The Stain of Sin
The extent of this root metaphor is so wide that if I started trying to justify it with references I'd be here all day, so I'm not going to reel off endless quotations and references unless some intransigent stick-in-the-mud refuses point blank to admit any such thing. All I'll do is point y'all to the Christian idea of being "washed clean in the blood of the Lamb", and to the idea of the "purity system" laid out here.
As this article sets it out, in the moral system of the Tanak there is a distinction to be made between ritual purity and moral or "metaphorical" purity linked to issues such as "idolatry, sexual mores and intentional bloodshed". It doesn't do to get confused between the idea of ritually "unclean" animals or actions that make one ritually "unclean" and the moral / metaphorical application of the "unclean" metaphor to a person, city or what have you. It's the metaphoric / moral idea of purity that's at the heart of our idea of sin.
Sin is, metaphorically speaking, a blot, a stain, a mark upon our soul. It is dirt, a filth that coats us, that soaks into us. To be a sinner is to be "unclean". But the thing about root metaphors is that the extensions, the ramifications, the extrapolations of that metaphor become articulations of more than just the core idea. They shape the whole vocabulary around that idea.
If sin is a stain, then our crime remains with us -- on us, in us, a part of us. If sin is a stain, then our crime can be expiated -- washed off, washed out, washed away. If sin is a stain, then expiation of that crime absolves us of it.
Cleanliness is not next to godliness; in metaphoric terms at least, it is godliness.
Now, responsibilty for a crime could be said to "cling" to us in this way, to be something which we "carry around". Indeed it often is. But can that responsibilty -- real actual responsibilty in terms of culpability, the fact that we have done X -- be removed? Can we change the fact that we did X? Is our personal history not always and forever a part of us, a part of the world around us? Even if we were to wipe our minds of all memory of that crime, the fact that we committed it is not written out of reality.
What can be "washed away" is not our (factual) guilt in terms of responsibilty, but our (sensational) guilt in terms of shame. This is what Shakespeare perfectly articulates in the spot of blood on Lady Macbeth's handkerchief. If Lady Macbeth could only confuse responsibilty and shame, her washing of the handkerchief would remove that spot, it would ritually remove that shame, wash out the sin. But she does not. No matter how hard she scrubs at that damned spot, no matter if in the physical reality (Shakespeare flipping the factual and the sensational) she removes the sin, the blood, the shame, in her psychological reality, the crime, the hallucination of blood, the responsibility remains. She cannot expiate her guilt because she cannot delude herself that responsibilty and shame are the same thing, the stain of sin that one can simply wash away.
I'm sure there's many monotheists who understand that distinction perfectly well; but that's not what monotheism teaches. It's not the message articulated in the scriptures and the rituals, in the symbolic language of sin, in the metaphor of the stain upon the soul.
All sins, Christianity tells us, can be washed away by the blood of the Lamb. Which is to say, through repentance, through baptism as a symbolic ritual cleansing of the soul, you can absolve yourself of all that horrid shame.
Bully for you.
Responsibility, in another root metaphor -- a root metaphor with a quite different vocabulary of extrapolation -- is a burden that we carry. It weighs us down, but we shoulder it and go on. Time under that burden changes us. Suffering under that burden changes us. We can be strengthened by it or crushed by it. Some day we may even be relieved of it. We may carry that burden until an alloted time has passed, until the time has come to lay it down, if others allow us. Those others may then take that burden from us -- our victims and/or judges -- accepting that we have "changed", that we're not the "same person" and so we can no longer be said to really, truly bear the responsibilty for the weakness, folly or outright malice of a self long since passed away. But make no bones about it, there will be time and effort involved in getting to that point of relief.
The root metaphor of reponsibility-as-burden offers empathy as a path of atonement. We must suffer as we have made others suffer until we appreciate their suffering. We must suffer with them after the fact because we were not empathic enough to consider their sufferings in our actions. We must suffer until they appreciate our suffering, until they look at us with empathy and say "enough".
