One of the things I had to learn after Jackie and I were married was that things are not always someone’s fault. It was not necessarily that if something went wrong that I blamed Jackie, rather I felt the need to state that something was not my fault.
You see, I grew up in a family where things were always someone’s fault. And it was not only our family life and behaviour that was viewed in this way but the world in general. Consequently, the world was black and white, good and bad, educated and primitive, civilized and alien.
This was how my mother operated, my father was not around much.
When you grow up with this view of the world, you will think that this is how the world is and that everyone must view the world in this way. And because this view suggests causality, it can be persuasive. And because it is persuasive it is hard for people to give up. To this day, I try to find causality in many things, whether there is any or not.
I think there are two things that helped me figure out that I could not live this way, and that no one should live this way.
One was that while I was frequently viewed as the cause of calamities (I was “a difficult child”), I knew that I was not, or not exclusively. I may have cut down the wrong Christmas tree in our small back yard (not having been told that the juniper was to stand in for the Christmas tree), but it was not my fault that my mother had no cause for happiness other than the tree I had just cut down.
This was a difficult time but it was an easy conclusion to reach.
The other, and more important reason was that I knew Jesus, and more importantly, I knew that Jesus knew me and loved me. And this did have a very personal dimension to it. God loved us while we were still sinners, says St Paul. And that meant that somehow causality did not matter, not in the sense of whose fault it was, only in regards to God coming into our world in Jesus. Jesus came because all of creation longs for redemption. And so God’s view of the world is defined by God’s love revealed in Jesus, not by our sin or the sin of the first human beings. God’s love is self-giving and does not seek fault but it bears all fault, as St Paul so famously describes in 1 Corinthians 13. The scriptures tell us about what happened in the garden not in order to lay blame but to set the stage for redemption. We heard this today: “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19)
I am telling you about my family not because my family matters to our worship but because scapegoating is the basic mechanism by which humans seek to resolve conflict. Scapegoating would say that getting rid of Trump would solve most problems (if that were your political leaning) without admitting that it would do nothing to explain why he was elected in the first place.
One of the reasons the world is so messed up is that it is easier to lay blame than to work together. It is easy to blame the other, whether they be liberal or conservative, Muslim or Christian, gay or straight, rich or poor, politician or average citizen, male or female. The less we know about a person, the easier it is to lay blame. This is made easier by the fact that we carry anxiety toward that which we do not know or understand. And to label someone or something helps us make sense of our world and restores the stability we seek, even if our labelling is untrue.
This is what we find in the story from Genesis, even though all the players in the story know each other. When God queries Adam about who ate the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden, Adam lays the blame elsewhere. In blaming his partner Adam is able to lie to himself about his own desire. Adam’s deception is therefore not only a lie to God but a lie to himself about who he is. Marilynne Robinson says, we lie more effectively to ourselves than to others.
The good news of the Gospel is that we do not have to lie to ourselves, because God’s love for us is not dependent on how good we are. In fact, Adam’s lie was a continuation of his distrust in God which began with the disobeying of the command. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask whether God would have allowed Adam and Eve to remain in the garden had they not shifted blame from themselves to others but had fessed up and thus trusted God.
The theologian James Alison says that our way to read the story of the fall by and large is shaped by our desire to lay blame. In this way reading the story of Adam and Eve becomes a story about the corruption of the world and of human nature. “It is because of them and of their disobedience,” we would say. Yet the assigning of blame does not help us understand our own lives.
Alison says, that the story of what we call the fall, must be read from God’s redeeming work in Christ, so that the question is not so much how does “Adam’s sin affect us, as how does Christ’s forgiveness (which we are charged to make real) affect Adam?”
The point is that Jesus’ sinless sacrifice not only takes away the sin of the world but also makes a different life possible. A life in which we don’t lay blame and in which finding a scapegoat does not become the way in which we explain the world.
Understanding then that what the scriptures tell us about Adam they say about us, and that Jesus did not come to lay blame but to forgive sins, makes it possible for us to be made new.
What we see in the story of the temptation of Jesus is that Jesus does not rationalize his desires in the way the tempter suggests it, which would mean not to own them. He would eat because he was hungry and being hungry was not his fault. He would rationalize his submission to Satan by saying that with more power he can do more good.
But Jesus does not do this, he lives out of God’s will alone and desires what God desires.
I said at the beginning that I still try to explain things in causalities where there are not any, and I am still quick to accept blame rightly or wrongly. But what did change is that my world is not defined by whose fault something is, because we share a common humanity and by God’s grace God’s forgiveness is more determinative than Adam’s sin.
May we be people who do not seek to lay blame but build community, who do not exclude but include, who hold no grudge but instead offer forgiveness, who know God’s gift in Jesus and are honest with themselves.
May it be so among us.