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Sin City

October 04 2017
October 04 2017

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Las Vegas may be called “Sin City,” but nobody could have anticipated or wanted the evil that unfolded this past Sunday in what is now America’s deadliest mass shooting. In my post yesterday, I encouraged us to follow Jesus’ example and weep over the toll violence takes. Death is a thief, and it robs our humanity. Thankfully, our hope in the victory of Jesus Christ is secure, even when the worst tragedies strike. We serve a risen Savior who has already begun to turn back the tide of death.

Even so, how ought we to understand these sorts of tragedies? This is the second question I asked yesterday. I’m wondering if we, as Christians, might offer any explanatory relief to these and other similar horrifying events. I think we can.

Let’s begin by exploring that word, “sin.” Las Vegas has glamorized it by telling the world that they are Sin City. But this doesn’t mean that Las Vegas is the place where the worst of humanity’s depravity gathers. Everyone knows what is meant by this label. Las Vegas is the place where we view “sin” as manageable, a harmless indulgence of the flesh. Sin may be edgy and excessive at times, but certainly not evil. Sin is an advertising strategy, not a cancer coursing through humanity.

The media coverage that followed the shooting only highlighted our culture’s belief that sin is categorically irrelevant as an explanation for evil. I was struck by by an NPR interview of Professor Jeffery Swanson, a social scientist and medical sociologist who studies mass shootings at Duke. After acknowledging that the national conversation is likely to focus in on debates about gun control, the interviewer, David Green, asked a poignant question:

Is there something that we're not thinking about? Is there something maybe politically unpopular but - but, you know, some solution that we could look for as a country to prevent something like this, or is it a matter of just enduring these moments?

His question kept me in the car for a few minutes longer. I was eager to hear Swanson’s response. Sadly though, he disappointed me when he turned the conversation back to debates about gun control. I thought, “I can think of something politically unpopular for us to discuss—sin.”

But why is this the case? Aside from the fact that such a discussion would have ended the interview, any discussion about sin in the public square is seen as irrelevant. It’s either, as I mentioned above, something to glamorize, or, and this may be what most think, the concept of sin is more about discrete behaviors, even moral failures, rather than an endemic condition afflicting the human race. In other words, we commit sins but Sin doesn’t have anything to do with that.

Such a conception of sin derives from a materialistic view of the world—one where the only things that count are those which are visible, monitored and testable. As a result, our conversations revolve around discussions of mental illness, gun control, racial prejudice, religious hatred and economic conditions that are likely to give birth to violence.

In a materialistic view of things, viewpoints coming from a transcendent frame are out-of-bounds. This means that things like human dignity, absolute morality and , yes, Sin have no real explanatory standing, at least not in their traditional sense. And this is tragic. As believers we ought to help those around us understand how complex and fitting is the Bible’s view of sin. Richard Lovelace puts it well,

But the structure of sin in the human personality is something far more complicated than the isolated acts and thoughts of deliberate disobedience commonly designated by the word.  In its biblical definition, sin cannot be limited to isolated instances of wrongdoing; it something much more akin to the psychological term complex: an organic network of compulsive attitudes, beliefs, and behavior deeply rooted in our alienation from God.

While discomforting, there is great value to this definition. For one thing, it in no way diminishes the relevance of complicating variables—like mental illness, racial prejudice, political realities or economic injustice. Each has its own relevance. Sin, however, refuses to  isolate these discussions. Instead, a robust understanding of Sin means that all of these issues and more are negatively affected by it.

This turn to the theological may be all the more important in the instance of the Las Vegas shooting, when no other motivation is readily apparent. Perhaps the dark motivations of the shooter were so deeply embedded and interwoven into his person that only a theological and Biblical explanation will suffice. Such is the inscrutability and tragedy of sin.

But, of course, there is one other reason why we want to avoid this discussion about sin. Culpability. As long as the basis for what’s worst in our society is due to mental illness, racial prejudice, economic disparity or the politics of power, then maybe, we imagine, we are not responsible or we are not a part of the problem. Evil is the product of other people.

The Bible’s view of sin, however, is not so discriminating. Rather, it’s devastating. According to the apostle Paul,

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Rom. 3:10-12).

This means, theologically speaking, that the Sin afflicting the shooter also afflicts us. Now, I’m not suggesting that we will or are likely to take similar actions. God’s grace, thankfully, wonderfully restrains our worst impulses. Nevertheless, the Bible’s view of sin refuses to give us a pass or act as though there is a great chasm between us and those who commit the greatest evil.

This is profoundly sobering. But I think that sobriety is one of the things our society needs most right now. If we thought it was true before Sunday, let’s realize now that “what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas;” we carry it with us wherever we go. This also is why our ultimate hope must be Jesus Christ as he is offered to us in the Gospel (Rom. 6:23).


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