The root metaphor of sin-as-stain offers atonement in a self-centred act of symbolic purgation. No empathy is required, no understanding of the suffering of others, only a remorse focused on one's own "polluted" nature. All we have to do is loathe ourselves for our actions, distill out that self-loathing into a sense of sin as a stain, something that is not us, not ours. Wash away that sin and we are absolved of all that shame.
Baptism is a form of ablution, and ablution works on this simple metaphor. Whether the washing is that of the born-again Christian washing away all the sins of his past life, or the Muslim practice of wudhu or ghusl, cleaning oneself before prayer, or the various ablutions in Judaism, the symbolism is the same. It is a symbolic ritual cleansing of oneself.
The act of ablution is sympathetic magic, based as it is on the "like produces like" principle, the principle that action on the signifier (physical dirt) is, or results in, parallel action on the signified (spiritual sin). There is a difference between pagan magic and monotheist ritual, (which practitioners would be quick to pick up on if I didn't point it out), in whether the action is believed to literally cleanse one of sin; where magic is believed to have actual effects, a Christian would say it is, in fact, the repentance that cleanses, Muslims and Jews similarly hold, I understand, that ablution does not "actually" remove sin (c.f. the distinction between ritual purity and moral/metaphoric purity).
But if it's only a symbolic act then why do it?
In religious terms, the ritual is a message, a statement in the symbology of religion, addressed to the divine powers. It is a preparation of the body, a preparation of the mind. Looking at it in psychological terms, however, this ritual is not just addressed to the divine powers; it is also (more so, I would argue) addressed to the equally mysterious, equally archetypal, equally elusive and insubstantial forces of the unconscious. What we are doing is sending a message to our unconscious that we have cleansed ourselves, removed the stains, removed the sins that make us unclean, that render us shameful things in our own eyes -- i.e in our self-image. What we are doing is symbolically redefining that self-image through the ritual.
Perhaps there is some value in an attempt to improve oneself by redefining one's self-image as cleaner, purer, by washing away the guilt. Perhaps it's not such a terrible thing to try and be a better person by imagining yourself to be a better person, like the self-helper with their headphones repeating life-affirming messages over and over as they sleep. But it seems to me that this is at best self-centred and at worst self-deceit. We can keep repeating those ritual ablutions, over and over and over again, washing away the sin, trying to scrub out that stain, but if we succeed in absolving ourselves of all shame, we are simply ditching the burden of responsibility.
Christ did not die for my sins. I'll die for them myself, thank you very much.
Years ago, I read somewhere (in one of the many archaeological texts on my shelf or in the university library during my student days when I would study pretty much anything other than the English Lit I was meant to be studying), that ablution can be traced back to the Hittites (I've been looking for the reference to back this up; haven't found it yet, but if I do I'll post it in a comment). It's no surprise that we find this idea in monotheism then.
Given that Abraham comes from Ur of the Chaldeas, stops off in Hittite Haran, and then travels down into Canaan, given that the nomadic tribes referred to in contemporary sources as the Habiru or Khabiru who poured down into this region around the time Abraham is said to be arriving (causing the coastal city states no end of grief with their continual raids) were a mix of Hittite and Semitic peoples, given that the Bible portrays Heth (the eponymous tribal forefather) as a son of Canaan, and has the whole region chock-full of Hittites -- it's little wonder that the cultures of the Hittites and the early Hebrews share certain features.
The Hittites were pretty big on the idea of sin too, with different words for different kinds of crime. The word haratur seems to be the basic term for an offence. Crimes of a specifically sexual nature -- most commonly incest -- were considered far graver and segregated out with their own term, hurkel. Deliberate, arrogant offences against the gods were considered shallakardatar. While I can't find the source claiming that ablution originates with the Hittites, they were certainly believers in sin and heavy practitioners of ablution.
