Leviticus 5 and the Question of Volition in Sin

As I said on Tuesday, this week is kind of crazy and so I’m afraid that you’re going to have to put up with posts that simply have to do with what I happen to be thinking about. I hope that they are, in some way, helpful to your writing, but if they are not then I’m sorry.

Many Christians today don’t bother to read the books of the law (other than Genesis and the five 10 chapters of Exodus), which is sad, because there is a lot of great stuff in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Leviticus chapter 5 specifically deals with guilt offerings made for unintentional or even unknown breeches of the law. In other words: “If X happens and you didn’t intend for it to happen, or if you did X and either didn’t realize that it was against the law or didn’t realize that it is what you were doing, then you are still guilty and must confess, repent, and present a guilt offering to the Priesthood.”

Now, volition was considered an important part of wrongdoing by the ancient Greeks, and this has held true for much of the history of Christian thought and of modern lawmaking. In general, if 1) one can present a case that he could not be reasonably expected to know that something was against the law, 2) one can present a case that he could not reasonably predict or have prevented the harmful effects of his actions, or 3) one can present a case (or more likely have one presented for him) that he could not reasonably understand that his actions were unlawful and/or immoral, then he is generally understood to be innocent of the crime of which he stands accused–even if he actually did the act. Some examples can be presented as follows: 1) if the American Congress secretly passed a law banning the sale of firearms, and then started arresting gunsellers based on that law, then the cases would almost inevitably be thrown out of court. The reason for this is that for a law to actually be considered a law in any meaningful sense the Government must promulgate it (or make it known) to the people that it will impact. Now, it is entirely possible that a man could avoid all new sources and commit a crime that he was unaware was a crime, but in this case he is not considered to be reasonably unaware that it was not a crime (for instance, if I don’t see a posted speed limit sign and get a ticket, I am still guilty even though I didn’t know that I was breaking the speed limit). The distinction here is whether the government fulfilled its responsibility to promulgate the law. 2) If a man is driving down the street and a child runs out right in front of his car such that he cannot break or swerve in time to avoid hitting the child then the man is not considered guilty of murder. He clearly had no intention to kill the child, and he could not have reasonably taken any actions to avoid hitting the child. 3) If a man is intellectually disabled to the degree that he actually cannot understand the significant legal distinctions (for instance, an individual who is intellectual incapable of comprehending the concept of death) then he is not considered to have committed murder even if he kills someone because he cannot understand what murder is.

This same conception of volition has been applied to sin throughout most of the history of the Christian church. Thus, we are all imperfect in many ways and may certainly do thing that would be considered sinful if 1) we had an accurate understanding of God’s character, and/or 2) we had an accurate understanding of our own actions. These may be consider ‘unintentional sins’ in Leviticus 5. However, Christian thought has generally absolved Christians of personal guilt for unintentional sins: if I don’t know that I’m sinning then I can’t repent for what I’ve done, and if I have been committing the same sinful action for years before I realize that it is sinful then it is unlikely that I can ever specifically repent or make restitution for every specific instance of that sinful action. Thus, Thomas Aquinas (among others) famously declared that human action is necessarily volitional and that anything that is not human action cannot be considered sin. Thus, if I do not actually make the choice to sin then I am not sinning. In the modern conception of sin this seems to contradict the Levitical law.

However, I believe that the crux of the problem here is that modern Christians tend to think of sin only in terms of ‘crimes against God.’ This is not to argue that sin should not be thought of in these terms, as certainly volitional sins fit this model almost exactly. However, it is to say that sin is more than just willful acts of rebellion against God. This is the distinction between natural sin and personal sin (or natural sin and volitional sin), or the distinction between effects of sin and acts of sin. The death of a child that ran out in the middle of the road or an act of killing performed by a mentally handicapped individual who is incapable of understanding ‘killing’ still result in horrible tragedies, and these may be considered the effects of broken people living in a broken world. In fact, the Levitcal law had provisions for accidental killings that seem to have served the same general function as modern manslaughter laws (which would cover the situation involving the child). Similarly, the guilt offering demanded in Leviticus 5 is not simply the same as the sin and guilt offerings demanded for volitional sins in the Levitical law. Instead, the requirements of Leviticus 5 may be understood as recognizing that men as a whole are broken and that this brokenness often results in sad, or even horribly tragic, circumstances. Further, it recognizes that men should be held responsible for the degree to which their brokenness contributed to the situation, but they should not be held responsible in the same way that an individual who willfully committed the same act would be held. Thus, under modern law a killer who is incapable of understanding his crimes would not be found guilty and sentenced to time in prison, but he likely would be committed to a psychiatric institute for care and treatment. This similarly recognizes that his brokenness contributed to the situation, but not in the same way that a willful act of killing would have.

