Sin and sinner are words that belong to the vocabulary of religion and are primarily oriented toward God. In the final analysis even when one "sins against" someone else (Matthew 18:21; Luke 17:4), it has the effect of an offense against God (Luke 15:18, 21). In a secular society with the exception of life within religious communities the concept of "sin" is an oxymoron. Secular societies in a representative democracy function on the basis of laws, and actions are judged legal and illegal. Something illegal is "against the law" or "against the body politic"; that is, it is against the people who comprise the community with whose approval the laws are made. Something legal is "permissible," not necessarily "right."
Doing right and wrong are moral and ethical concepts; they are not legal or illegal concepts. For example, I would judge it wrong to obey immoral laws, or put another way: breaking immoral laws is ethically the right thing to do. Of course, whoever breaks even an immoral law will nevertheless suffer the consequences—even if their actions are seen as a moral act (i.e., the right thing to do). "If you do the crime, you must do the time."
An example of immoral laws, now recognized by all civilized nations, are laws regulating the purchase, sale, and ownership of slaves—that is the buying and selling of human beings as chattel (property). It may be a shocking thought today but, 200 years ago such laws were not only legal, but regarded as natural and "right."
This way of stating the situation raises the question: on what basis does one judge the morality of one's actions? Or put another way: how does one know what is right (moral) and what is wrong (immoral)? In my view an action is only right if it benefits one's fellow human being in some way, and it is wrong if it does harm to a fellow human being. Or put another way, actions done for the greater "good" of others are right and any action that brings harm to another is wrong. Hence the standard of right and wrong is how one treats a fellow human being.
What is the theory that might lead one to this principle of behavior? Oddly I have come to a humanist ethic through traditional Christianity and the Bible. It began with this concept:
If anyone says "I love God," yet hates his brother; he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
Of course, as it is stated, this statement reflects a narrow community ethic (i.e., love for one's fellow congregant), but the principle is broader: love for a fellow human being is made the standard for judging one's love of God. Paul's idea that "the whole law is fulfilled in one saying: you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14) may actually go beyond the narrow limits of the saying in Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 19:18), where it refers to fellow Israelite. In Paul's thought it may achieve the ethically broader concept of love of humanity (cf. Galatians 5:13). That is to say, love for humanity meets the requirements of the Israelite law.
Clearly a saying attributed to Jesus in Q, "love your enemy" (Matthew 5:43-45; Luke 6:27-35), does exceed the narrow limits of a community ethic; the saying includes one's fellow human being—even up to and including a hated enemy whose goal it is to destroy the one aiming to love even the enemy. The saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew 25:34-45 is clearly not a community ethic, and evokes a broad humanitarian concern: one serves God by extending compassion and aid to "the least of these" in human society (Matthew 25:40, 45). In other words regular service in a soup kitchen is higher up on the scale of service to humanity than teaching Sunday school.
In many ways this ethical standard is an impossible ethic to keep when viewed on a broad scale in terms of whole companies, communities, and nations; for in acting in the best interests of some, one will inevitably injure others. For example, a major employer in a small town is faced with radically reducing the company's number of employees and drastically cutting the wages and the benefits of the remaining workers in order to keep the company from failing altogether. In this example what faces the employer is a mixed decision that will "injure" all employees, some it will ruin economically, while the economic viability of others will be compromised. In other words in a complex world often all one can do is aim for the greater good of the largest number of people, while keeping the injuries incurred by the rest as small as possible—a decision that is neither black nor white but rather a dirty shade of gray.
To judge by the blind impact of natural disasters not even God can do any better.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University