“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Many of us heard that familiar declaration in church yesterday; John the Baptist said it about Jesus, not once but twice in the appointed Gospel passage (John 1:29-42). Some Christians hear it every Sunday at the Eucharistic table.
It’s worth noting that John did not say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away your individual mistakes.” I don’t mean to discount our individual lives. I do mean to consider what this claim about Jesus might suggest about a concept of sin that was much more common in ancient Mediterranean societies than in our own day.
I’m referring to what modern Western people often have great difficulty in grasping—the notion of social, communal, or shared sinfulness. When John refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he does not mean just the sum total of our mistakes as individuals; he likely had in mind the sinfulness of the world.
This actually does matter for us as individuals, but for reasons that grate against the individualism of the modern West. The near-constant refrain about individual accountability in the contemporary Western world is usually made without any reference to the social systems that shape our individual choices, decisions, and actions.
All of us are deeply entangled in economic, cultural, and institutional structures that form us and train us to live and think in certain ways. These constitute our “world” of behaviors and interactions, and we can be grateful for how such a world instills patterns of civility, kindness, even “good manners” (remember those?).
That same “world” of social conditioning, however, often favors some at the expense of others. Those who benefit from these institutional structures rarely had any hand in creating them even while they reap a reward from them; these structures and patterns of relating actually predate all of us, like “original sin.” This is what social theorists try to notice concerning patriarchy, or heterosexism, or white supremacy.
What kind of “world,” then do we inhabit here in the United States? The poet Mary Oliver responded to that question by imagining what future generations might say about us, and wrote this (from her 2008 collection, Red Bird):
We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people) for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say…that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
Martin Luther King, Jr., did not believe such things about American society in his own day—that its heart was small, and hard, and full of meanness. The fact that he did not believe it back then—in those days of whites-only lunch counters and police dogs and bombs that blew up little girls in Sunday school—that King did not apparently believe such a society was small of heart and mean actually takes my breath away.
Some would say he was simply foolish and naive; indeed, Malcolm X said as much about him. But Martin Luther King, Jr., was not foolish, or naïve, and he wasn’t optimistic about this society, either; but he was hopeful, which is often an occupational hazard among ministers of the Gospel.
A “hazard,” because hope does not always feel very comfortable, and it can make us say things and do things that can look quite silly or foolhardy to others.
Hope can make us insist, as King said, that all of us, both black and white, are “bound together in a single garment of destiny.”
Hope can inspire us to imagine, not the defeat of our enemies, but their conversion through love.
For King, the whole universe of God’s creation is moving toward a single goal, what he called the “Beloved Community.” King drew inspiration for that image, in part, from American philosopher Josiah Royce, who argued that “Church” is not optional but is actually an essential component of Christian faith. Why? Precisely because the problem Christianity tries to address is not how individuals get to Heaven, but whether genuine healing is possible for our deeply fragmented lives. Heaven certainly mattered for Royce, but we get there with others or not at all—which is exactly why the Apostle Paul turned so often to the image of the Body of Christ with its many diverse members.
This brings to mind King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was addressed directly and exactly to people like me—white, liberal ministers. I find myself inspired and moved when I listen to King wax eloquent on the Washington Mall about his “dream,” but I squirm when I read his letter from jail.
Those white, liberal ministers to whom King wrote were the ones who appreciated King’s work but wanted him to slow down, the ones who sympathized with “the race problem” but worried about what the solution would cost, the ones who condemned individual acts of racism but failed to understand how institutional systems made racism itself all but inevitable.
King had been exploring those themes for some time. In a speech that he delivered the year prior to writing that Birmingham letter, King outlined the “ethical demands of integration,” by which he meant much more than “desegregation.” King certainly applauded desegregating schools and places of business, but this was hardly sufficient for a path toward the “Beloved Community.” It is certainly useful that the process of desegregation can be legislated and regulated, but this just outsources justice to institutions whose hearts have not changed.
What’s needed instead, he argued, is integration—a social movement of the heart that leads toward the always unimaginable intimacy with people who are not just different from us but also those who have opposed our own thriving, even with violence.
“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
The Lamb who not only forgives sin, not only atones for sin, but takes it away.
Would we recognize the world without its sins? Would we even find such a world desirable? Do we prefer a world with its familiar sins to how strange and disorienting the world would be without them?
To whom does the “we” refer in those questions? At the very least, it refers to well-meaning white liberals, like me. In that same gospel passage from yesterday, people like me heard a hint of what following Jesus entails—nothing less than an identity remade in a world transformed.
The hint came from what Jesus did when he first met Simon, Andrew’s brother. Jesus gave him a new name: Peter.