“No sin is worse than any other.” You’ve probably heard this little piece of “christian” craziness before. I remember hearing it as a child, growing up in the Calvinist tradition of my family. It is a widely accepted absurdity meant to convince the sheep of their own “Total Depravity,” which is the idea that — in God’s eyes — we are all so utterly disgusting and corrupted that each of us actually DESERVES to be tortured, in a fiery Hell, for eternity. We are all equally guilty — Mother Teresa and Hitler alike — and all equally deserving of the full wrath of God… And I tell you what: GOD IS PISSED.
Total Depravity is the “T” of the Calvinist acronym “TULIP.” Just in case you didn’t grow up in a small, Calvinist community like I did, here is “TULIP” spelled out:
- Total Depravity (We are all garbage, and incapable of doing something good… Like choosing God or loving the people around us.)
- Unconditional Election (God picks people God is going to save, like picking names out of a divine hat, NOT based on anything they’ve done. Because, again… Garbage.)
- Limited Atonement (The idea that Jesus died only for “the elect” — the ones picked out of the hat — and not for any of the rest the the hellbound others.)
- Irresistible Grace (The ones randomly picked by God, or the “Elect,” cannot resist God calling them into salvation. Because choosing to accept salvation would mean we are able to do something good, and again… We’re total garbage.)
- Perseverance of the Saints (AKA, “Once Saved, Always Saved. Once you’re in, you’re in, baby! You can’t lose your salvation.)
Anyway, TULIP is an important part of the foundation of much of reformed theology… and as you can see, the entirety of it is based on the idea that we are complete crap, we are totally deserving of being tortured in Hell forever, and we are completely unable to do anything worthwhile or redeeming. And in order for THAT nonsense to be able to be swallowed, people have to be convinced that all sins are equal. Otherwise, we might start thinking that some actions we choose are “better” than others… And to those convinced and committed to preaching our total depravity, that smells suspiciously like we have a “potential for good.” And if THAT happens, we might get the idea that we are worthy of being loved… And we can’t have that, because obviously we all deserve HELL!
So in that messed up world, what this means is that the action of being turned on by someone’s body is basically the same “level” of sin as Larry Nassar molesting hundreds of young girls who came to him for care. Or one of my kids calling someone a “jerk” makes them just as deserving of eternal torture as if they completed an elaborate plan to stab someone in the neck and make it look like someone else did it. And just as an aside, when I speak of “sin,” I’m talking about “missing the mark.” Some think of this “mark” as something concrete and unchanging, known by God, and something for which anything less than 100% perfection is a failing grade (Hell). So if we’re trowing darts, anything less than a perfect bullseye is a death sentence. But this makes NO SENSE. If “missing the mark” is like throwing darts, sometimes we miss the target by a bit… Sometimes we miss the board altogether, leaving little holes in the drywall at our friend’s house… Other times we get drunk and throw the dart in the complete opposite direction, and it ends up stuck in someone’s thigh. Or eyeball. Or jugular.
And listen: This idea does not just appear out of nowhere. People get it from the Bible… But like most of the world’s truly awful things, they get it from a really messed up INTERPRETATION of the Bible. During Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, he is speaking to people who are interested in following the LETTER of the law, and missing the HEART of the law. So when the law says, “Do not murder,” if they are thinking, “I haven’t murdered anyone… I’m good,” Jesus is trying to tell them they are missing the whole point. It’s not about Not Murdering… It’s about Loving. And if you are calling your brother a fool (but not murdering him), you are guilty of breaking the law.
