Saturday, 29 March 2008

Wisdom from Canon Paul Oestreicher

This is not a religion of the book

Christianity needs to renounce its violent texts, and love its enemies, argues Paul Oestreicher


THERE ARE two related ideas currently in circulation. The first is that religion is harmful because it has, throughout history, been the cause of a great deal of violence. This is true. The second is that, if only the adherents of the three great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — all three “religions of the book”, took their sacred texts more seriously and lived by them, then these outbreaks of violence would stop. This is untrue.

The first proposition needs no defence. The history of all three faiths is drenched in blood — blood shed ostensibly in the name of God. There is no dispute that, without sacred texts, they would not have survived, but the phrase “of the book” needs to be unpacked.

Islam insists that the Qur’an was dictated by God. A degree of infallible sanctity is attached to it, so that to insult the book in any way is a capital offence. It is a direct insult to God. The Qur’an is divine. In principle, it interprets itself. In practice, that is not obvious.

The Hebrew scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, are not quite seen in that way. They are indeed constitutive of Jewry, but they do need to be interpreted. There is a huge literature doing just that. No part may be rejected, but great wisdom is called for to know the mind of God through it. The process of interpretation has divided Jewry. Orthodox Jewry rejects all liberal variants, but the sacredness of the Torah itself is not in question. It is literally enshrined.

THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE, Old and New Testaments, is, I contend, fundamentally different. It is an essential reference book of the faith. It is part mythology, part history, part poetry, part moral guidance, and that does not exhaust what it is. It was not handed down from on high. The Church had to decide which texts were in, and which were not. Taken together, they cannot simply be called the Word of God. Bibliolatry is another form of idolatry.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God . . .” In the beginning, there was no Bible. The Word, the logos, is the living Christ, constantly made known in his Church and in our hearts by the Holy Spirit — the light that enlightens the world. That enlightenment is a process that goes on until the end of time.

The paradox is that the New Testament texts themselves attest to the fact that they are not the last word. The Spirit is the contemporary judge over all that has been written. Jesus said, and the Spirit goes on telling us: “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you.” Yesterday’s wisdom is not tomorrow’s. To the disciples, Jesus said: “There are many things you do not understand, but the Spirit will lead you to the truth.” He did not say: “Study the texts: it is all there,” and, significantly, did not write any texts himself.

Quite rightly, we may therefore say that St Paul had a view of the role of women that we now recognise to be less than Christian — to take a simple example. Once that is conceded, there is no longer any need for theologians to sweat blood ironing out the many contradictions in the Bible. Given the world as it is, those contradictions make the Bible more, not less, credible. They leave us with essential existential choices, which give meaning to the “glorious liberty of the children of God”. We are slaves to no text; nor are we a religion of any book.

The Bible is full of violence in God’s name, from the God-sent flood, killing everybody except Noah’s family (what’s wrong with an atom bomb, then, in a good cause?), and the drowning of the Egyptian army to let God’s people get away (why not wipe out Gaza then?), on to the Apocalypse — a horror film to outdo all others. All this, and much more, human beings have projected on to God.

God in Christ really has made all things new. That has proved to be too threatening to the Churches. The ethic of loving enemies is what the Christian revolution is all about. Jesus asked for them to be forgiven as they drove the nails into his hands and feet. When he preached in his home town about Yahweh’s preferential love for despised foreigners rather than for his own people, they tried to lynch him.

This radical counter-cultural ethic is, I believe, unique to Christianity. It is the one thing Gandhi gratefully took from the Gospel, while the theologians argued away the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount: “Love those who persecute you.”

This was not for the real world, in which Christian soldiers who put down mutineers were assured, using biblical texts, of a crown of glory. The sword as a sign of the cross on every British war cemetery is witness enough.

I HEAR the protest. Did not Jesus violently drive the profiteers out of the Temple? Quite the opposite: this was the righteous indignation of one man overturning the tables of many, using no weapon that could kill. The only person in that drama whose life was at risk was Jesus. Today, this is called non-violent direct action, like damaging a nuclear submarine.

It was not long before the authorities caught up with Jesus. Even then, he did not return in triumph to humiliate the high priests and Pilate. Secretly, mysteriously, he came back to give hope to those who loved him.

If the Churches embraced this ethic, they would be renouncing significant parts of their history. It is called repentance. It would mean that at least one of the three great religions would cease to be a contributor to the violence that could destroy us all.

