Monday, October 12, 2009

The wages of sin, the consequences of karma

The concepts of sin and karma are very complex and often times complex concepts become reduced to a simplification of a single aspect of their nature, which makes some people uncomfortable with the term. Some theists say sin is disobedience to or separation from God, but this depends on how we understand God. What does a connection with or following God mean? I have written about my views on this numerous times, but it boils down to everything being sacred. Sin isn't just about list of naughty behaviors and hoping some Big Guy in the Sky doesn't catch us and punish us for being bad, it about choosing a lesser life. It is seeing God as the source and substance of reality; sin in that sense is delusion, a failure to appreciate or accept our fundamental interdependence with all phenomena and seeing ourselves at intrinsic and autonomous beings of primary or exclusive value. This selfishness keeps us from actualizing our full potential, short-selling ourselves and cheating others who might have benefited from our lives.

Karma is refers to cause and effect and the fact that we cannot escape the consequences of our actions. The seeds we plant will sprout and grow when they meet the right conditions in our lives. If we have sewn the seeds of suffering and we react poorly to the activation of those seeds, we simply sew additional seeds for the future. It's like telling off a judge at your sentencing. You are just making things unnecessarily hard on yourself. This line of thought isn't irrelevant to the concept of sin. In fact, it reveals an often overlooked aspect of the nuance of the concept and reality of sin. While it is an ancient idea, it is often overlooked. We refer to this aspect of sin its social dimension.

The personal dimension tends to receive most of the emphasis, especially in Protestant Christianity. It focused on the consequences of a person's choices on that person and those immediately affected. Some say (and I agree) that sin contains its own punishment for the sinner, and I agree. Even if someone doesn't realize they are hurting themselves. And it may have consequences for a proximate victim. That is why we have punitive laws - to discourage the harming of others. But what about the social dimension? It refers to the fact that we are responsible for each other. So it isn't just the fault of the person committing a harmful or destructive act, it is also the fault of those who allowed that person to get so far-gone that they would behave in such a fashion. Both the personal and social dimensions are important for acts that hurt others, but what about those that we think only hurt the sinner?

The answer is -- there is no such thing.

Again, the idea that we can sin in a way that only harms ourselves comes from the preoccupation with the self. But the social dimension of sin is larger than that. It also includes what we could have thought, said, or done but failed to think, say, or do. What would we think if a firefighter sat by while a family perished in a burning home? What would we think if a social worker ignored a pregnant mother who was trying to apply for assistance to get out of a bad neighborhood? How about an employer not hiring any employees at all for an empty factory in town with many qualified candidates but few jobs. Or someone who could save or greatly improve the lives of thousands or millions withholding an idea or invention? Are these individuals not responsible for those they failed to help?

What if someone couldn't volunteer as a firefighter because he had a drug history? What if someone didn't become a social worker because she committed suicide? What if someone never started a successful business because she couldn't get investors because of years of frivolous spending and defaulting on payments? What if someone never invented a revolutionary way to cheaply and simply purify any kind of water anywhere because they just decided to drink their life away? Aren't these supposed to be personal sins? Other than friends or family, who else is really affected? Isn't it their own business? Isn't it their life to do with what they will? Or what they won't?

Yes, it is a choice. They are free to make it. But their are consequences. What if the family perishing in the fire caused a distraught and distracted relative to fail at a safety inspection, allowing a major disaster? What of the child of the pregnant mother could have found the key to curing cancer? What if the poverty of the families in that town doomed their children to lives of hardship? What if the water purifier would have brought peace and stability to certain parts of the world and prevented conflicts over access to potable water? Even if these people wouldn't have gone on to some grand future, they are still human being who suffered or perished because of the "personal choices" and "private sins" of others. Just as Clarence explains to George after granting George's wish for a world in which he had never been born in a pivotal scene from "It's a Wonderful Life":

Clarence: Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.

George: That's a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport.

Clarence: Every man on that transport died! Harry wasn't there to save them, because you weren't there to save Harry.

How many have suffered or died, are suffering and dying, or will suffer and die as a result of our selfish delusions, our hatred (born when reality doesn't match our desires), or our greed? How many people might I have touched, directly or indirectly, because of the smallest of gestures, the most modest of words, or the simplest of ideas? What about you? Don't settle for that lesser life, no matter how successful or unsuccessful you are according to conventional standards. May we all live lives worthy of ourselves and each other.

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