What is the sin behind all sins? According to acclaimed spiritual theologian Matthew Fox, the sin behind all sins is the sin of separateness; of treating “another as an object outside of oneself”. When I read this in the book Original Blessings, I had to stop and set it down. Thinking about this concept of separateness as the origin of sin made me shudder. If treating another as an object outside oneself is the origin of all sin, then what does that say about where we are as a country right now? If one deeply ponders this concept, then it is easy to see how almost any sin is rooted in a sense of separation. War, violence, torture, racism, rape, burglary, murder, genocide, slavery all are only possible when we see another as different; as outside of ourselves; as an object.
Gandhi takes this one step further saying that sin is not only seeing oneself as separate from others, but also in seeing oneself as separate from nature and ultimately as separate from God. If we view nature as an object to be manipulated and not as a sensitive eco-system in which we are embedded and on which we are dependent then we begin to believe it is acceptable to clear mountain tops for coal, to run oil pipelines under the Great Lakes, to drill for oil in sensitive arctic waters, or to exterminate whole populations of animals for personal gain.
If separateness is the base of all sin, then what can we do to overcome it? Theologian and New York Times bestselling author, Reverend Jim Wallis says that the answer to any sin is to name it and then to repent; but not in the way we have come to know repentance. According to Wallis, to repent means to stop what you are doing and to turn around and go in a new direction.
Perhaps the first step is to individually acknowledge where each of us has fostered a sense of separateness and have treated others or the environment as an object. I acknowledge that where I need to get better is in trying to see the light of God within those who are wealthy or in a position of power. For most of my life, I have had this deep-rooted sense of disdain for any who appeared to hold a position of power over me. This is an attitude I inherited from my father and one that I have passed on to my own three kids. This contempt has gotten me fired from jobs, but it has also fueled my passion to organize others. Regardless of any perceived benefits, contempt is still contempt. It is still treating others as objects. And, it is a sin of separateness.
So, how do we combat this pervasive sense of separateness? A Danish TV ad that has gone viral provides a wonderful example of how – when we look at others with a generous heart – we will find that we have more in common than we have that divides us. If we seek out ways to connect rather than ways to divide, perhaps we will begin to chip away at the polarization plaguing our country. If separateness is the sin behind all sin, then is love the virtue behind all virtues? Focusing on love and connectedness over isolation and separation may be a good place to start to heal our hearts and to heal our country.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.