Crime is a major topic of daily news reports. We abhor crime. We fear its effects. But crime and police shows are among the most watched on television. We hate crime but are entertained by it!
Contradictory? Yes, but no less inconsistent than our willingness to tolerate “white-collar” crimes that do not threaten our personal safety. Americans are more tolerant of illegal actions of prominent citizens, the wealthy, and those in positions of power.
Have the lines between “what is right” and what is illegal, immoral, and unethical become blurred in American society? Many think so.
The renowned psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a book years ago that addressed the Biblical and theological perspectives of illegal and unethical behavior. Our reluctance to call wrongful behavior “sins” is as true today as it was in 1973 when his book “Whatever Became of Sin?” was published.
Menninger notes that the word “sin” was once in everyone’s mind but now is rarely heard. Is no one guilty of sin now? Wrong things are being done, but is no one answerable or responsible for these acts? Has no one committed sin anymore?
Sin is referred to repeatedly in the Bible. Failure to follow God’s laws and commandments constitutes sin. Jesus said the two greatest commandments are “to love God and our neighbors” (with a very broad definition of “neighbor”). Failure to do so would be a “sin”.
According to the Webster Dictionary,
Sin is an offense against God, religion, or good morals; an offense against any law, standard, or code; or, “a sin against good taste.”
Many former sins have become crimes. What were once sins against God and neighbor are now crimes against local, state, or federal laws. Responsibility for dealing with them passed from the church to the state. One might say the policeman replaced the priest.
Under the justice process we no longer have “sinners” but “criminal suspects.” All are legally innocent until proven guilty “beyond reasonable doubt.” A fair justice process considers all legal and relevant factors in determining guilt. Despite good intentions, justice varies by economic status: “How much justice (legal counsel) can you afford?”
The American system of justice is arguably the best in the world. Court officials focus on “fairness for all” but they are not perfect. It is important to recognize that the formal judicial process deals solely with “criminal behavior.” A court finding of not “legally guilty” may not mean “factually innocent.”
The justice process only deals with crimes and violations as defined in a legal code. Most deceitful, hurtful, unethical and reprehensible behaviors are not criminal or illegal. Should they then be overlooked and accepted? Certainly not.
I am not suggesting a move toward shaming and judging the sinful among us! Anyone familiar with the Bible recalls Jesus’s reminders that “no one is without sin”—a point that his disciples recorded.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” –1 John 1:8
What then are we to do? I concur with Dr. Menninger that responsible citizens in a democratic society have become more sensitive to injustice and cruelty. The purpose of his book was to sensitize and arouse readers to recognize and oppose “sin”. There is “sin” among us although it is called by various names. I long for personal responsibility in all human actions, good and bad. Evil-doing tends to evoke guilt feelings and unease. Honesty, self-awareness, and the desire to “do the right thing” would go a long way toward curbing what we used to call “sin”.