So, late in life, I have come to see that I can only with great difficulty go on saying: “This is the Word of the Lord.” In many cases, it will be. In many others, it will give the opposite message, and be a licence for much that is a denial of what the Spirit is saying to the Churches.

The Revd Paul Oestreicher is a Canon Emeritus of Coventry Cathedral, and a Counsellor of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Gracious invitation

As I walk each morning I sort out my thoughts for the day. And I usually have a song or two racing through my mind.

So, this morning, I was thinking ---- that so much Christian preaching seems to be “in your face” proclamation, on the lines of “here is something I know, which you don’t know, and you need to know it”.

There is precious little humility in Christian preaching. All too often it is a matter of “the expert expounding to the neophyte” - notwithstanding that the expert with a clerical collar may be a fairly recent convert, who addresses sisters and brothers who have a life time of Christian experience.

I scold myself as a preacher who loves to preach.

My morning thoughts about preaching were tempered as I began to sing a hymn written by my former colleague, the Revd. J. Mary Luti, Minister at First Church, Congregational in Cambridge, MA. Mary is a wise woman, a great preacher, and a fine Pastor.

Her hymn has none of the “expert” about it. Instead, it is a hymn of gracious invitation. Oh that there were more preaching rooted in gracious invitation.

Here is the hymn. I wish that I could sing it to you.

If there were a fountain (J. Mary Luti)


If there were a fountain of blue water bright from a cleft in a rock underground;
if streams from the fountain poured sapphire delight on the waterless earth all around;
if pools of refreshment could slake all your thirst, and a hope hold you up when you sink;
if there were no fear of the deep and the worst, would you come, would you bathe, would you drink?

If there were a table in beauty arrayed in a house full of song old and new;
if ev’ry good pleasure were lavishly laid for delight, for contentment, for you;
if places were set for the least and the small, and the feasting were ample and fine;
and, oh, if the feasting cost nothing at all would you come, would you sit, would you dine?

If there were a God who is welcoming fire and impatiently eager to save;
if there were a God who awakens desire and bestows all the love you can crave;
if God were a gathering God, and a balm for the homeless who aimlessly roam;
if God were a house, in the center a calm, would you come, would you finally come home?

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Salmagundi

Salmagundi (look it up!)


A bracing early morning walk. Diet and exercise are working. I’ve shed 18lbs. Now comes the hard part. Another 10-12 lbs to go.

Prayer service at Res. House. “J” and “Grandpa” started to argue in the Chapel. 'Twas over nothing, just the sparring between an old buck and a young turk.

Half an hour to kill. Wandered the neighbourhood of Res. House.


Chatted with “T” on the street. She is an outrageous blonde with a sad heart. We talked about what it meant to have a smile which masks deep sadness. A meeting point for “T” and me.

Next was “M” who was in a chipper mood on the street. He is the eternal optimist.

Then I saw “G” sitting on the pavement. “How are things with your wife?” I asked. “Not good” was his reply “I think that I should give up”.

“I am sorry to hear that”, I said, “but whatever you do, don’t give up on your children”.

He grinned. “Sometimes”, he said, “the Lord sends me the right messenger at the right time”.

We shook hands as I whispered a prayer.

Back in Res. House I sat down with “J”. “What’s my name?” he asked. “J” I said.

“O.K” he countered “but what is my last name?”. I remembered it.

Confidence re-established, we chatted for ten minutes about his hopes and dreams.

Then it was off to “Sierra Station”, my favourite lunch place. I ate with David DeSmith, my former organist and assistant Priest in Pittsfield. David and his partner John are in SRQ for a brief post Easter vacation. (David is now Rector of a parish in New Jersey). It was a lovely reunion.

As I left my parking place, I creamed another car. “Oh shucks” I uttered, or some similar words.

I left a note with my name and phone number. The owner called me, with gratitude for my courtesy, at 4:00 p.m.

Now I am faced with a Car Insurance deductible, and increased premiums - all for want of attention.

I was in a hurry for an appointment with me excellent dermatologist , Dr. Stroble. I have been treating one side of my brow with a very expensive cream ($120 for 30 grams) to burn off some pre-cancerous spots.

