pure and holy." She doesn't say that the kingdom of God will be restored, or that man will be holy, but that it is and he is…right now. No process of healing, or restoration, or recovery. No sin. No need for rejection, disdain, dismissal, or shunning. No need to send a message of disapproval or disappointment. It is the belief in sin that is banished…not a sinner.
There are no sinners...but each, and all, the blest children of God..let us then "hold them up, hold them up...never to let them fall..".