Springingtiger's Blog


Venial Sins

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I was interested to read this morning in Leviticus a number of injunctions concerning ‘sin offerings’ beginning, ‘If someone unintentionally…’ and continuing. ‘he is unclean and guilty as soon as he realises what he has done.’ Which makes it abundantly clear that a sin is only a sin if one knows it to be so. It is not a person’s action that is sinful, but their comprehension of it. However once someone becomes aware of their sin the Mosaic law requires them to make suitable offerings to be rid of their guilt.

It makes one wonder how a child can be said to have ‘original sin’ when the law ostensibly given by God to Moses specifically says that it is only after someone realises what he has done (‘when he comes to know it’ RSV) that he is guilty. It may be argued that a whole community is guilty of a sin, but a child born ignorant of that sin must surely also be born innocent of it. Personally I dislike the vengeful act of visiting a sin onto successive generations of a family. At the very least to do makes the ‘word of God’ contradictory as by God’s own law the unborn, being ignorant of the offence, are not guilty of it. A person can only reasonably be held responsible for their own actions, a child cannot with any justice be held responsible for the actions of his ancestors. However when a child becomes aware of his ancestors actions he or she may be moved to make reparation for them, but are they liable? Surely not. On the other hand if the child is gaining from the dishonest actions of their ancestors and knowingly continues to do so then it may be that they are complicit in the ancestors sin. I can appreciate why people might be expected to make reparation for what they have received by their forbears’ dishonesty when they become aware of it. What is intolerable is to rob a child of its innocence by burdening it with the guilt of a mythological sin for which there is no empirical evidence. I can think of few things more cruel than treating a child who, even by God’s own word cannot be considered guilty, as if there is something wrong with them. I strongly suspect it is this belief that allows Christians who are so inclined to justify to themselves their abuses of children. There is a chilling conversation in ‘The Spotlight’ when a priest who had been guilty of abuse and freely admitted it said in mitigation, ‘but I took no pleasure from it’ as if that made it right. More chilling still was his subsequent remark that he never raped anyone to which he added, ‘I know that because I was raped.’ It is not God who visits sins upon generation after generation, it is each generation that visits its own sins upon the next. That you were sinned against does not justify repeating that sin on others whether it be child abuse or the oppression of another race.

Those who do commit crimes should bear the consequences of their own actions, I don’t think anyone could reasonably argue with that. However when someone is unaware that they have done wrong they should be allowed to make reparation and having done so not be held guilty any longer. When guilt is allowed to pervade a whole culture it leeches the life and joy from it. Once at the end of the Nineteen-Seventies when I was a telephone operator I took a phone call from an old lady. It was common practice for people to phone the operator to ask for the time. She asked for the time and I told her it was late on Sunday night (as far as I remember it was around 23:30). The old lady was very upset and began to cry because she had missed Mass, she was convinced she had committed a mortal sin and she was on her way to hell. It took me some time to convince her that as she had had no intention of missing Mass it was, at worst, a venial sin if that, and suggested she sort it out at confession. I must admit I was annoyed enough to retain it in my memory all these years, I was angry that a poor old woman (who to be honest, was often confused over the day and time and called us frequently) could be thrown into such a panic by the Churches teaching just because she had made an honest mistake (I refuse to believe either old age or dementia is a sin). I can’t help feel that the legal principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty should be adopted by all those who practice religion. One might ask by what right any human, priest or not, can judge another’s sins. Let the Courts rule on the guilt of criminals and let God himself judge people on their sins. If there is a God he is quite capable of judging people’s sins all by himself and if there is no God then there is no final judgement, either way, sanctimonious people should not set themselves up to judge the sins of others. I seem to remember something about removing a speck from your brother’s eye….yes, you know what I’m getting at!

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