She and I each agreed that the treatment was working well, so now I’ll treat the other side.

salmagundi

jmp

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

A very fine article on Barack Obama and his Pastor

The following very fine article came to me via a friend, the Revd. Noreen Suriner, who is the Interim Rector at St. John's, Northampton, MA.

Mr. Robinson's article is so much wiser than Hilary Clinton's "knee-jerk" response, in which she said that had Jeremiah Wright been her minister she would have (in so many words) left his Church.


Strange that she has said nothing about John McCain and his endorsement by an right wing extremist Pastor!


But Hilary Clinton seems to be saying too much, and thinking too little. Witness her lies ( according to her she "mis-spoke" - what ever that means ) about her visit to Bosnia.

jmp


==========================================================================================================


An article by Don Robinson a member of St. John's in Northampton, MA
Turning away from racial enmity
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The past week has been a rough patch in the contest for the Democratic nomination. Just as it began to seem likely that Barack Obama may be in control, we get hit with the controversy over Jeremiah Wright, his pastor in Chicago. Responding, he gives a speech that beckons the nation into a discourse on race.

Obama's style is gentle, but make no mistake. Confronting America's "original sin" will not be a comforting experience.

He framed his speech brilliantly, taking his text from the preamble to the Constitution. (Lincoln set his speech at Gettysburg on the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing declaration that "all men are created equal.") The Constitution aims at a "more perfect union." In 1787, that meant a stronger union among the states. Obama broadened it, invoking the vision of a more perfectly united people.

To achieve a "more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America," he said, we must turn away from racial enmity. "My unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people" convinced him this was possible.

He turned then to Pastor Wright. He repeated his condemnation, "in unequivocal terms," of Wright's divisive preaching. Too often, Wright presented a "profoundly distorted view of this country."

Obama noted that Wright had done much good in his ministry, helping the homeless and those who suffer from HIV/AIDS and strengthening prison ministries. More importantly, he brought hope to the weary and downtrodden, helping his congregation to identify with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, and Ezekiel's field of dry bones. (Wright must have preached about Jesus, too, but Obama did not mention that.)

Obama's comments on Pastor Wright were actually somewhat evasive. For example, in a fiery sermon played endlessly on YouTube, Wright charges that the government deliberately perpetrated the AIDS virus to weaken the black community. This cannot be proven, but a strong case can be made that the government responded to the epidemic very sluggishly and that the black community was the principal victim.

It is a stretch to say it was a deliberate act of racism, but racial attitudes probably played a part. Wright's comments are not groundless, and the passions they express are widely shared in the African-American community.

But do we really want to go there? I am reminded of the difference between a prophet and a politician. The prophet speaks truth to power. The politician seeks the support of 50 percent-plus-one of a given population. It is a different vocation: Frederick Douglass versus Abraham Lincoln.

Concluding his remarks on Wright, Obama said we can dismiss him as a crank or a demagogue, just as we can scorn Geraldine Ferraro as a racist for her ignorant comments about Obama's supposed advantages, being black. But if we stay at this level of discourse, we will never move beyond the dead-end politics of hate.

With a few rhetorical flourishes, Obama could have ended his speech right there. Instead, he plunged into a discussion of "how we arrived at this point." The problems in the "African-American community," he said, are rooted in "inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow."

Legalized discrimination blocked African-Americans from owning property, getting commercial loans or FHA mortgages, kept them out of unions, police and fire departments. This led to shame and frustration, especially among black men unable to provide for their families. The resulting "erosion of black families" produced a legacy of defeat: black men "standing on street corners, languishing in prisons."

Remember the furor when Daniel Patrick Moynihan tried to open a discussion of pathologies in the black family? One dares to hope it will be different when a black man does it, though that was certainly not Bill Cosby's experience. We should not underestimate the difficulty of what Obama is attempting here.

Having addressed deep feelings in the black community, Obama made a brilliant move. He called attention to a similar anger raging in many white communities. He sympathized with applicants who are passed over in favor of minorities through no fault of their own. He spoke of immigrant families who have worked hard, only to see their jobs get shipped overseas and their pensions dropped.

Dueling resentments, white and black and brown, distract attention from the real culprits: a greedy corporate culture, a government dominated by lobbyists, economic policies that favor the few over the many.

