Sunday, November 2, 2008


Introduction: In my exploration of this blog-entry-a-day-for-a-month-thing, I stumbled across the blog of a woman who writes about her experience as a Christian woman of color. She had many things of interest to say, including a post on sin. Now what might a Christian woman of African descent have to say to inspire a pagan lesbian of Irish descent to contemplate sin? I hardly know any more. I read so much that my head was busy for hours. But the topic of sin kept tickling around in there and so now I am writing. This is a long, meandering piece that wanders around and draws no conclusions, really. But that is not the point. The point is to explore what I know, to see if I can explain it in words that the world can understand, to stretch things and hold them up to the light and see if they hold water. I will let you be the judge of all that. Oh, and as a caution - there is some moderately graphic sex stuff toward the end. if you're likely to get offended, go somewhere else.


There's a whole lot of baggage attached to those three letters. Thousands of years of church-imposed morality come with that term. In the Catholic upbringing I endured, I heard lots and lots about sin, but the lectures seemed to be designed to make me want to know much more details as opposed to make me want to avoid sin. And from what I could tell, many of my adolescent Catholic peers seemed to feel the same way. We did not avoid sin. We did not take the high road. At the first opportunity, we sought it out. We snuck liquor from our parent's cabinets, we pocketed the money our parents gave us to put in the collection plate at church and bought horrible homegrown weed and cheap speed from the high school hoodlums.

Certainly we weren't as bad as the really bad kids, but we wanted to be. We listened to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin and changed our clothes on the bus on the way to school. I wasn't let out of my parents' sight much at all, so I got high in the morning at the bus stop and occasionally at Friday night dances. I was determined to be a delinquent. Just too scared to really get good at it.

But sin was the realm of the church. It did not apply in my daily life save for an intense hour before I went to confession when I tried to think of all the bad things I had done since my last confession. Even wracking my brain, I could not come up with a list of crimes that matched how badly I felt about myself.

Which brings up an interesting connection. Sin in linked directly to shame. I was taught to be ashamed of almost everything growing up. I was ashamed of being poor, I was ashamed of being overweight, I was ashamed of not being smart enough, of not being strong enough, of not being good enough. Ever.

Shame seemed to be the primary motivator for much of what I did growing up, even into adulthood. I absorbed the Catholic concept of original sin and internalized it completely. In the Catholic mass is a prayer recited by the congregants that says in part "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I will be healed."

To this day I struggle with my own worth. To this day, I must remind myself that I am worthy of salvation or redemption, or deliverance, or serenity or love or whatever it is that we are supposed to get from our spiritual journey. I have to say "I am worthy of love," "I am worthy of acceptance," "I deserve to have good things happen in my life."

What messages sin and shame teach our souls.

So back to sin.

With my recovery work, and as a recovering Catholic, I have a pretty jaded view of just what constitutes sin. Where being disobedient used to be considered a sin, it now classifies as a virtue, so long as it is not done for selfish purposes. Well, sometimes even when it is.

To me, sin is like a crime against the world. Sin is something that hurts someone, be that be someone I know, or someone far away, or me. Stealing qualifies as a sin. It damages the person I steal from, and it damages me. Trust is broken, and that is bad.

Sin is doing damage to our environment, whether that means changing the oil in your truck over a roadside ditch or owning a corporation that spews pollutants from smokestacks. Damaging things is wasteful, and to me, waste is a sin.

Throwing food away seems sinful to me. I need to learn how to cook so that I don't waste food. I need to learn to get beyond my lifetime insecurities around food and having enough to cook what we need for supper for two, not for twelve. It is a struggle daily.

Wasting gas seems sinful, as does wasting money, time and energy. But those are more difficult to quantify. Is a day wasted if if does not have some concrete thing created by the end of it? What if that day was spent in contemplation of the wonders of the natural world? What if the day was spent hiking a mountain and listening to the sounds of nature? That hardly seems wasteful, but I have days when to do that would cause me intense guilt for having wasted a day.

