The Unfortunate Use of the ‘S’ Word

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Dennis Garvin
Dennis Garvin

Following the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, George Bush addressed the nation. In the body of his message regarding the government commitment to punish the perpetrators, he used the word (intentionally or otherwise) crusade.

I believe this was either an unfortunate, or foolish, use of the word.  In that one word, President Bush alienated the millions of peaceful Muslims who otherwise might have felt sympathy with the USA.  How could this happen? It is the use of a buzz word.

A buzz word is pejorative, evoking a gut level negative reaction in the listener. The same thing would happen if a person used Nazi to a Jewish audience; the n—- word to an African American audience.  As a physician, I am very careful with the word cancer.   A buzz word produces a physical reaction in the listener; one measurable by the galvanic skin response indicator used in polygraph testing.  There is an even more ominous reaction.

I submit, for your consideration, the word SIN as a buzz word.  When I was an atheist, I detested the word.  Even now, as a Christian of some decades, I dislike the word.  It evokes, in me, an image of a fire-breathing puritanical preacher pointing a long accusatory finger at me while declaiming my shortcomings (conveniently ignoring his own).

Now, for the more ominous reaction mentioned above: when you employ a buzz word, your conversation will be governed, not by your definition of the buzz word, but by the definition that the listener applies to the buzz word, no matter how benign your presentation.  If you try to persuade African Americans of the validity of a point of view that requires the ‘N’ word as a positive adjective, you are deluded if you expect success.  The same thing applies to the word SIN.

Why use it in discussion with agnostics or atheists? Many modern Christians embrace this word and insist that you must use it, ‘telling it like it is.’  I respectfully disagree.  Vehemently.  My reasons are simple:

  1. It is a word that is acceptable inside of Christian circles, among the people who understand that it is a word of motivation; having learned the difference between conviction and condemnation.
  2. Jesus’ mission statement, at the beginning of his work on earth (Luke 4:18-19) never used the ‘s’ word. His words were ‘good news’, ‘freedom,’ ‘recovery,’ ‘release,’ and ‘favor’.
  3. The only time I can find Jesus’ use of the ‘s’word to a person was with the woman caught in adultery. His use of the word was lovingly and only after he had saved her from a crowd who had probably been using buzz words while getting ready to murder her.
  4. God advises us not to judge. Using a word that conveys judgement without love is totally nonproductive.
  5. What, after all, is SIN? It is nothing more than a thought or action that God would rather we not spend time on.  It is error.  That definition and that word is both true and far less pejorative.

I think that we evangelical Christians need to get over ourselves.  It is not about us, it is not about words.  It is about conveying to an uncertain, questioning world the gospel (translates ‘good news’).

The idea of a sinful humanity is central to the Christian message, but does not belong at the beginning of a dialogue, any more than a solution should precede the mystery in a book.

First, we must establish His existence and His love.  When I fell in love with my Creator, I did not give a rip about sin; I simply, in my hero worship, sought to avoid behavior that might displease Him.  It is love, not fear of punishment, that gives resonance to the Christian message.  We should avoid the approach:  The good news is that there is a God; the bad news, that He is ticked off at you.

One final point:  if you look at the original Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Greek of the New Testament (the quotes of which were probably spoken originally in Aramaic.), virtually all translations available to us use ‘sin’ where the original manuscripts used many words (the Old Testament uses 6 nouns and 3 verbs; the New Testament used 33 different words).

The medieval Catholics tried to divide sin into cardinal versus venial.  Aside from this, modern Christians make no distinction regarding levels of sinfulness.  Before you bridle, understand that I understand:  sin is sin.  But Only to those who are inside the circle of understanding.

I am not saying the current Bible translations are in error; rather, they leave it to us to understand and complete the message.  It is up to you, fellow Christian.  Will you choose love over judgment?  If you insist on the use of the ‘s’word in your dialogue, don’t be surprised by failure.  We reap what we sow.

– Dennis Garvin