In "The Hittites: People of a Thouand Gods", Johannes Lehmann quotes the Luwian-Hittite Tunnawi ritual (circa 1400-2000 BCE):
If a person, man or woman, has become unclean in some way,
or been called unclean by some other person,
then shall that person, man or woman, perform the rtual of uncleanness as follows, it being called 'the Ritual of the River'
The ritual that follows differs from the monotheist ablutions in that it is quite clearly out-and-out sympathetic magic. It involves animal sacrifices and clay figurines intended to take on the sin washed off by the propitiate. There are many variants for different lapses of conduct, but Lehmann describes their commonality:
"[G]uilt is immediately transferred to an effigy, a live animal or even another person. We find the same disburdening procedure in the Biblical scapegoat and the self-sacrificial death of the Christian Redeemer". [emphasis added]
It is interesting, in this context, to note the Biblical injunction against eating an animal that has not had the blood drained from it. Is blood, as with Lady Macbeth's spot, the physical symbol of the sin that must be washed away, the stain? If we can transfer our sin into the sacrifice, and slit its throat, and let that sin pour out, and wash the blood from our hands, do we perhaps decide that blood, the magical, symbolic carrier of sin, is not to be consumed? The blood of Abel soaked into the ground, staining it with the sin of fratricide -- is that stain also the mark on Cain, the "blood on his hands"?
We still use the phrase "blood on his hands", so to what extent does the Hittite notion of sin still permeate our culture today? To turn that metaphor on itself, is this bloody stain of a root metaphor, this idea of sin-as-dirt, still with us? Has it been washed away or are its ugly, poisonous, filthy footsteps still ground into the fabric of our day-to-day life?
At the start of this entry I referred to the idea of miasma in reference to Abel's blood. To the Greeks also sin was a sort of pollution, a miasma. Miasma to the Greeks wasn't simply the noxious, perhaps poisonous, vapours or influence we would now use the word to represent. It wasn't just the vapours of decay from a swamp, a mire, or a corpse. Miasma in the Greek sense was a mark of crime, the stinking, poisonous, corrupting stain left by it. Miasma needed to be removed, cathartically cleansed, purged.
In the glossary of "Suppliants and Other Dramas" by Aeschylus (trans. Micael Ewans, The Everyman Library, 1996), miasma is defined as: "Pollution; the word embraces both literal dirt and what we would call psychic pollution incurred by breaches of taboo, e.e. bloodshed."
Sin or miasma in this sense of moral impurity, moral pollution, is a danger, a threat. It has to be dealt with. Why? Because it is infectious. So the miasma left by Cain's murder of Abel, the stain of his blood, necessitates action. Likewise the miasma emanating from Sodom necessitates action. Just as Abel's blood cries out then, so too is there an outcry against the cities of Sodom and Gommorah.
I've argued in previous entries about exactly what the Sodomites are guilty of, exactly what brings God's judgement down on them. To simply say that they are murderers because the word "outcry" is used elsewhere in the Bible in respect of murder and must therefore mean the same here is like saying that every "accused" in the docks must be "accused" of the same crime simply because they are all referred to as "accused". Hagar's outcry is not that of a murder victim. Neither is Esau's. In these cases the se'aqa is against entirely different injustices. The story itself does not specify the charges against the cities. It does not tell us. But if we look at the text again the extermination of the Sodomites is validated by the demonstration that they are guilty on three counts. To use the Hittite terminology of sin:
They're guilty of haratur -- because they violate the custom of hospitality.
They're guilty of hurkel -- because they desire unnatural sex.
They're guilty of shallakardatar -- because it is the angels of God they attack.
Compare Ezekiel's description of Sodom as having failed to help the poor and needy (violating hospitality), as having done detestable things (tow'ebah sexual acts) and as being haughty (arrogant against the divine).