Warming up my truck on a cold morning is sound vehicle operation and ownership, but at what point does that warm-up period venture into wastefulness? Again, it is the kind of thing that is fuzzy and can cause angst if I let it.

So hurting things and people constitute sin. Wasting is sinful.

What about sex?

So much of the discussions around sin from my adolescence seemed to revolve around sex. According to the church, all sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful. This seems to be based on the premise that all sex that does not lead to child-bearing is sinful. I understand those arguments in a historical context. Brian McNaught outlined a similar argument in his book "On Being Gay." The idea is that most of the laws and rules around sex were designed to preserve and promote the safety and growth of the fledgling Christian church, much like many of the Old Testament laws regarding sex and hygiene and food preparation. Anything that did not lead to children was strictly forbidden. Understandings of science and germs and such was non-existent or else based in superstition and dogmatic tradition. In that light, anything that endangered the survival of the population was against the rules. With infant mortality rates very high, families had to have as many children as possible so that enough would live to be old enough to carry on the population. Children born out of wedlock were not considered to be whole persons or legitimate members of society, so sex outside of marriage was forbidden. Lesbians and gay men could not have children through the sex they enjoyed, so it was forbidden. Rules were established about sex with women during their menstrual cycles.

It all seems so silly today. Science has developed to the point where human behavior and interaction is hardly needed for procreation any more. Medical advances have tripled or quadrupled the life expectancy typical of biblical times.

Yet much of our behavior is still measured by a standard set thousands of years ago. The rules set down in those days allow no room for me. As a lesbian, my form of sexual expression is forbidden by many old religious texts. Other ancient traditions celebrate love between women, but those traditions are not dominant in our modern culture. They are no less valid, just not recognized by the folks making the rules right now.

So where does sexual behavior fall in the realm of sin? I think it can be categorized along the concepts that I laid out earlier here. With the planet groaning under the weight of five billion souls, waste of potential babies is no longer a consideration. So, does the sexual expression hurt someone, including you? No? Then it's not a sin by me. Is it consensual, safe and mutually enjoyable? That should be the measure used here. Are all the parties involved being fulfilled by the sexual expression? If so, why would anyone think it was their business to interfere and pass judgment?

I know people who do some pretty radical stuff as part of their sexual expression. Much of what they do would be considered outrageous by polite society - certainly sinful. But why is that anybody's business? If I want to be restrained, teased and flogged, and my partner wants to do it, why is that someone else's business? If my friend Rusty wants to dress up like a pony and be dominated by his dominatrix MTF mistress, AND THEY BOTH ARE FULFILLED BY THE EXPERIENCE, who am I to judge? Who are you to judge? In college I knew a girl who used to enjoy threesomes with two men. She was the one in charge of the situation and had veto power over anything proposed. The guys were there willingly, and so was she, and all seemed to be happy with the arrangement. Whose job is it to judge their decision? If my married lesbian friends want to add a third woman to their relationship and she wants to participate, whose business is any of this? And my friends with piercings? Are we to parse degrees of deviancy to determine what is sin and what is not? How silly we can be.

So long as all members of the relationship are getting their needs met, so long as all members are participating of their own free will, and so long as nobody is taking unfair advantage of another, I cannot see where any of it could be considered sinful. Not all sexual expression includes emotional intimacy.

My personal beliefs and experiences mean that for me the two are inextricably entwined, but I know that what is necessary for my happiness is not always necessary for others to be fulfilled. My need for intimacy does not mean that I am superior than others, or that I am inferior for my inability to separate the physical from the emotional and the spiritual. It simply means that my needs are specific in a certain direction. They are neither good nor bad, just mine.

I dearly hope each day's post for November are not this intense.


Anonymous said...

Intensity might get hard on you, but it MIGHT just make someone think a little. Great post. Of course.


Sarah P-H said...