But like so many things, when Jesus tries to get at the heart of things, we immediately take his words and try to turn them into dogma with firm lines of orthodoxy, so we can know who’s in and who’s out. Someone asks about forgiveness, and if we should forgive people seven times… So Jesus says, “More like 70 times 7.” And then some people start an Excel spread sheet to figure out when a person reaches 490 so they can finally stop forgiving them, while other people use his words to tell an abused wife that she has to forgive her husband about 480 more times before she is allowed to leave. Or they’ll say that beating up your wife is not worse than not being totally truthful when you tell your wife you like her blouse… So “We’re all guilty!” And “Who are you to judge?” “ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” “Judge not, lest YE be judged.” Et cetera, et cetera…
This little bit of theological idiocy is used by people in the Church in such messed up ways. However, it’s possible to use this concept in healthy ways. If you’re keeping yourself from being too judgmental by reminding yourself that you ALSO have made mistakes before, that’s a GOOD thing. But if you’re using this to excuse/diminish/justify something harmful you or someone else has done, then you are using this concept in an ABUSIVE way. So if someone loses their patience and snaps at you, and you are more able to forgive them because you remember a time where you did the exact same thing… GREAT! But if you’re using “All sins are equal” or “Just not, lest YE be judged.” to excuse some priest who abused a bunch of kids, you are doing it wrong. In fact, you are throwing the dart in the complete opposite direction.
Because some actions ARE better than others. When I was a kid, I stole a Star Wars figure from a friend while I was playing at his house. My mom asked me about it, and I lied and said my friend gave it to me. She knew I was full of it, so she threatened to call and ask. I confessed to her that I took it, and I assured her that I would give it back and apologize. When I gave it back, I told him I took it “on accident.” That was another lie. In this short little story, there were ALL KINDS of opportunities for me to make “better” or “worse” decisions than the ones I made. I could have told my friend the truth about stealing it. I could have not stolen it in the first place. I could have told my mom the truth when she first asked. OR, I could have gone over to “give it back,” actually stolen his AT-AT, filled it with Star Wars figures, and then set his house on fire to cover up the evidence. All sins are NOT equal.
And the reason these sorts of theological things are important to discuss is because the concept of Total Depravity has real-life, political implications. A worldview that has a foundation of “Everyone and everything is hopeless garbage” makes it a whole lot easier to not try to fix the things that are broken. And a god who is going to send nearly everyone to be tortured forever makes it a whole lot easier to kill someone you consider your enemy.
The question for ME right now is this: Can we acknowledge that someone did something wrong while still giving them credit for making a choice that is BETTER than another choice? For example, in Nashville right now (where I live), Megan Barry just resigned as the city’s mayor after pleading guilty to theft in the form of compensation for the man she recently admitted to having an extra-marital affair with (who was also married). She went on TV, answered questions, and took responsibility for the harm she has done. Yes, it would have been better if she had admitted her infidelity before someone tipped off the press. And yes, it would have been better if she hadn’t had the affair in the first place. And yes, it would have been better if she hadn’t used public funds to have her lover (in his job as her head of security) go on multiple trips with her. These moral failings will follow her for the rest of her life… But also, YES, it would have been far worse if she had continued lying, denied the affair ever happened, called her accuser a liar for coming forward, and called the whole thing “fake news” (as is consistently done by this immoral GOP administration).
So when I see people comparing Megan Barry’s actions to the deplorable actions of the current president, they are missing the whole point. It’s not that liberals are (necessarily) being hypocritical about things like this. We understand right and wrong… It’s just that one of the things which makes people “liberal” is the ability to see things on a SPECTRUM. There is a spectrum on moral issues like this. We see this everywhere — Harvey Weinstein is NOT the same as Louis CK. Harvey Weinstein still denies the harm he has done (causing even more harm). When Louis CK was accused of masturbating in front women whose careers he had the power to destroy, his response was “These stories are true.” It is possible to acknowledge that Louis CK’s actions were completely reprehensible and harmful, while ALSO acknowledging that him admitting to them was the right thing to do. Megan Barry’s actions were wrong. They were selfish and harmful… But the fact that she is talking responsibility for the harm that she has done is LIGHT YEARS better than the sad, broken, corrupt narcissist sitting in the White House. So at least there’s that.
Anyway, to sum up…
- We are worthy of being loved.
- We are not garbage.
- We do not deserve to be tortured in Hell forever.
- We know the difference between what is Good or Right or Better, and what is harmful & wrong & worse… And when those things aren’t as clear as we hope, we at least know the general direction of the dartboard.
- We are capable of choosing to do the next right thing.
- When we screw up (and we all screw up), telling the truth about our screw ups is FAR BETTER — both to others, and to ourselves — than lying about them.
- When in doubt, see #1.
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