‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
To be rejected, to be cast into the outer darkness away from the group sitting around a tribal fire, is one of humanity’s deepest fears. The rejected suddenly become the enemy of the group rejecting them. To associate with them is a sign of disloyalty and makes them toxic and infectious.
In the British film Apostasy, a Jehovah’s Witness church excommunicates a young woman for breaking their rules and her family confront (and fail in) an agonising choice between rejecting her and remaining members of the elect. The most diabolical aspect of the drama is the inverted religious language of self-justification and the false, creepy tone of hard-hearted self-righteousness. The word ‘diabolus’ implies the state of di-vision, throwing apart. The opposite word is ‘symbolum’ which unites and brings the separated together. The diabolical attacks in the name of God. It divides, using every trick, including quoting scripture, to make it seem on the side of the angels.
Cliff-edge moments come around from time to time when we are forced to choose where we stand. Do we stay in the security of the crowd baying for blood, or stand in solidarity with the outcast? Take immigrants for example. In some parts of affluent society today it is dangerous to speak compassionately about immigrants. Once your head of state has accused them of being ‘drug dealers, criminals and rapists’ their dehumanisation has begun. The bar on abusing them, the most vulnerable, has been raised.
‘Sinners’ is a common term of rejection in religious vocabulary, even though it is often used wrongly. Jesus associated with ‘sinners’, people off the purity radar. He saw that the sin that matters is not being unacceptable, like the untouchables in the cast system. The Greek word for sin means ‘missing the mark’. Not in the sense of not getting into respectable society, but in the human sense of failing. When we try to throw a piece of paper into a basket and miss, should we rage and curse or pick it up and try again?
To understand sin we need to be straight about our own interior divisions and contradictions, the universal symptoms of human weakness. Otherwise, we plunge into the collective hypocrisy which is the binding force of any mob.
Those who dine with sinners put themselves at risk. But, even when they in turn are despised and rejected, they pull the plug on the power of hypocrisy. They expose the real sinners in the human drama – not the victim but the victimisers, dividers not the divided. It becomes clear how easily we slide from the side of angels to demons. It is the casters out not the outcast who really sin.