In 1973 American Psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a little book called “Whatever Happened to Sin?” The book caught the imagination of the American public and created a wave of dialogues and debates, stories and sermons about the same topic.
The thesis of the book was simple: that society had reached a point at which individuals were no longer held morally responsible for their actions. All bad behavior had a psychological or sociological cause. Therefore, the concept of sin was no longer needed or helpful. Sin had become obsolete.
Although thirty-five years have passed since Dr. Menninger asked his famous question, I think it’s high time that we revive it, for in the discussion of all the social problems that beset us today, we hardly ever hear about personal responsibility, sin or the Ten Commandments. And yet, the recognition of the sinful roots of our public behavior might be one of the first steps to improving it.
Three examples come quickly to mind.
There’s been a lot of discussion about teenage alcohol drinking in Barrington. Over the last couple of years there have been a number of incidents and accidents, some with fatal consequences.
Now I have no idea if the problem is worse in Barrington than it is in other places, or if the spotlight just happens to be shining at the moment on that serene little hamlet. Nor do I know if the parents of Barrington are more protective and dismissive than other parents in the State. I do know that clergy, religious congregations, law enforcement officials, the judiciary and school officials have approached the issue very seriously and have made sincere attempts to address the burgeoning problem.
But I wonder, has anyone told the kids (and their parents) that teenage drinking is a violation of the Ten Commandments, and is therefore, sinful? In particular it violates the Fourth Commandment – Honor your father and mother – the command that also obliges us to respect and obey legitimate civil authority. Drinking may also violate the Fifth Commandment – Thou shall not kill – if the drinking results in physical harm to the person drinking or others. Teen drinking is a sin; it’s offensive to Almighty God and those who drink and harm others will be held accountable at the final judgment.
We’re all aware of the growing problem of single teenage moms, a problem that, sadly, seems to be more prevalent in the minority and immigrant community. It’s not unusual to hear of a young girl having a baby or two without any responsible father on the scene, without any personal means of support. And how often have we heard of these vulnerable children being abused by the live-in “boyfriend” of the young woman? Irresponsible sexual behavior is a huge social problem, a crisis that keeps families trapped in a cycle of poverty and creates significant challenges for other sectors of the community.
But do religious leaders, preachers and teachers, in these communities ever condemn this behavior and call the parties to task, reminding them that cohabitation, fornication and adultery are serious violations of the Commandments, the Sixth Commandment in particular – Thou shall not commit adultery? Sexual activity outside of marriage is gravely immoral, and the pregnancy that results is irresponsible. (Note carefully, though, the baby’s not at fault. Abortion doesn’t solve problem; it just compounds the sin.) Fornication isn’t cool; it’s not an acceptable cultural tradition. It’s a sin; it’s offensive to Almighty God and those who engage in it will be held accountable in the final judgment.
A final example.
Rhode Island has a reputation for being a haven for political corruption. Is the situation here any worse than it is in other states? Probably not, but without a doubt it’s a problem. What I do know is that each and every incident of public corruption is harmful. Political corruption usually involves the theft of public money, in one devious way or another, or the illicit use of power or authority for personal gain. It leads to the loss of trust, suspicion of authority, and the erosion of respect for the law and the common good.
But it’s also a violation of the Commandments – the Seventh Commandment in particular – Thou shall not steal. Political corruption should not be seen as a victimless crime, an acceptable alternative to legitimate political leadership or a frivolous expression of “politics as usual.” Public corruption is a sin; it’s offensive to Almighty God, and those who participate will be held accountable at the final judgment.
These are just a few examples of social problems caused by sinful people that come to mind. There are of course others – abortion, homosexual acts, prostitution, pornography, drug abuse, domestic violence, theft and vandalism should all be included in the list. These too are sinful; they’re offensive to Almighty God and those who engage in them will be held accountable at the final judgment.
So, whatever happened to sin? Well, nothing, really. It’s alive and well and woven into the fabric of our society, in many different actions and behaviors. Until we have the courage to call it what it is, it will prosper and grow, like a bad weed, choking off the life around it.