Sunday, 6 March 2011

Calling all Scumbags

 I love this church notice from the e-ChurchChristian blog, as it certainly puts the concept that Christ came for sinners into modern langugage. The concept of unworthiness/ sinfulness is not a very popular one in our society, we don't encourage people to put themselves down, or wallow in their sense of their shortcomings - and quite right as well because this can increase feelings of despondency and low self esteem. And yet, low self esteem, depression, addictions, broken lives and difficult situations are as common in our time as they ever were, I suspect. I am sure that, in spite of the mantra that "you're worth it", just as many people feel that they are maybe a scumbag.
The problems remain the same, the human need remains the same, the problem is finding the right language to express a timeless message that nobody is outside the love of God.


  1. Sue

    Yes, I like this. It is a difficult area tho’, for the simple reason there is a temptation to become rather proud of one’s sins. There is a recurring theme with many Christian autobiographical ‘penny-dreadfuls’; and that is the apparent delight many authors have in telling you the salacious details of their former ‘sinful’ lives! I am reminded of the story of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt because she looked backwards, when I read of or hear people going on about their past sinfulness in a manner that suggests they see their identity bound up with a past they claim to have left. There can be a temptation to use one’s past (or present) sins to jockey for position of ‘special’, ‘different’ or ‘exotic’. As we both know there are some who have made a career on being a reformed character and yet seem to have an unhealthy interest in the detail of the very ‘life’ they claim to have left behind.

    Fr Gilbert Shaw, an Anglican spiritual director and contemplative (tho’ he was married with children, wifey and children were often pushed out of the picture in favour of his ‘ministry’ which doesn’t always endear him to me) comments, in one of his retreats, that when you confess, it should just be a case of: ‘Sorry Lord, I failed again, help me to do better next time.’ and move on. Anything else is just self-justification. I think this is sound advice. One of the tasks in my research is to interview people about their connection with faith based social welfare and in the case of one organisation I am working with that doesn’t accept government money, all the staff and volunteers are members of the church that runs the social welfare agency. Hence it is appropriate to ask how they came to be members of that particular church (or new religious movement). I budget around five minutes of the interview to hear of their journey and almost always, forty-five minutes later, I have to move them on because they go into great detail telling me of their former life and their conversion experience. There are often very similar and as is the case with more detailed study of people’s conversion narratives (both Christian, Muslim and other religions) you get the feeling their recollections are highly selective, giving weight to what they see as their unique situation at the time of the conversion and inconsequential daily events that have become central to the narrative e.g. ‘I happened to see a poster about a mission event in town and I now know God showed me this so that I would go...’ – well it is the kind of logic you can’t really argue with, can you? Yet again and again, the emphasis is on the individual’s past and ‘how’ wrong their lives once were; when you have listened to as many hours of these stories as I have done, you get a bit blasé and it is tempting to finish off the narrative in the manner you know it will end – usually with the ‘self’ being emphasised rather than the reverse, which to me speaks volumes!

    I suppose all I am really is saying is that identifying with the ‘scumbag’ element is fine, but there also needs to be caution that it doesn’t, as you say, lead to low self-esteem, but moreover doesn’t lead to inverted pride and unhealthy interest in one’s past or present. So much of what we call religion is vanity – the problem is the further one progresses on the spiritual journey the more subtle this vanity becomes and alas the temptation to take pride in being a bigger scumbag than your neighbour is just as unhelpful as thinking you’re better than your neighbour. The answer is bound up in the First and Second Great Commandments – loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself. Unfortunately it takes a life time to master this one and there are no short cuts (save true humility – that is humility you cannot perceive yourself, otherwise it is not humility!) or time off for ‘good behaviour’!

    Regards: S

  2. Thanks S.
    I suppose an individual's pride in their past sins as giving them a special status is a problem. I've met one or two people who were always inventing some new state of "sinfulness" as a device to get attention. So, a previous church I was in had a terribly damaged young woman join who was forever revealing some crisis or sin, for example that she claimed she was pregnant and considering an abortion (and then later told us she had miscarried...hmmm), sometimes she would not take communion because she had something on her mind etc, etc. In the end she left complaining there wasn't enough spiritual guidance at our church and she joined a highly evangelical church, which I guess she knew would respond to her "sinfulness" in a more satisfying way!
    So, yes, I think an emphasis on "sin" and unworthiness is a problem and am reminded of all the Catholic friends I have who describe childhoods filled with inventing sins for the confessional to have something to say! One friend use to make her last confession "I have lied" - that was to cover the lies she had just told.

    As for me, I've lots of faults and flaws, but I am never nowadays very aware of being deeply sinful. I absolutely agree with you is that where we all fall short is in loving God and our neighbour, but our shortcomings in this area are so generalised (except when we do something very wrong) that it can be hard for us to pinpoint or be very discerning about them... or even notice them at all.