The remedy? African-Americans must continue to "insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life." (Echoes of W. E. B. DuBois.) But it also means uniting with other aggrieved people: "the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who has been laid off, the immigrant struggling to feed his family." (Coalition politics, in the style of Bayard Rustin.) And it means taking responsibility for our own lives: fathers spending more time with their children, reading to them, teaching them they must never succumb to despair or cynicism. (Self-help, as urged by Booker T. Washington. Obama's tapestries weave many threads.)

As for the white community, it means acknowledging that the ills of black folk do not exist only in their own minds. The "legacy of discrimination" must not be ignored. We must invest in schools, ensure fairness in our criminal system, and provide ladders of opportunity unavailable for previous generations.

The key to this campaign is whether Obama can connect with white voters as he makes the case for his programs - in health care and education, and in a more prudent use of American power abroad. His campaign must be addressed to the needs of the toiling masses.

The last American president to address the legacy of slavery was Lyndon Johnson. As America's cities burned, he gave a series of eloquent speeches calling for a war on poverty and led the way to the enactment of the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Within two years, his party was torn asunder, delivering the South, and eventually the presidency and Congress, to the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Now this young senator has bet his campaign on the proposition that we are ready to take the next long step on the road to atoning for the "original sin" of slavery.

Don Robinson writes a monthly column for the Daily Hapmshire Gazette. He can be reached at drobinso@smith.edu.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

A weekend in Boston

I was in Boston for the Good Friday - Easter weekend, visiting my London friend Joe who is working there for a wee while. I stayed at his company condo in the Financial District.

I was at the Cathedral for Good Friday (I sat next to Cleanthe Marsh from St. James's --- much to our mutual delight).

There were four preachers - Bishop Barbara Harris, Dean Jep Streit, Canon Steve Bonsey and the wonderful Revd. Stephanie Spellers.

Steve and Stephanie were hot!

I was back at the Cathedral on Easter Day.

I discovered that the Cathedral has come to life in a big way. 'Twas a wonderful Liturgy.

(The Cathedral used to be like a morgue with Organ music).

I sat with Elizabeth Bonsey and the children (sans Noah). Bishop Bud had bailed out early that morning (with 'flu'), so Bishop Barbara Harris celebrated and Steve Bonsey preached. He was on top and rare form - a truly memorable Easter sermon. Annie Bonsey (12) read the first lesson with great aplomb.

Of course I had a post Eucharistic cigarette with + Barbara Harris and we got caught up.

My friend was working all day, so I invited myself to Easter dinner at the Reads, (in Cambridge) with the Bonseys and Taylors also present. It was a lovely, lovely time with St. James's parishioners.

I did not call or visit other folks as I was there to visit with Joe. But I did wonder as I got off the T at Central Square and walked down Brookline Ave., whether or not I'd bump into a stray St. Jamesian or two. That did not happen.

And now I am glad to be back at home.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Sin

From "The Age" - an Australian Newspaper. My good friend the Revd. Dr. Andrew McGowan is quoted.

------------------------------------

The resurrection of sin



Barney Zwartz
March 21, 2008
Advertisement

Is there still a place for sin in modern society? The language has all but disappeared, but the concept may awaken a greater sense of moral responsibility.

The terrible fire of hell will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals … The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.— James Joyce's 1916 novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

THIS is the sort of language that traumatised generations. Such graphic injunctions about sin and its consequences (this was the most famous description of hell since Dante's Inferno) terrified countless young men and women, particularly those who were Catholic. Considerable determination, ingenuity and often cruelty went into "protecting" people from their base desires. But such efforts, however well-meaning, made the language of sin itself sinful.

Paul Ormonde remembers his oldest son preparing for his first confession in 1963. Sister Francesca, said the boy, had told him he had to confess his mortal sins first.

"I was so angry I went up to see her and said, 'My son is six. He's not capable of a sin that would endanger his soul.' She said, 'Oh, Mr Ormonde, it's the teaching of the church.' "

It was part of Ormonde's journey out of the church — he calls himself a "secular Catholic" now and no longer believes the doctrine of redemption, that God sent his son, Jesus, to redeem humanity from the ancient calamity of original sin.

That picture of a vengeful God excoriating humanity for the tiniest transgressions has largely disappeared; love is once again seen as a more powerful persuader than fear. But something curious has happened to sin: in a matter of decades it has dropped almost entirely from Western consciousness. Today such language seems quaint, risible and barely understood. Surely this is a good thing? Well, yes … and no. Sin, after all, is the only doctrine of the ancient church that is empirically verifiable. And its passing has left another vital concept languishing, that of moral responsibility.

