Is it “takes away the sins of the world” or “takes away the sin of the world”? Scripture experts say it is singular — sin —because it doesn’t refer to our individual sinful acts like thievery or sexual abuse or drunken driving, but sin as an attitude, a disposition, a perverse relationship to life.
The sin of the world that Jesus speaks of is its indifference to the guidance of the Holy Spirit; it’s the inertia that develops as we grow used to hurtful, uncharitable, careless ways, for which we excuse ourselves on the grounds that “everybody’s doing it”. It’s a hardening, a desensitizing, of the human spirit, a rejection of the Spirit of God.
This has to be what Jesus was targeting when he said, “Repent, because the Kingdom of God is at hand.” I doubt that he had in mind the petty stuff that forms the bulk of our personal confessions, like — “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Twice I got very angry at my husband…” Jesus was always compassionate even toward serious human failings. But he showed no mercy toward unrepentant persons who systematically fed on the lives of others, especially the poor, the ignorant and the powerless.
I once saw a TV documentary on the drug problem in Switzerland and a place there called “Needle Park”, where addicts, many dying from AIDS, can exchange dirty needles for new ones. A short distance from this cemetery of the living dead are the world famous Swiss banks, whose captains are fully aware that much of the money they are handling is drug money, made on the broken lives of others. When these apparently respectable bankers — many of them family persons and church-goers — are asked how they settle their consciences in the matter, they simply disown any responsibility — except for processing the money for profit. They ask no questions, apparently not wanting to know where the money comes from.
That’s a truly sinful situation. We’re tempted to ask whose is the greatest sin: the pusher, the user, or the banker. It’s the system itself and every one of its conscious and willing members.
And what about the manufacturers of asbestos, who knew almost a century ago that they were producing a substance that would destroy countless innocent lives and yet went on for generations building massive fortunes without a twinge of conscience?
The drug lords, the pornographers, the war-makers, the cigarette manufacturers, the corrupt government bureaucrats — they represent systems that are evil — complex organizations that take on a life of their own apart from God and the laws of human nature. They become independent and morally unaccountable to any authority beyond themselves. And this is sin in the singular: an aversion to God, the opposite of holiness, which means being turned toward God.
The question arises, of course, as to what degree, if any, we are involved in such deadly sin. Have we made peace with it? Do we refuse to admit that that aspect of our lives may need rethinking and reform? Are we ready and willing to take even a small step to confront the evil we recognize?
We can do that by registering our objection to the perpetrators in any way possible to us and by boycotting the products they provide. Maybe you will soon be inspired to confront one or another of them, asking that they consider what harm their money-making schemes are doing, especially to our young people, and asking them to desist from now on. If you do, you will have been an agent of Jesus’ gospel, that always involves sincere repentance.