"Sin" is such an interesting concept. Having grown up in a family with a recovering Catholic mother and a lapsed Episcopal father, "sin" was never really talked about - not from a religious perspective. However, much like "guilt", I think there was always an undercurrent of it in the family collective unconscious. I think that my take on "sin" is similar to Dawn's, and can be summed up along the lines of "do no harm." Harm, of course is subjective (and can be rationalized and justified given ones perspective and desires), but I hope you take my meaning. If my actions to do no intentional harm to anyone or anything, they are not sinful in my eyes. This extends to how I spend my time, how I express my desires, how I configure my relationships, et cetera.

Queenie said...

Sin. Shame. Guilt. Whew....
I think the worst sin is knowing you can do or say something to make someone else's life richer, easier, more rewarding, and failing to do so. Sort of the opposite of a "sinful" act, really a failure to act.

I can't believe you are making me think this hard....could you pick an easier and less thought-provoking subject for tomorrow? Maybe like watering your plants or how to best fold a t-shirt?

Robin said...

I've been avoiding this post all day. Not because I don't want to read, or think, or because I disagree in any way. Rather for the much too pragmatic reason that I feel like crap and my head is swimming. I keep reading and all that's getting through is la la la la sin la la la la sin la la la la sex (ooh, there's a good one) la la la la guilt.

I suspect that my normally functioning brain would be able to make sense out of all those la la's, and perhaps even come up with something intelligent to say in return, but right now it's just not going to happen. The brain cells simply aren't there.

Off to go brew up a batch of that immune-boosting tea now...

Anonymous said...

Interesting to note that "sin" means something like "mistake" according to some liberal bible scholars working in the last ten years or so.

Great post, Dawn.

- Elizabeth

Dawn on MDI said...

My dear friend Anne had some difficulty posting to the comments section, so she sent me her words in an e-mail and asked me to post them for her. Here they are:

I suspect the concept of "sin" was instituted by the very earliest society (group of people) which was large enough to have a power structure. Sin and/or shame are tremendous tools by which to control others and to coerce compliant behavior. Failure to comply usually meant exclusion from the group, which, in the earliest days, would be tantamount to a death sentence since a single human being could rarely survive apart from the group. I am going as far back as paleolithic societies, so, as Dawn says, these concepts have been around for thousands of years and are very firmly entrenched. It takes enormous courage to refuse to co-operate in bowing to these pressures. I applaud Dawn's courage in her exploration of this topic and hope others will be encouraged to explore it in a similarly brave and honest fashion. I absolutely refuse to believe in Original Sin. Every human being is born with the capacity for both "good" and "evil" behavior. What emerges is largely the result of child-rearing practices (see Alice Miller's terrifying book, "For Your Own Good"), genetics, and neurological health or disease. Prior to my recovery from alcoholism, I used shame in my classroom as a most effective tool to control student behavior. Now, at 22 years sober, I recognize this for the power-play that it was; I also realize the damage I did to my students. I off-loaded my shame onto them, and they, in their turn, will probably off-load it onto an innocent someone else. Shame is so powerful that the advertizing industry strives to construct ads which induce a sense of shame in the viewer which can then only be relieved by using the advertized product. Think about this; then tell the advertizer to fuck off!

j said...

Married lesbians adding opening their relationship to include another woman? That's freaking gross, Dawn.


Anonymous said...

Once again I find a topic that to me, comes down to personal responsibility. I'm big on this concept. If sin boils down to hurting someone or something, then avoiding sin or redemption from sin boils down to understanding who you are, where you fit, and that your decissions affect others. It's not that easy: there are plenty of no-win situations. Sometimes a choice ends up hurting somebody to prevent from hurting someone else...ouch...but it happens all the time. Sometimes you slip...make a mistake...wish for a do-over...but the world moves forward, not back. At this point, you take responsibility for what is yours, reflect, figure out what you can fix, fix what you can, and try not to mess up again. With a little more of that hanging around, would we need to worry about sin?

laughingatchaos said...

Second try. I have no idea what I tried to post the first time, being that it was a few days ago, but hey. I agree. Private is private.