It is an issue that goes beyond religion. Sin was part of the vernacular among believers and non-believers 50 years ago; today it is not really used by either. Moral agency, however, is part of being human, affecting everyone equally.

Easter is when Christians are particularly confronted with the idea of sin because it is "the reason for the season": the New Testament teaches that Jesus was nailed to the cross to reconcile, redeem, restore and ransom humanity.

But psychiatrist Louise Newman thinks everyone, religious or not, should reflect on questions of morals and values.

"Sin" has been disappearing for a while. American psychiatrist Karl Menninger (a non-believer) wrote in 1973 in Whatever Happened to Sin? that the word was rarely heard. "Does that mean that no sin is involved in all our troubles — sin with an 'I' in the middle? Is no one any longer guilty of anything? Guilty perhaps of a sin that could be repented and repaired or atoned for? Is it only that someone may be stupid or sick or criminal — or asleep? Wrong things are being done, we know; tares are being sown in the wheatfield at night. But is no one responsible, no one answerable for these acts?"

This trend has accelerated. Look at celebrities who get into trouble and have to apologise. Perish the thought that they were callous, brutal, treacherous, selfish, insensitive, self-indulgent or greedy — they "made a mistake". It is a phrase emptied of moral content by comparison with the alternatives. A mistake is when you take the wrong turn while driving; keeping on until you have overrun Poland is not a "mistake". Nor is perjury or embezzlement or other crimes perpetrators don't see as a problem until they get caught.

For many theologians, guilt — the psychological effect of sin (or moral failure) — is a very useful symptom that acts like pain in the physical realm to warn that there's a problem. To remove the symptom but ignore the cause can leave a person worse off than before.

No one is guilty any more, they are all victims. Modern psychology has reached the paradoxical conclusion that society can be collectively guilty (as with the recent stolen generations apology), even though it is comprised of individuals who are all innocent.

So has the pendulum swung too far? Is sin — defined by the Concise Oxford as the breaking of a divine or moral law, especially by a conscious act — still a useful concept? Anglican theologian Andrew McGowan thinks so.

The daily newspaper, he says, shows that sin is an objective reality. "It's like Mark Twain's quote about infant baptism: 'Do I believe in it? Heck, I've seen it!' At the risk of sounding glib, sin is a serious business. I'm on the side of those who think it needs more honesty than being swept under the carpet."

McGowan, warden of Melbourne's Trinity College, says sin is the difference between the best we can conceive of for ourselves and what we actually have. It's a theological way of thinking about the state of the world. He acknowledges that the language of sin has been used to control and disempower people, to lead them to desperation rather than hope. But even so, "it's important to admit how things are because it's impossible to fix a problem that we deny exists".

Yet outside the church, and often within, the problems of sin have been replaced by problems of self-esteem. This interpretation began with Freud, who regarded religion as a neurosis and guilt as an illusion that must be dispelled.

American theologian John MacArthur claims the very idea of guilt is considered medieval, obsolete, unproductive. Self-esteem is what counts, and that doesn't leave room for guilt.

In The Vanishing Conscience, MacArthur writes: "If no one is supposed to feel guilty, how could anyone be a sinner? Modern culture has the answer: people are victims. Victims are not responsible for what they do; they are casualties of what happens to them. It has radically changed the way our society looks at human behaviour."

Every human failing, therefore, becomes a disease, a kind of disorder that is not our fault. There is always somebody else to blame.

MacArthur quotes American author Charles Sykes: "Unfortunately, that is a formula for social gridlock: the irresistible search for someone or something to blame colliding with the unmovable unwillingness to accept responsibility."

MacArthur says the sin-as-disease model has created a multibillion-dollar counselling industry in which therapists sometimes provide extensive treatment for years, or even life. Recovery is neither expected, nor in their interests, he says.

The two psychiatrists The Age spoke to — one Christian, one not — had some sympathy for the concept of sin, though neither employed it with patients.

"In terms of thinking about human capacities to do bad things, even cruel and harmful things, it's an important notion," says Louise Newman, professor of psychology at the University of Newcastle.

"Just look at current concerns about adolescent behaviour, for example, or the capacity of humans to commit genocide or torture. These are moral arguments about the human condition."

