Friday, January 26, 2007

Where Do We Draw the Line?

When reflecting on issues related to the sin of racism the other day, it got me thinking about the various attitudes toward sin in many Christian churches. Broadly speaking (and well aware of the dangers in using a broad brush to describe such a diverse phenomenon as Christianity), churches may often be divided into two groups: "liberal" and "conservative."

"Conservative" churches, generally speaking, are considered to be very tough on certain kinds of sins (often sexual ones, but also personal vices such as smoking, drinking and gambling) while having a less consistent record when it comes to less personal (or more culturally endemic) sins, such as racism. I'm not here accusing "conservatives" of not considering racism to be a sin. Rather, that they don't seem to do as much to actively fight against it as they seem to do against the more personal sins.

"Liberal" churches tend to be seen as permissive on the personal sins, while more stringent on the larger cultural sins. It's not that (as some people think) "liberal" churches say "anything goes." Just look at how many of them argue against economic injustice, or the war in Iraq, or (to bring this back to where we started) racism. "Liberal" churches believe very strongly in arguing against these kinds of sins.

Although I myself probably lean a bit on the "liberal" side, I actually tend to agree with the "conservatives" on the "sinfulness" of the personal sins I listed earlier. If/when I disagree with "conservatives," it's often on how much they harp on those particular sins to the exclusion of other important matters. Also, to use a stereotype, they seem to be more concerned with the "thou shalt nots" than they are about telling people positive things they should do to make the world a better place. But as I reflect on these matters, it occurs to me that "liberals" are often guilty of the same thing: picking a few sins to spend all their time on, while neglecting to give importance to others.

Is the Christian who argues against abortion--but unwittingly allows domestic violence to continue--any better or worse than the Christian who fights against domestic violence but is more permissive on abortion?

Of course, I would argue that both positions are wrong, but the point is that Christians of devout intent often find themselves on one side or the other. But I'm not looking for a "middle ground" here. Being human, we're bound to focus on some things to the exclusion of others. Moreover, when a lot of people talk about "middle ground," they seem to talk about laying aside differences to the point where no one's standing up for their beliefs. That's not what I'm looking for here. I want Christians to be able to affirm that certain acts are wrong, and I think that both "liberals" and "conservatives" get certain things right.

But I do find it more than a little frustrating that "liberals" and "conservatives" fail to learn from each other. How can we affirm the things that the other side gets right? How do we acknowledge the things that the other side can teach us? Christians should continue to fight for the things we think are right, and on occasion be willing to call sin what it is. But where do we draw the line in standing up to say that certain things are sinful? And where must we be willing to allow other people to be more lenient (if only for a time) on some sins, so that we may grant them space to speak on issues where we ourselves could stand to improve?

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