A Perspective on the Human Predicament

Ready for your survey question of the day? Thinking about your conversations with friends, how often did the term sin come up?

O    Never/ almost never
O    Occasionally
O    Regularly, often       

If you answered Never you’re part of a large mass — uncountable, really — of people in the Western world. We don’t talk much about sin.

It wasn’t always that way. From the Salem Witch Trials in New England to religious revivals across the expanding frontier to the Billy Graham meetings of the 20th century, America’s history shows a people fixated on sin. Hardly a new thing in human history! For two full centuries northern Europe sent wave after wave of marching, singing soldiers — even children — to tear the Holy Land away from “infidels” and so end the sin of wrongful control. Then starting in 1231 the Inquisition used force, public shaming and even torture and death to deal with those who dared think outside the religious box. Aspects of it lasted well into the 20th century.

Funny thing about sin: when we do get around to dealing with it, we typically find it in other people; those who run the show seldom discover it in themselves. (Hey, is that also a form of sin? Or shall we call it bias or prejudice or psychological blindness or …?)

But giving sin the silent treatment falls flat as a vanishing act. The news of the day — any day — provides all the proof we need: sin is very real.

  • “Racism is alive and well,” states a thoughtful magazine article …just when we thought it was a thing of the past.  
  • Sexual harassment and abuse by people we thought we could trust: the shocking stories just keep coming… and coming.
  • Gov’t official admits he gave false testimony at trial — news headline
  • Brazil corruption scandal reaches into USA — another news headline
"Work sets you free,” announced this sign at a Nazi concentration camp. Was that a promise… or a lie? A haven from horror… or the scene of sin?

"Work sets you free,” announced this sign at a Nazi concentration camp. Was that a promise… or a lie? A haven from horror… or the scene of sin?

When sin drops from our vocabulary, we find other terms. Crime, chaos, terrorism, juvenile delinquency, stupidity, moral turpitude, being blind to the worth of all people, cooking the books come to mind.  Selected countries are s###holes; we, of course, are pure. A mass shooting in our midst? Label it “an act of pure evil” and attribute it to mental illness, so distancing it from us. A foreign power launches an attack; we loftily denounce it as “barbarian.” We drown in a sea of fake news, of living as if the world exists to support our satisfactions, our prosperity.  

The words we use have consequences. They announce our take on life.  Some people are so persuaded by propaganda that they strap on suicide vests in the name of “righteousness.”  Or join the neo-Nazis or America First. In the USA they may join the NRA, convinced that their world is filled with killers, so we, the good guys, better be ready to kill first.   

Is the point coming clear? The fact we seldom talk about sin – or pussyfoot around evil or wrong-doing or don’t-give-a-damn selfishness or corruption or systems of political or religious or economic or cultural domination — doesn’t make it go away.  Sin, it seems, is as stubborn as hell. A few examples:


If this anonymous cartoon does nothing else, it can help us see life through a different lens. America’s Founding Fathers built slavery into the very foundation of the country — why? Were they, slave owners especially, trying to protect their own interest? When they announced, “All men are created equal …” did they not see the contradiction they were creating? Did the idea of sin ever come home, or was that reserved for George III and his supporters?

Recent events reveal a pushback against the inhuman treatment of blacks by whites, women by men, “outliers” by persons of privilege. Statues are torn down, #MeToo marches enlist thousands, businesses boost workers’ wages, petitions to rename schools or parks get signed, cities declare themselves sanctuaries. Are all these — with or without using the words — attempting a U-turn from wrong to right, from sin to a better way?

History is being shaped. Its twists and turns, detours and direction are beyond us to predict. But how captivating to watch! Even more important, what a privilege to get involved, adding our puny powers to the great, growing effort to inch the planet closer to the world we want.

Let Canadians, who sometimes look with scorn on the conflicted history of the USA, never assume their nation has a cleaner story. John A. McDonald, the country’s founding Prime Minister, regularly called Canada’s indigenous people “savages,” even vetoing what had been a clear path to acknowledge them as one of three founding peoples: British, French and indigenous. McDonald managed to cut them out, and the subsequent history of their subjugation continues to shame Canadians to this day. Recent attempts in both the U.S. and Canada to topple statues of iconic figures and remove their names from schools serve as a sign of seeing the tarnish on people’s haloes. Realism!