Newman, who is not a believer, says psychiatry tries to look behind the behaviour to find causes, and deals in concepts such as "damage" rather than sin. For some patients, a particular version of Catholicism has left scars, while many people cannot relate to the range of connotations "sin" carries, yet the concept must be confronted, she says.

"People I see who have experienced torture or witnessed massacres, for example in Rwanda or Yugoslavia, have had to confront something about the human condition most of us prefer not to think about. It could be our neighbour who commits these atrocities, and if it could be our neighbour it could be us. I treat some survivors of torture who, now they have seen these atrocities and know what human beings are capable of, are terrified they might be capable as well. I wouldn't use the word sin or evil, but they exist."

Newman agrees that many people have a problem with moral responsibility. "It's the John Howard attitude to moral questions: never apologise, never admit. It seems to me people are looking for clear moral guidance. The recent Rudd apology struck a chord because we'd been living in a moral vacuum. Most of the country had an emotional response to the apology — not all liked it, but they were engaged in a moral debate."

Child psychiatrist Michael Dudley says modern psychology and psychiatry are highly suspicious of religion and have tried to evacuate the moral domain.

"We're in the heyday of neurobiological science, and psychological things have become fairly mechanised," says Dudley, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of NSW and a member of the Uniting Church.

"The question of moral responsibility hasn't been particularly processed by people in my profession. It's probably come in the back door through ethical breaches. Psychologists now have to think about ethics as part of their remit, but whether that translates beyond the individual relationship into an understanding of society or of the spiritual dimension is another matter."

He thinks there is both individual sin and collective sin, a sense in which people can "go over to the dark side".

Dudley worries that psychiatrists who ignore questions of religion or values can miss the main game.

"My faith probably makes me aware that this is a relevant dimension for people in their lives. I always cover questions of meaning and value for people. It would be on my radar to ask about their fundamental beliefs — if they are religious, how do they express it, does it help them cope with life in general and the predicament they are in now?

"It's under-scrutinised. The literature indicates very clearly the beneficial effects of a spiritual belief system for relational stability, for preventing suicide and self-harm, for health. I'm a believer, but it's not a Medicare benefits item, it's not something we can prescribe."

One of the reasons why the concept of sin lost traction was its link with the difficult doctrine of original sin. Few theologians today would accept Augustine's explanation that it was conveyed from the parents via sexual intercourse.

Andrew McGowan says what's original about sin is its universality. "It's an insipid and inadequate view of humans to think we are all blank books and fine until someone comes along and stuffs things up for us. Selfishness and sin are almost synonymous."

Theologian Peter Adam says he finds non-Christians surprisingly open to the idea of original sin. "They recognise that something is wrong in society, and it's hard to work out how we caused so much damage. Humans did it, not the dolphins, not the ants. I find non-Christians intrigued by a metaphysical explanation for what's wrong."

Adam, principal of Ridley College, says original sin doesn't mean people are bad; they are fallible. "One of the most striking effects of sin is its ability to blind us to its presence — we can all see that in other people but it's much harder in ourselves. We focus too much on whether we have done wrong, and ignore the good things we should have done, and have not done, because of ignorance, nervousness, or lack of vision as to how we help and love others."

Melbourne Jesuit theologian Bill Uren says this was the point of the Vatican statement on social sins last week, that things such as polluting, genetic engineering and obscene wealth were as bad as pride, lust, anger and the rest.

"Sin is the things we fail to do, we don't live up to our responsibilities. Certainly theft, murder, rape, things people do are sinful and harm one another but — and this was the Apostolic Penitentiary's point — it's the more subtle ones where we fail through our self-centredness."

If people are to reclaim greater moral responsibility, the concept of sin may be central, even if the word itself now carries too much baggage. Non-Christians who deride original sin can still accept that humans are all frail, fallible, occasionally weak-willed, inclined to be selfish, and that there is often a gap between conscience and action.

And, for Christians at least, the idea of sin leads to the idea of hope. Easter is about sin, but even more it's about hope.

"It's about God's redeeming love, that no matter how far away we seem there is a loving God who has reached out," Uren says.

The wages of sin doesn't have to be death. "It's a revolutionary message. It means that in the vicissitudes of life that sin and failure aren't the end."

Barney Zwartz is religion editor.