Why Rev. Amy Butler Is Talking About Politics, Sin, and Loss This Lent

The Rev. Amy Butler preaches at The Riverside Church in New York. Photo courtesy of Riverside Church

During this year’s season of Lent — a time when Christians commemorate the biblical story of Jesus Christ fasting in the desert for 40 days — Riverside Church, a historically liberal congregation in New York City, is focusing on a theme of sin and loss. Riverside’s head pastor, the Rev. Amy Butler, spoke recently with Religion News Service to explain why the influential church is honing in on topics she says progressive Christians sometimes gloss over, and why she hopes examining ancient scriptural stories about sin and loss can speak to the modern-day challenges facing Americans in general and Christians in particular.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to offer a series at your church about sin and loss?

Riverside is a very progressive Protestant congregation, and progressives are notoriously reticent to speak about sin. Because of that, we often cede responsibility for that kind of conversation, theological dialogue and exploration to our conservative brothers and sisters.

I think that’s a mistake.

So we’re going to take the season of Lent, which is a time of the church year for penitence and repentance, and see if we can’t reclaim some of the language for sin.

I’ll be defining it as separation from God and from each other — the things we do and the systems that we participate in that hurt other people, that diminish our relationship with God and with each other, that harm our world and our fellow human beings. We’re going to cover all of that in six weeks.

What do you think is distinct about the way your congregation is going to engage with sin compared to how your “conservative brothers and sisters” might approach the same question?

I’m going to try to steer us away from a transactional understanding of sin. I grew up in a conservative evangelical background, so I understood growing up — as I think many of my conservative friends do — that God was the judge and there’s a certain balance sheet. You get points for this, a point for that — I’ve been watching “The Good Place” — and the way things balance out in the end.

I just don’t think that we live in a world with that much control over the divine. I think that our lives are formed and ordered by the relationships that we build and nurture both with God and with each other. And I think taking a good, hard look at the things that impact and impede those relationships is where I really want to go. That’s going to be a distinction between, you know, “If you dance or drink, you get certain demerits, and then if you bring your grandmother flowers, you get more (positive points).”

The Rev. Amy Butler greets congregants at New York City’s Riverside Church during her candidacy weekend in Aug. 2014. Photo by Dave Cross Photography, courtesy of Riverside Church

You said you’re not just tying sin to a personal action or a personal offense, but also systems and communities. Are you talking about systemic or communal sin?

Yes. And you know, I think it’s a very dangerous bifurcation when we decide that sin is either individual or systemic. This is generalizing, of course, but: (the idea that if) every sin is individual, so that means we don’t look at things like racism. Or that if everything is systemic, that we don’t look at our own anger, our own pride.

We have to find some way to look at both because they both impact our daily lives.

Why do you think progressive Christian communities have shied away from explicit conversations about sin?

I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that for some reason, somewhere along the line, the narrative was co-opted by a much more conservative storyline. Because the general perception of the concept of sin is what we see on TV, or when we hear about hateful protesters at abortion clinics — well, we don’t want to be associated with that.

So we just prefer to step away from the conversation.

The other trap that progressives fall into all the time is we think that claiming our own banners of belief is somehow … oppressive to other people, which is flatly untrue.

We’re not doing the world any service if we can’t fully express what it is we say we believe and what standards and convictions animate our work in the world. So it may be a little provocative for my congregation — and I always like to push them a little bit. But I really want to bring sin (to) the fore this year, give us an opportunity to reclaim the language around it and have some honest conversations.

You mentioned racism as one example of sin. Are there other examples that you plan to lift up?

We’re telling the stories of the Book of Genesis, which are story after story of sin, right? I’m trying to take some of the stories that we don’t normally tell in a pulpit and taking a different look at them. We’re telling the story of Noah. We’re telling the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. These are stories that either people don’t know, or they know in very surface-y ways. And as we look at each of these stories, we’re trying to look at what the sin is in the story and then what is lost.

So sins like pride and violence and corruption and othering and lack of hospitality. And then the things that we lose: intimacy with God and with each other, innocence, community, things to sustain life. And in those broader categories, surely there are things that are going to come up — systems that hurt and oppress. Racism is one of them. Misogyny, sexism — I mean all this stuff about institutions that hurt people.

This Lent is (also) going to be a powerful time of reckoning for the institutional church. For example: the United Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church.

But also, I don’t want to let our progressive selves off easy now, holding sin out at arm’s length. Let’s look a little closer and see where these sins are coming to be in our own lives, in our relationships with each other, even in our own community here at Riverside.

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Source: Religion News Service