The Disciples of Christ, the denomination I am a member of, has an unofficial slogan that they are a “movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” This saying is quite relevant today, for as humans we are broken and living in a broken world.
Many smart people throughout the centuries have spent time thinking and discussing what it means to be broken. People like Augustine, John Calvin, and Martin Luther have debated the idea that human beings are inherently flawed, or broken; a concept known as “original sin.” The idea of original sin is that each human being, from the beginnings of life is predisposed to fail, almost like a built in self-destruct function. This original sin therefore is the explanation for every failure and mess up of humans, for we are inherently broken.
I think we can all recognize within ourselves and within others, times when we have broken ourselves, times when we have made bad decisions that led to painful consequences. There are so many times we reap the consequences for our poor actions and we find ourselves crawling around on the floor, trying to pick up the broken, scattered pieces of our lives. Some would say this is simply evidence of our innate problem, our inborn brokenness—we are already ruined, we are just digging the whole deeper.
Yet, I think there’s more to it than that, for as often as we may be the source of our own troubles, there are, more than many religious folks would like to admit, things in this world that simply break us. I’m sure many of us can understand what it’s like to be broken, whether it be by dept, divorce, depression, discouragement, despondency; we find ourselves shattered in pieces, strewn across the room, through no fault of our own. Financially we did all the “right” things, but the economy tanked and we lost our jobs and our homes, we committed ourselves to our marriages yet when our partners just walked out the door we found ourselves hurt and alone, and despite reading all the self-help books and following the positive thinking gurus, we find ourselves beat down, depressed, discouraged, and defeated. We are broken all right—but it is this world that has broken us.
For far too long in Christianity “sin” was simply a personal problem, one’s problems were only the result of one’s personal failures. The thing is, Jesus debunked this idea long ago, when he and his disciples came upon a blind man, the disciples asked him whether the blindness was a result of this man’s sin or the sin of his parents—Jesus said neither. Unfortunately today, many are just as dense as the disciples; in both religious and non-religious circles, when someone is broken, the standard response is that it is the result of some moral failure on their part, that if they had just taken more “personal responsibility” for themselves or had had a better “devotional life” with God, these things wouldn’t have happened. Slowly but surely many are beginning to recognize that “sin” can be structural—there are systems and schemes in our world that in the way they function inevitably break people.
Anyone in America who’s been paying attention surely recognizes that there are many systems which inherently break people—economic systems, social systems, family systems. What do I mean? Economically it’s when a mortgage company systematically cheats minorities into bad loans with horrid rates (remember Countrywide?). Socially it’s strict societal expectations of how people should behave, and when they deviate from that norm—like being gay—they find themselves victims of relentless bullying and end up broken (often permanently from a tragic suicide). As often as we may be the cause of our own brokenness, there is so much in this world that simply breaks us.
We’ve just come through what is called “Advent” in the Christian tradition. Advent celebrates Jesus’ coming to earth as a child, while also looking forward to a time when Jesus will return again and right all wrongs. When Jesus was on earth he talked about what things would be like in “God’s Kingdom,” that when God is in charge, when people do things God’s way the hungry will be fed, the poor will have enough, and the sick will be well. So in Advent we celebrate Emmanuel, “God with us” in the form of the baby Jesus—we recognize God’s presence among us here and now loving, caring, and working for the good; true incarnational theology. Yet Advent is also about a looking forward, with a bit of anxious longing, for a time when God’s kingdom will come, when God’s ways of justice, fairness, and rightness will be the rule of the day—as opposed to the pain and brokenness which is caused so often by the world we live in today.
We are a broken people, and that is why I am glad to be a part of a group that has as its stated mission to bring wholeness to this broken world. The other day someone asked me what salvation meant, and I’m beginning to think it’s as simple as this, wholeness—for when someone who has been utterly broken begins to find healing and wholeness, that is true salvation.