Sin is a Gray Area

This post started out as a four-years-to-late ode to my favorite television show, Lost. It was going to be about how what makes that story both so confusing and so compelling is its moral ambiguity. Perhaps someday I’ll revisit that post, but what I have here now is broader and more fitting for Lent.

I’m neither a neurologist nor ethicist, so take this paragraph with an extra grain of salt. Our brains really like to categorizing stuff. Bombarded with information from the second we’re born, we’re constantly interacting with and organizing data and concepts. I don’t know what it would be like to try to function without categories – if that’s even possible. Of course, two of the most helpful categories that we form early on (or maybe are born with – that’s a can of worms to open some other time) are good and not-good/bad/evil. It’s really nice when a person, thing, event, action, or idea falls into one of these categories, and a lot of times this is a fairly simple distinction. It’s good to help an old lady across the street; it’s bad to push her into traffic. Simple.

But sometimes these categories fail us, or at least, are just not sufficient enough. It’s convenient when a person, thing, event, action or idea is (metaphorically) black or white, but more often than not, we encounter a gray area.

Some of us like to take a situation, analyze it quickly, and form an opinion about it, but for many of this world’s most significant points of conflict, this is really tricky. When things go wrong, we want to blame people – usually one person or a group of people that is not like us (e.g. “the Tea Party” or “Russians”). This is in part because we need to point our anger somewhere, but also in part because we want to ensure that whatever bad thing has happened won’t happen again. We want to fix evil. However, when it comes to stuff like natural disasters, mental illness, or even crimes committed by someone dealing with extenuating circumstances, the scapegoat is unclear. Finding a solution to gray-area evils might be impossible, or at least, far more challenging than when dealing with evil that is more clear-cut.

The best example of how I’ve seen this manifested recently is a little strong, so bear with me. I was intrigued last year by our nation’s reaction to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our society was appropriately horrified and angry. We needed to direct those feelings somewhere, and take steps to ensure that something like that would never happen again. But the shooter had a mental illness, so blaming him and his family was complicated, much more so than if he had been, say, a terrorist with an agenda. So a lot of people channeled their anger against gun-rights groups and petitioned for tighter regulations. Whether or not they were correct in doing that is neither here nor there. What intrigued – and on some level deeply saddened – me was that our large and powerful society was forced to collectively deal with the fact that this world is fallen and sometimes evil stuff just happens, without clear cause, explanation, or solution.

Moving away from this large-scale example, it’s kind of an understatement to say that sin is everywhere. The fall affects every element of our lives and every aspect of this world. While there is that which is clearly good and that which is clearly evil, a lot of conflict is somewhere in between. Good people will always do bad things. Our societies will always fail us. And evil stuff will, sometimes, just happen.

And that sucks. It’s so sad, and so frustrating, especially for a people obsessed with solutions, answers, and progress. But what can we do? Nothing – and that might be the point. We can’t do anything to fix this messy, fallen world, except hope that everything tarnished by sin will someday be restored by grace. That’s the promise of Easter, and sometimes it’s all we have.


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