Thus, a robust concept of the distinction between the effects of being broken people living in a broken world, and our responsibility based on those effects, and willful acts of rebellion against the laws of God is necessary for an appropriate understanding of scripture and for an appropriate understanding of sin, justice, and grace.

Musings on Morality Part 4: Homosexuality, Moral Panic, and the Christian Right

Gay pride in Canada

Well, about a week ago I heard a conversation on the radio concerning this subject and thought it would make a good post.  Hearing this radio program was followed the next day by a discussion about this very topic, and it makes an excellent example of how complicated moral thinking can be.  If you follow politics at all you know that there is currently a battle underway concerning homosexual marriage rights.  The question at hand – should homosexuals be allowed to legally marry?  Those who support ‘gay marriage’ (which is the term I will be using… mostly because it is a lot easier to type) paint this as a civil liberties issue, arguing that gays should have the same legal rights and protections as straights.  Those who oppose gay marriage paint it as a religious issue, arguing that marriage is a sacred union that must be protected.  Both sides have employed some rather aggressive, even violent rhetoric attempting to either prove their point, or disprove the other.

So, how to we approach this issue? The first step is to determine whether this is a civil rights issue (as it’s supporters claim), or something else.  Many people argue that gays can engage in civil unions, which (the claim continues) provide the same legal rights and protections as marriage.  However, this is not true.  While civil unions do provide many of the same rights and protections as marriage, they are not recognized by the federal government, and they are not recognized by all states.  Thus if a couple enters into a civil union in one state, and then moves (for whatever reason) their union may no longer be valid.  Furthermore, as civil unions provide rights recognized by the state only, not all civil unions provide the same rights (it depends on the state).  So, there is a legitimate civil rights concern involved in the discussion, and this must be recognized.  From a moral perspective an individual must answer this question: Is there any reason why gay couples should not receive the same legal benefits as straight couples?  Personally, I don’t think there is, but this is something that you will have to answer for yourself.

There are particularly savage attacks from both the left…

The second step is to determine why marriage is such a key issue.  The argument generally goes that marriage is a sacred union, not just a legal union, and thus by allowing gays to marry we as a culture are saying that God approves of homosexuality.  This is a reasonable argument.  After all, Christian marriage existed for approximately 1700 years before the U.S. was founded.  Jewish marriage existed for about another 2000 years before that.  Islamic marriage for perhaps 1000 years before the U.S. was founded.  Marriage was a sacred institution long before it was a legal institution, and so the sacred implications of the term must be taken into account.  Christian, Jewish, and Islamic scriptures all agree that homosexuality is sin (you can find some theologians who will argue that homosexuality is not sin, but every time it is mentioned in scripture, it is addressed as sin.  Every time.  The cogent passages are Leviticus 18:22-29, Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and possibly Genesis 18-19 and Jude 1:7).  All three of the major monotheistic religions agree that homosexuality is sin, and that gay marriage is an affront to God or Allah respectively (not as a legal union, but as a sacred union).  So, the issue of marriage as a sacred institution is not one that can be lightly dismissed.

The obvious solution is to separate the legal rights from the sacred institution of marriage.  There is no reason that a couple should have to enter into a sacred institution to gain legal rights, and no reason that a couple should have to take on legal rights and responsibilities in order to be bound to one another in a sacred union.  However, this separation is unlikely at best (at least in my opinion).

And the right.

However, we still have a problem.  The Religious Right, predominantly Christian, but not entirely, is pushing very hard to have gay marriage banned, essentially attempting to legislate their morality on the American populace as a whole.  In essence, they are saying to the rest of the nation – you must act like us, even if you don’t believe what we believe.  I do not know of any religion that commands its followers to enforce behavior in this manner.  Many religions command their followers to convert the non-believer (some by force), but none that I know of command their followers to force the non-believer to behave like a believer, while remaining a non-believer.