The point is that these are fundamentally demonstrations that they are guilty. The implication we are to read into this three-fold damnation -- this representation of them as offenders against Society, Nature and God -- is, I suggest, that they are guilty of everything. Murder may well be one of their crimes, but they are not accused by the ghosts of their murdered victims, no more than it is Abel's ghost which cries out for revenge. We are not dealling with a metaphysics of hoary spectres and gore-drapped spirits here -- no Hamlet's father, no Bancquo's ghost -- but with a metaphysics of miasma, of sin, one where the shed blood, the broken taboo, the crime itself, pollutes reality and requires God's action.
There is another ramification of the root metaphor of sin as dirt, as pollution: when that sin reaches a certain level, it cannot just be washed away; it must be purged.
Note the vocabulary of purity and pollution, infection and disease in this modern day tract.
Here the pernicious influence of sin is a threat: the "unholy morality of Sodom was a prevalent, polluted, persistent, and it was also a punishable thing"; it spread "like a cancerous cell in a healthy body grows and spreads until it destroys the health of the whole body"; our preacher man here worries that "we cannot keep on taking in the world’s ideologies without becoming tainted ourselves"; and paints our liberal culture as a modern-day Sodom; he "can’t help but think that this is a good description of what we see going on in our culture today".
This idea of sin-as-stain is voiced in extremis by the more extreme elements of monotheism, but it's not, I think, confined to those extremes, not by any means. The idea of the "miasma", the metaphoric association of morality with dirt, disease, infection, an "evil influence", was with us even in the supposedly more enlightened secular field of medicine, right up until micro-biology made it obsolete.
[This article on the 1832 New York Cholera Epidemic refers to how]the scientific idea of contagion was confused and interrelated with religion, piety, sin, and "God's Justice."
In all probability, most New Yorkers, if they had been asked in 1831-2 what they believed to have been cause of cholera, would have answered that cholera/disease was some form of righteous consequence which afflicted those who were least likely to be in God's grace. As further proof they would cite that Cholera most often affected those persons who lived dissolute, alcoholic, drug related, sexually excessive, and filth ridden lives; cholera's victims were simply being punished by God. It was the consequence of sin and "was the inevitable and inescapable judgment" of the Divine Power. "Cholera was a scourge not of mankind but of the sinner." And, it was a known and seemingly irrefutable fact that cholera was most commonly found in those areas of the world least populated by Christians.
In contrast to the simple purity of Christianity's rationale for cholera, medicine, physicians, and other adherents of "reason," proposed theories which also recognized that certain social groups seemed more vulnerable. Similar to those who considered cholera the product of sin, knowledgeable and scientific people agreed that it was the imprudent, the dirty, and the intemperate who were more subject to cholera's terror. Instead of God's punishment, they proposed that cholera was "an influence in the atmosphere," a miasma (poison) that afflicted only those who had weakened themselves by exposure to certain behaviors, places, or "exciting causes." Only those persons of irregular habits should fear cholera. The good, the clean, and the temperate would escape its presence. Only those persons whose systems were weakened or debilitated would contract the disease.
Compare the theories of AIDS prior to the discovery of the HIV virus, which saw it as a syndrome caused by a lifestyle of promiscuity and drug abuse.
It's interesting to see how the "evil influence" idea takes two forms -- direct transmission from exposure to the infected, and indirect transmission from exposure to the "pollution" in the environment.
Confounding this more rationale theory was the long standing debate between the rival schools of thoughts regarding epidemics: Contagionism or Miasmatism. Many men and women of "reason" had long proposed that epidemics only occurred as the result of a miasma in the atmosphere which if encountered by a weakened individual caused disease. This theory suggested that the miasmatic atmospheric phenomenon was generated by rotting corpses, marshy land areas, and other putrescent matter exhaling vaporous emanations.
There is a moral miasmatism that persists, I would argue, in the root metaphor of sin, and it is, I would argue, endemic in those moral systems which institutionalise what Kohlberg refers to as the "law and order orientation" of the second level of moral thinking...
