As a kid, I found the Jesus dying for our sins concepts particularly disturbing. My parents’ church had a giant crucifix over the altar, with Christ on the cross, thorns in his head, face contorted. Not uncommon in Catholic churches, though some have a more peaceful looking Christ, or even show him as he is about to rise. I remember staring at the crucifix as I waited in line to go to confession. (For those not familiar with concept, in confession a person goes into a small booth, kneels, says some words by rote to open the session, then confesses his or her sins. The priest, who is on the other side of a screen and, in theory at least, does not know who is confessing, absolves the person. The priest also provides a penance, often a number of prayers to be said a certain number of items. When I was older, the church offered face-to-face confession, so you sat and talked with the priest rather than kneeling in the dark.)
The difficulty I had as a kid was finding things to confess. For the most part, I behaved pretty well. I rarely told lies, I helped out other people when I could, I shared my toys. Yet I’d been taught that by virtue of being born, I was a sinner, so I felt deficient that I couldn’t come up with a sin or two every week to tell. I ended with confessing things like feeling mad at my mom. (Now there was a topic for a therapy, I believed just feeling angry was a sin.) I’ve talked to other people who grew up Catholic who said they made up sins just to have something to say, so apparently I wasn’t the only one.
The sins I did commit didn’t strike me as quite bad enough to warrant nailing someone to a cross. And I also felt troubled by the concept of a baby having original sin until it was baptized. The church still taught about limbo at the time. Limbo was where unbaptized babies went when they died, as they couldn’t go to heaven but hadn’t done anything that warranted to hell. I pictured all these babies just sort of floating out there. Kids have a strong sense of fairness, and this seemed monumentally unfair to me.
As an adult, I find the concept of original sin even more troubling. Why as a culture (or as a part of a culture), do so many people buy into the idea that being human makes us inherently bad? Some people do terrible things, sometimes unspeakable things. But by and large, most people go through the day and do their best to treat others well, or at least not to harm them. Most of the “evil” I’ve seen seems to me to arise from emotional pain, frustration, or ignorance. And those people who act solely to hurt or torture others, who derive pleasure from that – Manson, Gacy – we recognize as aberrations. It’s hard to imagine any amount of Sunday school would make a difference.
Confession may be good for the soul because we all need to confide in other people. And we all find ourselves needing forgiveness at one time or another. But the idea that before we’ve done anything, we already need to be absolved, saved, redeemed, and the idea that being human means being inherently wrong – that is something else entirely.
Lisa M. Lilly
Lisa M. Lilly
Author of The Awakening
Will Tara Spencer’s mysterious pregnancy bring the world its first female messiah? Or trigger the Apocalypse?