Supporters of gay marriage claim that the religious right is in a moral panic (i.e. that they are so deeply shocked, offended, and afraid of the idea of gay marriage that they are responding irrationally), and there is a certain amount of validity to this point.  Certainly the actions of the Christian Right on this issue do not portray love (I do not mean tolerance here, but love), and sometimes (though not as often as the opposition would like to believe) become rather vehemently hateful.  However, the right does have legitimate reason to fear.  In states where gay marriage has been legalized, suits have already been brought to force Christian organizations to support and participate in gay marriages against their will (examples here and here) and more can be expected.  Church members have also sued churches that caved and participated in gay marriage ceremonies (example here).  Actions such as this provide the religious right with legitimate reason to believe that the ‘gay agenda’ includes more than a simple attainment of civil rights.

However, is this a good reason for Christians (in particular) to oppose gay marriage.  I don’t think it is.  The force of religious opposition to gay marriage often seems to be motivated by fear, a legitimate fear (as shown above), but fear nonetheless.  However, as Christians we are not told to fear or flee persecution, we are told to ‘take all joy’ in our sufferings and to ‘count it a blessing’ to suffer for the sake of Christ.  There is a legitimate argument to separate legal union from sacred marriage, and I honestly hope to see this done, but the avoidance of suffering is not a reason to impose Christian morality on non-Christians, and it never has been.  This is an excellent example of a moral/ethical issue that needs to be deeply considered from all sides, because Christians must walk a very fine line between staying true to and defending belief, while not acting to avoid persecution, and by and large we are not doing a very good job of it.

Ultimately this is an extremely complicated issue, and I hope that I’ve given you something to think about.

At the same time, gays should understand that there is a legitimate reason that marriage as a sacred union is denied to them by many religious institutions.  If this is an issue of civil rights, then the homosexual movement should pursue it as an issue of civil rights.  However, if this is an attempt to enforce their moral views on the religious right, then it is just as inappropriate as anything for which they blame the Religious Right.

As I said, this is a very complicated issue, and I’m sure that many people will disagree with something that I have said.  However, I think that this is an excellent example of a difficult moral question that neither side is handling appropriately.  I hope I’ve given you something to think about.

Another Poem to Share

There's always time to stop and consider where you've been.

I must admit that I am a rather abysmal poet.  Of the nearly two hundred poems that I have written, I can think of perhaps four that I would now say are worth sharing.  One is soon to be submitted to A Gallery of Worlds, the second was posted yesterday, and the third will await another day to have it’s debut, and this is the last.  This is a poem that I wrote a long time ago and, to be honest, I’m rather amazed that it is as good as it is.  This is not to say that it is ‘good’ (whatever that means when it comes to poetry), but that it is better by degrees that any of the other poems I wrote at the time, and better than most of what I have written since.  The following poem is not exactly a happy thing, but it is something that I think many people have felt at one time or another.  I promise that after this I’ll stop sharing my abysmal poetry and get back to things that are worthy of your attention.  Thanks to all my readers for putting up with my rabbit trails.

To Quiet

Encroaching on the present
The darkness of the past attempts to consume us
The sins of days gone by
That remind us of what we once were
These former creatures of our existence
That now we fear to again become
At times we fear to look
To think
To even breath
For we feel the darkness assailing our human sensibilities
While the divine seems to us…
…decidedly quiet.

Rebellion in the Heart of America

The post that was supposed to go up at Midnight (but didn’t) is a guest post from Colin Smith.  Let me say that I don’t agree with everything Smith has written in this post, but he does have some significant points that I think are worth airing.  Again, this is a post primarily intended for my Christian readers.

A photo from the Civil Rights Movement March on Washington
Contrasted with a photo of the Occupy movement (I love the guy with the cellphone)

The Bible tells us that all legitimate authorities are established by God [Romans 13:1], and that, because of this, rebellion against any legitimate authority is sin [Romans 13:2].  Throughout the Bible, this lesson is consistent.  When Saul lost the favor of God and sought to kill David, because Saul had not lost the anointment and authority of God, David did not kill him [1 Samuel 24:4-7].  David did not even rebel against him.  When he discovered that one of his men had taken the head of Saul on the battlefield, even though this man had not actually killed Saul, David had the man put to death, because Saul was God’s anointed [2 Samuel 1:15].