Here's an article on that:
The second level of moral thinking is that generally found in society, hence the name "conventional." The first stage of this level (stage 3) is characterized by an attitude which seeks to do what will gain the approval of others. The second stage [i.e. stage 4] is one oriented to abiding by the law and responding to the obligations of duty.
[T]he respondent becomes more broadly concerned with society as a whole. Now the emphasis is on obeying laws, respecting authority, and performing one's duties so that the social order is maintained. In response to the Heinz story, many subjects say they understand that Heinz's motives were good, but they cannot condone the theft. What would happen if we all started breaking the laws whenever we felt we had a good reason? The result would be chaos; society couldn't function. As one subject explained,
I don't want to sound like Spiro Agnew, law and order and wave the flag, but if everybody did as he wanted to do, set up his own beliefs as to right and wrong, then I think you would have chaos. The only thing I think we have in civilization nowadays is some sort of legal structure which people are sort of bound to follow. [Society needs] a centralizing framework. (Gibbs et al., 1983, pp. 140-41)
In the metaphor of the social order as a structure, a framework, any crime, any breach of that structure is liable to bring the whole thing crumbling down. In the metaphor of sin-as-stain, those transgressions are pollutions of purity, corruption of the natural social order, liable to infect all those exposed to the miasma. Unless we purge ourselves of the sin. So just as the Hittites used clay figures or live animals as scapegoats, projecting their unclean status into sacrificial symbols in "The Ritual of the River", just as all the potential sins of a people against Society, Nature or God were symbolised in the city of Sodom, so we still to this day have our scapegoats. So we still to this day project "spiritual squalor" into those "dirty", "filthy" others in our midst -- the Armenians, the Jews, the gypsies, the gays, the blacks, the Turks, the Kurds, the Bosnian Muslims, the Asians, the asylum seekers -- so we can slaughter them in our imaginations and, in washing their blood from our hands, wash the stain of shame from our souls, and feel pure.
You burn a city to the ground. You kill every single inhabitant who's a member of one ethnic group. You spare the members of another. It's called ethnic cleansing.
But hey. Go ahead and wash that stinking stain of sin out of the scriptures. Pour on some Eezi-Cleen theology. Scrub away at the history. Lather, rinse, repeat. As long as you can get rid of the shame to your satisfaction then any responsibility can just be shrugged aside along with it.
But here's a thought for ya, seeing as I'm playing Devil's Advocate. Remember Abel's blood, his murder by Cain? Well that whole first fraternal squabble all kicked off over what was a fitting sacrifice to God -- Cain's fruit and veg, or Abel's fat of the firstborn. The harvest of the fields, or the slaughtered lamb. And seeing as I'm playing Devil's Advocate, let's just for a second, just for a secular sceptical second, ask ourselves if Cain didn't get a pretty strong signal from Old Nobodaddy that his wheat wasn't welcome. Oh no. It's blood that this Big Badass wants. The blood of the living. The blood of the scapegoat.
-- Shit, man, says Cain, what the fuck do you want from me? I've got no herds, no livestock, nothing to kill. All I got is my fields, my grain, and this here sickle, and... and... you can't be serious... no way... but he's my... that's just... sick...
Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you but you must master it."
Sin is crouching at the door.
And we all know how to get rid of sin, right?
But Cain couldn't wash away his sin in his brother's blood any more than Lady Macbeth could get that spot out of her handkerchief. Instead he is cursed to carry the burden of his crime as the indelible mark of his responsibility, to suffer under it, to toil in the fields, to walk the long path of atonement through the Land of Nod, to be changed by time and suffering and, eventually, to build the first city where, one imagines, people of different tribes and different religions might meet and trade, exchange goods and ideas, and learn to live together in the tolerance of a liberal, mercantile culture.
But I'm sure that too was a city of sin to those reading from these scriptures stained with Abel's blood, with the blood of the animals he slaughtered as sacrifice, and with the blood of all scapegoats since, anointed messiahs or enemy others, these scriptures stained with the stinking, sordid, shameful sin of this idea of sin.