Thursday, May 29, 2014

Can We Do the Right Thing?

I was in a discussion last week with some friends and the topic of sin came up, particularly the Christian concept of sin as found in the New Testament Greek term, hamartia, which is often translated, “missing the mark” (The same word was used in ancient Greek drama to describe a "tragic flaw" in the protagonist). The discussion with my friends reminded me of some thoughts I shared several years ago at the Birmingham Unitarian Church when I was asked to participate in one of their services. In preparing for that service, I had harked back to one of my most eye-opening days in seminary when my pastoral care professor, Dr. J. Lyn Elder, shared his translation of hamartia

The Greek word begins with the negative "a" (as in agnostic, atheist, amoral, etc.) but we pronounce it ha-martia because it is one of those Greek words with the "breath mark" at the beginning: μαρτία. Dr. Elder translated the word as "non-involvement," stating that "martia" was a term often used to describe military involvement, thus “a-martia” could be understood as non-involvement.  I did a quick online check (not claiming that to be a scholarly act) and found that according to Strong's Greek Lexicon, the word hamartia comes from the Greek root words, "not a part of." If martia was a military term, that might explain the common translation of hamartia to mean "missing the mark" as in not hitting the target, but the concept of non-involvement gave me a whole new take on the New Testament concept of sin. The translation of a single Greek word does not by any means convey the sum of all truth, but it can often open up new ways to think about a topic.  Here is the idea as I presented it to my Unitarian friends:

My Understanding of Sin

by Charles Kinnaird

My earliest understanding of sin probably was formed before I even had heard the word. When I think back on my early childhood, I had been given definite views of right and wrong. I understood from my parents and from my interactions with siblings and playmates that it was wrong to be selfish, wrong to be greedy, and wrong to do anything that would hurt others. I remember hearing the Golden Rule in Sunday School when I was about six years old, and it made complete sense to me. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," was uncomplicated and easily grasped, though often not attained by the impulsive child that I was (nor by the impulsive human that I am).

When I became older, I remember hearing about sin, always in a religious context, and with it came a list of things not to do because they displeased God. By the time I was a teenager there was an ever growing laundry list of things that were considered to be sinful. Among Evangelical Christians it was popular to define sin as "missing the mark," supposedly a translation of the Greek New Testament word hamartia. It was not until I was an adult that I heard a translation of that word that made sense. I learned that the Greek word martia was a term that meant involvement. Thus the term hamartia is the negative which can be translated "non-involvement." So as a young adult I began to understand sin as non-involvement in what God is doing. My understanding of what God is doing is that God creates, nurtures, and helps beings to grow toward their full potential. So if we are not involved in creativity, if we are not involved in nurturing the environment, if our actions do not contribute to well-being of others, then we are not involved in doing what God does.

I still hold to that concept of sin being non-involvement. But to be honest I can't be involved in everything that I consider to be a worthy endeavor. I have to trust that there are others to pick up my slack. Even so, whether an action is deemed right or not may be measured by how that action is one of nurturing, healing, helping or creating.  The older I get, the more I go back to my earliest understanding of sin and how to avoid it: don't be greedy, don't be selfish, don't hurt others, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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