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Sin and Social Work

I was reading a piece on Huffington Post about how men turn grumpy at 70, sort of like adolescents turn moody and recalcitrant in the first years of puberty, both for hormonal reasons.  It would have been depressing – not least for my poor wife, who lives both with a querulous septuagenarian and a truculent teen. Except, says the author, there are five stages of male grumpiness extending across the whole range of life from adolescence to dotage. That put it all in perspective, I suppose.

While on that page I noticed a link to another Huffpo article about how the Duck Dynasty matriarch, Miss Kay, had forgiven the Duck Dynasty patriarch, Phil Robertson, for the way he had treated her in the early years of their marriage nearly half a century earlier.  The story is a familiar one – at least for Christians – of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and conversion of life, and a couple sticking it out through the process and very happy they did so.

Huffpo told the story more or less straight, at least compared with other postings of the “gotcha!” kind.  But the hundreds of hateful comments that followed made up for Huffpo’s restraint.

Representative but chosen at random are these responses:

*Why is it that these Christian values fools that keep telling the rest of us that we are wrong for not believing in “their” ways & teachings time & time again always the ones caught cheating & breaking their own code?

 *So I guess this makes him a hypocrite and she is another enabler … Typical Christian behavior!

Not all comments were of this kind.  The charge of hypocrisy was common, but some pointed out that to have sinned, repented, and changed your life to conform to what you consider God’s will does not make you a hypocrite.  As one reader says:

*Just in case you don’t know: hyp·o·crite [hip-uh-krit] – 1.a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.

 He WAS an alcoholic and he DID commit adultery. Past tense.

I am struck by the gulf of incomprehension between the Christian and much more numerous anti-Christian commentators.  The story of a sinful man repenting, being forgiven, converting his life to follow God is thousands of years old and repeated many times in Old and New Testaments, from David to Matthew, Paul and countless others. It is cause for joy in heaven.

And yet it is incomprehensible to the gotcha crowd who relentlessly judge those they accuse of judging. None of the anti-Christian commentators offers a shred of evidence to show that either Miss Kay or her husband of nearly 50 years is “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.”

It is said that saints – men and women of heroic virtue – are those most aware of their own sin.  Any Christian who examines his conscience knows he sins.  When asked to describe himself, Pope Francis – no drunk or adulterer – said simply, “I am a sinner.”  We all depend on God’s infinite mercy.

Of course, there are hypocrites among Christians who, like the Pharisees of old, pretend to have virtues they don’t possess.  But that is not the charge in this case.  The charge is that Phil Robertson once struggled with alcoholism and committed adultery.  For this, if you are a Christian, they imply there is no forgiveness, no repentance, no conversion of life.  And those like Miss Kay who do forgive are “enabling” behavior that no one claims has actually occurred for decades.

So how do we understand people who acknowledge neither sin nor repentance nor forgiveness?

One part of the gotcha response seems to be a hatred of those who try to live virtuously, with God’s help, and who thereby seem to be a living condemnation of the moral state of those who don’t even try.

But what does it mean not to try?  It is not that the anti-Christians recognize such a way of framing the problem. They don’t. They do not have even the sense of sin in the first place. The whole idea of living virtuously implies that one holds oneself to standards that for most of us do not come easily.  Virtuous habits are acquired through practice and lost through disuse.  We aim for virtue but often fall short of our own standards and principles.

This, the classical and Christian understanding, implies that there is a moral truth about what is good and what evil.  What repels so many anti-Christians, I think, is that they have no grounds for discriminating between good and evil except what they actually choose to do.

Better in this view to rationalize and justify what we actually choose and do than to try to aim higher and risk failing.  Even aiming for virtue seems like an intolerable judgment on those who do not.  Better to escape the charge of hypocrisy by not having beliefs and principles that one’s actions could belie.  One cannot fail to live up to standards one doesn’t have or that do not differ from whatever one does – not because one is saintly but because the standards adapt to what one’s actions.

To what extent are we infected with this relativistic, subjective way of excluding the very idea and sense of sin from our thinking about social work practice? Like a priest or pastor, we work as part of our practice with people of whose behavior we disapprove as wrong or harmful, whether illegal or not.

So here’s my question. As Christians we recognize that the sinner is at the heart of our faith.  Our sinfulness and our need for repentance, mercy, forgiveness are central and unavoidable. All of which implies that we are fallen and in need of the redemption that God offers us through his Son. But the language of secular liberalism implies that there is no sin, nothing to repent of or be forgiven for, certainly not in the spheres of life, death, marriage and sex, and to suggest otherwise is intolerant and bigoted.

In social work, we lean to the latter view in the name of being non-judgmental, not wanting to stigmatize, to engage the client where he is, and so on. That may be necessary. But then, how do we integrate our faith with our practice? How do we avoid being sucked into the assumptions of secularism, with all the temptations to call evil good and vice versa (Isaiah 5:20 – “woe to those…”)? How do we manage the tension in our work between the call to be compassionate and nonjudgmental and our mission to promote human flourishing in individuals and society (see the Code of Ethics), and so the virtues of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God?

Paul Adams is professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a member of NACSW for 8 years, and co-author with Michael Novak of the recently published book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is. For more on this topic, see ch. 15 of Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, entitled, “Needed: A Sharper Sense of Sin.”

4 thoughts on “Sin and Social Work

  1. Great post and wonderful, pertinent questions that I have also pondered as a Christian social worker. An older mentor told me there's freedom in private practice and in accepting cash only clients, and I can see the freedom in that, but I wish our universities and social work profession would be more tolerant and open minded to allow Christian social workers of all spectrums to serve clients and society.

    1. I totally agree that the sinner is the heart of all we are as Christians, and, as a current MSW student, I can also agree with your comment regarding universities. I attend IU School of Social Work, and have received "underground" attacks upon my values as a Christian. It has not been from my peers, but from my instructors and internship supervisors. I use the word "undergroun" because these people have the intelligence to realize that marginalization in any form is wrong. However, I felt it many times. I have been "told on" when I have casually expressed, in closed-door, semi-private settings, any of my conservative viewpoints. I guess I naively assumed that, in this casual setting, I would be viewed as someone merely expressing their personal feelings. Universities have moved from a center for intellectual exchange to pro-liberal institutions with little to no tolerance of conservative philosophy. I find this trend to be very disturbing, and somewhat frightening, for our freedom of speech rights.

  2. I integrate my faith and practice by taking responsibility for my own failings, convictions, understandings of scripture and by believing that my clients have the right to do the same. I do not experience that as being sucked into secularism but as being consistent with the priesthood of the believer. It is not my experience that the Holy Spirit is inadequate to convict of sin. I do see my role as helping clients examine their struggles, explore their beliefs, stay open to conviction and change, and the experience of giving and receiving forgiveness.

  3. I appreciate the thoughtful post. These type of tensions can often become points of growth for us–opportunities to think and pray for new insights. Well done!

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