Modern history also carries the stain of — shall we call it sin? We’re rightly proud of our progress; any fair assessment needs also to consider the persistence of evil. The last century was the most violent in human history: more than 203 million killed in war — more than in all preceding centuries combined!  Modern warfare kills indiscriminately: some 90 percent of casualties are civilians.  Of these, half are children. Is that good? Of course not! Is it sin? If you find a better term for it, say so and let’s open the discussion.


In a curious twist of word-fate, English — and several other languages — use syn (same sound, different spelling) to mark a sharply different reality. The Greeks gave it to us; it was their word for together, as in “Let’s get our act together.” How impoverished our language would be without it! What a useful prefix it has become — in stories it gives us synopsis, in sports synchronized swimming, in medicine syncope and Synvisc, in journalism syndicated. How Maps Change Things gives us an example of synergy: the insights of many creatively coming together in one new product. In a variant form, sym, it gives us sympathetic, with applications from physics to human relations. You can find it as well as symphony and symbiosis.

If sin remains stubbornly real, syn holds before us the ideal of working together for the common good. Beyond isolation there is the companionship of high purpose, beyond griping about how bad things are or focusing primarily on private advantage there is the possibility of the team and the good of all.  

Shifting from sin to syn is a “many-splendored thing” — with psychology, faith, economics, education, creativity, family dynamics, global and intercultural relationships all part of it. Maps too! Take a close look at what are probably the two most widely-recognized maps of the world today. Then ask

  • Which is more familiar to you? Where do you generally see it?
  • What striking differences do you find?
  • If mottoes were attached, which map might be labelled “Everybody deserves respect; every nation is to be treated fairly”? Which sends the message “Some of us are important, some are marginal, others are s###hole countries”? (Helpful background on this, minus the vulgar language, may be found in the book How Maps Change Things).
Mercator map of the world

Mercator map of the world

Peters map of the world. ODT Maps

Peters map of the world. ODT Maps

In an article on Family Life, a medical magazine asks, “In this selfie-absorbed world, how can you teach your child empathy and adopt a wider worldview?” To help answer that important question, what attitudes are being encouraged in these photos? Many parents, religious organizations and schools intentionally focus on global awareness and fairness to all peoples in contrast to me-centered attitudes. Among these are the Society of Friends (Quakers), Mounds Park Academy in Minnesota and the Boston Public School system, each of which features the Peters world map (above).

Courtesy Mounds Park Academy, St. Paul. MN

Courtesy Mounds Park Academy, St. Paul. MN

Appreciating music and developing respect for all people can be enhanced by using an equal-area map, as in this Grade 1 class at Mounds Park Academy. The process can be fun… and help build social attitudes that last a lifetime. (More on the fascinating story of this innovate school may be found on an earlier blog.)


What would happen if we operated on principles of syn rather than sin? Without forecasting the answer, wouldn’t it be a great adventure to try?

The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland gives a nod in that direction. Taking as its 2018 theme “A Shared Future in a Fractured World” would seem to recognize the brokenness (another term for sin?) of our world AND the potential of sharing/working together/syn. The level of follow-through by the assembled movers and shakers will be assessed in the months ahead.  

Meanwhile, others get into action. They do not close deals in Davos but they do what they can. At the western end of the U.S.–Mexico border a group of volunteers in the San Diego-Tijuana area envision not a wall of exclusion and estrangement but a park joining two peoples. They call themselves Friends of Friendship Park. One of their number, a United Methodist minister, asks pointedly “Why not [try] friendship?” Good relationships between Mexicans and Americans require something other than isolation and suspicion, volunteers point out. They also state that international parks are not unknown: The park straddling the border between Alberta and Montana is a prime example.  With that in mind, the pastor in the group holds communion services at a still “open” part of the fence, with people from both sides of the border joining in. An architect in the group comments, “Friendship Park is one of the most important meeting places in the world.” Addressing a church group recently, he held high the hope. “This could happen in our lifetime. It seems unlikely, but it could happen.”

In the unfolding story of our human predicament, SYN may be more powerful than SIN. The Greeks never said,

“Together in the struggle, together in victory! Three cheers for SYN!  Do you suppose we’ll be the ones to say it to the world?