The line between a legitimate authority and an illegitimate authority is unclear to me, so I will not try to pin it down, but there is certainly a time when the illegitimate can become legitimate.   The Russian Revolution was clearly rebellion against the rule of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917 and, as such, the Soviets in Russia were not a legitimate authority at the beginning.  By 1928, they controlled the entire government unquestionably and were, I believe, a legitimate authority.  When that transition happened, I don’t know.  Was it at the end of the fighting?  When the common people accepting them as rulers?  I don’t know what the transition point was, but there was clearly a change from illegitimate to legitimate.  It is important to note, however, that this transition did not justify or excuse the rebellion that allowed it.  They may have received God’s establishment, but that did not excuse their sin.

Furthermore, I see no indication in the Bible that God has ever removed a government’s legitimate authority without removing that government.  Remember that King Saul, though he had disobeyed God’s commands, been condemned by Samuel, and was now seeking to kill the man God had anointed to take his place, was still called God’s anointed by David [1 Samuel 24:4-7, 2 Samuel 1:14].  If these acts do not de-legitimize an authority without removing it, can anything?

Not all rebellion is violent, and not all rebellion seeks to overthrow the current rulers.  By God’s Law, any breach of the Law is rebellion against it, thus stealing is as much rebellion as trying to overthrow authority.  The laws of man which God has established work similarly.  Thus, we may truly have our ‘little rebellions’, but we are still sinning.  This should not be confused, however, with breaking one law in order to obey a higher law.  Authority has hierarchy.  God is the Ultimate Authority over everything.  He establishes kings, emperors, and governments over men, who then issue their own laws and establish their own hierarchies, but God’s Law is always the ultimate.  Our United States military has some concept of this, in that a commanding officer, though the legitimate authority over his troops, can still issue ‘illegal orders’, which the troops must not obey, else they will be guilty for breaking those laws.  The laws are higher in authority than the commanding officer, and so anything the commanding officer orders which breaks those laws must not be obeyed.

Yes, that's George Washington crossing the Delaware river.

All of this I have said to make this point: In the days of the American colonies, the legitimate authority over the 13 colonies was the British Empire, its king, and its parliament.  When the ‘Founding Fathers’ rebelled against that authority, it was sin.  That’s right, the United States of America was founded in the sin of rebellion, and it has been strong in our hearts ever since.  When the American people don’t like the way their leaders act, all too often they rebel.  We rebelled in the Whiskey Rebellion against the early America’s taxes .  We rebelled against war efforts we didn’t like.  The Civil Rights movements’ sit-ins and non-violent protests, even with their just cause and avoidance of violence, were still rebellion because they violated the laws of the authorities over them.  The Occupy movement of recent days is guilty of the same sins.  These are only a few of the examples of rebellion in American history, many of which have been honored by our history as noble and just actions.  Please note that it is not disagreement that is rebellion.  Thank God we live in a nation where disagreement with and criticism of our leaders is legal and acceptable.  But breaking the laws those leaders implement, unless those laws directly contravene the word of God, and regardless of whether our leaders serve, reject, or betray God, is still a sin of rebellion.

Rebellion has found its way into the heart of the American culture.  One of the great American story archetypes is of rebellion against a corrupt government.  We see it in our books (Dune), in our movies (Star Wars), in our music, in our heroes, and in our history.  We support rebels across the world.  And we wonder why our teenagers rebel against us.  I am convinced that, until the United States repents of its many sins of rebellion, as a people, we will continue to suffer.  The rebellion of others against us is, almost certainly, one form of our punishment.  Beyond this, I will not attempt to divide and divine the blessings and punishments of God on our nation, nor the actions, good and evil, which have brought America to the position it is in today.  God has certainly blessed us, greatly, throughout our history.  But one has to wonder what blessings He could have bestowed on us had we not been in the depths of rebellion.

Rebellion is hardly the only sin in American culture.  We are infused with lust, greed, and hatred on a daily basis.  But I believe these other sins have been properly identified and called out by the Church (even as many in the Church engage in them).  Our history of justifying our rebellion, as far as I know, has not been.  I believe it is well past time that we do so.