Sin is Not a Crime: A Conversation with Patrick Cheng 

The next time a Christian prattles on about how gay sex is a sin, blame Augustine.

The Church Father who gave us the doctrine of original sin also had a very negative view of sexuality in general—and gave us the idea that the only appropriate sex is for procreation, within the bounds of marriage.

But, as Patrick Cheng reminds us in his latest book, From Sin to Amazing Grace, there are Christian traditions that pre-date Augustine’s prudish views. 

Cheng, who grew up Roman Catholic and left a successful career as a lawyer to become a professor and theologian, wrote this book in the hope that it would help not only LGBT people, but anyone searching for a better way to think about these doctrines. He does that by defining seven new deadly sins and seven new graces, all seen through the lens of the life and teachings of a queer Christ.

Cheng took time recently to talk with Religion Dispatches’ Candace Chellew-Hodge about his new book, and his ancient model.

 

LGBT Christians love to talk about grace, but the topic of sin can be painful for us. Why do we need to talk about sin now?

In some ways I feel like this conversation is Queer Christianity 201 and not 101 because so many of us in the LGBT community have been so deeply hurt by sin talk that I feel like it doesn’t allow people to come closer to God. When we can’t experience our relationship with God without the sin language it becomes harder to deepen that relationship. I can understand why people would not want to talk about it. For me, for many years, I couldn’t talk about it either and I feel like it’s been a gift in my own theological development to try and translate this into something that would make sense in my own context. In some ways this book is a gift to try to share with the larger community.

How has “sin talk” hurt the LGBT community?

It’s not just here in America but in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—there is such real harm that comes from sin talk. People get hurt and get killed. I think if we’re more rooted in being confident in God’s love for us and Christian doctrines it helps us to have armor and these attacks can bounce off.

My husband, Michael, and I have gone to church and we just sit on edge during the sermon wondering of the pastor would go anywhere near the “S” word, “sin,” and if so, just the thought of that would trigger us and make us want to leave. It takes on such a powerful life of its own, versus really understanding that sin is universal for us who walk the Christian path. I think it’s an empowering concept—it’s not just us, everyone needs to work on it, and especially those who call us “sinners.” One of the things we can do is call them out on that.

You propose seven new deadly sins and seven new amazing graces—what are they?

The core of my book is to move from this crime-based model of sin to a Christ-centered model of sin, and it’s not some kind of newfangled thing. As someone who teaches early church history, I’m trying to draw on this alternative strand of thinking about salvation and grace and God’s love and Christ infusing divinity within human beings.

To the extent that Christ is always “coming out” in the gospels, I think of sin as remaining in the closet and grace as actually coming out.

Pride is also one of the seven graces. Pride is not the root of all sin, for some LGBT folks shame is the central sin.

Are there any of these sins and graces that resonate more with you and why?

The Queer Christ model that I call The Hybrid Christ, both divine and human—a blend of both. For me, as a queer person of color and an Asian American who is also gay, I often feel like I’m never able to bring the two together, I’m always forced to choose. Will I be Asian American today or gay today? In the LGBT community, even where I feel really safe, I rarely hear anything that affirms my cultural background or the racism of notions of beauty in the community.

Singularity is the sin that resonates with me—forcing people to choose one thing over another in terms of our identities. Hybridity, like an apple-pear blend, gets to the notion that we can be “both/and” which I think is at the heart of the incarnation. It’s personal for me as I wrestle with the race and sexuality issue.

Gender and sexuality can be a dualism as well. It’s not like gay men can’t be misogynist…

Gender identity, too. Transfolk are often disregarded in the same way. Even those who aren’t people of color, the very notion of being Christian and LGBT at the same time is rejected. So much of my work is about bringing the two together. I think there is something powerful about the grace of hybridity.

It’s great to talk about sin and grace in our own community but how do we use this new way of thinking to enter into dialogue with anti-gay Christians?

There are some folks with whom dialogue is not helpful. Some people are so wrapped up in their own world that nothing you can say will help—and it will hurt them more. This model will not speak to the fundamentalist or those so deeply entrenched in the doctrine of blood atonement that they’re not going to be able to see this model—even though it’s ancient and in some ways even more beautiful than Western notions of sin and grace that we’ve inherited.

Those in the moveable middle or a little bit to the right are longing for ways to heal themselves, and I think that this crime-based Augustinian model may have hurt them too. My experience has been that when these people hear this it opens their eyes in ways that is healing for them. They can be more compassionate to others once they are compassionate to themselves.

Often, I feel like those who are the most rigid and harsh toward LGBT folks are projecting their own rigidities within themselves. Maybe this can also speak to them in their places of hurt. There’s little need for debate, or prooftexting, or arguing about theological concepts.

That never works. People just harden their positions.

Maybe that’s the beauty of this model that we’re all called to be divine and the good news is we are all infused with divinity. We may fall short, but we’ll get there.

Let’s back up a second and define some terms. You talk about a “criminal-based” tradition of sin and grace. Can you give us your understanding of that?

The “crime-based” model of sin is that God has laws on the books and when you break the law you have to be punished for that. It begins in the reading of the Garden of Eden in Genesis and original sin with Adam and Eve disobeying God’s law against eating from the tree. Grace is God coming in and saying, “I’ve acquitted you, you’re forgiven. You may have to pay a price and then you’ll have to be rehabilitated.” It’s a back and forth about breaking laws and rehabilitation.

Atonement, where Jesus comes in to fill the gap between us and God, is this notion that Jesus has to pay a price, a “penal substitution,” on our behalf because we can’t pay the price that’s so huge for offending God. This is the legalistic model —it’s very medieval, where you have a Lord and you don’t want to upset the Lord.

What you’re proposing to replace this is something that actually reaches further back in Christian tradition.

In the East, where Christianity really did start, there is this idea that our problem is not so much an original sin and a fall, but a stumble, and God lifts us up. It’s not that everything is shattered, it’s that we are allowed to start again and re-infuse creation with divinity because we kind of messed up. I think of sin as immaturity. We’re all growing, and grace is deification—or becoming like God, to become holy like God. That’s a very ancient tradition that is amazingly beautiful. I’m sad that we don’t talk about that in the Western tradition.

I wrote once on the idea that we “evolve toward perfection.” It’s not begging God for forgiveness for breaking a law, but being thankful for a learning experience so we can grow in our own divinity.

The beauty of this model is that it takes us away from an individual, or selfish view of sin and more to a corporate model. We’re all in this together and we’re all at different stages. Instead of thinking, “Oh, what have I done and how can I work myself into salvation?” which ends up in works righteousness, the Christ-centered model is that we all have our eyes on the prize.

We prefer an individual model of sin, though, because it takes the heat off of ourselves when we can point to others as worse sinners.

Yes, that does make us feel better, doesn’t it? But, when you understand Paul’s notion of us being the one body of Christ, you can’t say you don’t have need of one another. This is how a Christ-centered model can help, reminding us of the corporate nature of salvation.

How can a new way to look at sin and grace empower the LGBT community to transform the “traditional” view of these things in mainstream Christianity?

Having an alternative model can help affirming and reconciling congregations to have this dialogue so it no longer becomes a cringe-worthy moment whenever sin is mentioned. Once there is a way of talking about sin that people are comfortable and confident with people can move forward. We can acknowledge our corporate sinfulness and move on from there. If you think one particular sin is worse than another, that’s not what we need to talk about. We should be talking about how we all can get to grace and salvation.

It can also help LGBT Christians move beyond the happy, clappy place after they’ve explained away Leviticus, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Genesis and now what? How do we keep on growing? I think this is a lifelong journey.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008)