27 “‘If any member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, when they realize their guilt 28 and the sin they have committed becomes known, they must bring as their offering for the sin they committed a female goat without defect. 29 They are to lay their hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it at the place of the burnt offering. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)
Do The Best You Can Until You Know Better
The first thing that came to my mind reading this chapter was one of Maya Angelou’s more famous quotes. You’ve probably heard it: “Do the best you can until you know better, then when you know better, do better.” I like to think I’m a pretty smart person: I was 11th out of 400-some in my high school class, and missed graduating college with summa cum laude honors by two hundredths of a point. I’m also prideful and a little bit vain. All this to say, it was personally very embarrassing to realize I was not only participating in but also benefiting from lopsided and harmful phenomena like structural racism, to name just one. How could I, as such a “smart person,” miss something so obvious? How could I have committed such unintentional sins? I didn’t know what structural racism was fifteen years ago. I didn’t know there were anything but binary pronouns five years ago. I didn’t know I was sending plastic microfibers into the watershed every time I washed my yoga pants two years ago. But now I do know, and instead of getting defensive, I’m trying to do better.
America, as a whole, has a lot to atone for – from both intentional and unintentional sins. We are waking up, starting to know better, and now we have to do better. I read an analogy regarding sexist and racist actions. I forget where, but this medium article is the first that popped up in Google when I looked for it and does a good job going into the analogy in depth. In short, though: when one person steps on another’s toe, they remove their foot as soon as their attention is brought to it and apologize. There is no arguing about whether or not the step-ee’s pain is real or what the intentions of the stepper might have been. The stepper might be embarrassed for stepping on the other person’s toe, but the stepper’s feelings do not become the focus of the incident, nor does the stepper claim some first (or equal, or higher) right to the area of ground where the step-ee’s toes are.
Fellow white people: I think this is an especially good analogy to remember whenever you feel yourself getting defensive, or feel the urge to say something along the lines of “but not all white people…” Listen, the people I love most in the world, my husband and my kids, are black. You don’t get a much more intimate look at race relations than that. And even I have to remind myself sometimes that this isn’t about me, personally. And even I get it wrong, sometimes, too. And it’s embarrassing. But again, this isn’t about me. If we remember this metaphor in every arena where we may have unintentionally sinned but now know better, it may help us to actually do better. It’s time to start atoning.
The Parenting Analogy
Atoning is such a loaded word. But I want to go on the record as saying that atonement doesn’t have to be a punishment, it can be a beautiful thing! Let’s get back to our actual Bible reading here. It lays out the proper sin offering for unintentional sins. I’m sure this is a chapter that many have cited making the case against God. What sort of deity gets angry with you for committing a sin without knowing? And then you have to atone for an unintentional sin with an offering? It sounds like you’re being set up to fail, and sounds like a good way to instill paranoia in generations of people.
But remember, God is our good, loving parent. And if you look at the sin offering in that way, it’s just a good parent doing good parenting. There are lots of things my girls do without malice that are still not “right.” Like toddler-sized versions of unintentional sins, if you will. For example, my youngest started plugging her ears during grace at the table. Who knows why she started doing that, but it’s rude, so I corrected her. Now she knows it’s not a thing to do. We’re still working on picking noses, uncovered sneezing, and not wanting to wear a mask in public. My girls do these things out of ignorance, not malice. But their actions can have a real impact on public health, so I’m teaching them not only to know better, but to do better. Collectively, as a country, we are being called to do better on many fronts, from COVID prevention to Black Lives Matter to global warming. We have sinned, even if we didn’t know it. And maybe it wasn’t even us, but our leaders who have sinned. Regardless of blame or intention, we now have been made aware of these myriad of errors, and we must atone.
Additionally, I want to point out God is not angry. Yes, there is lots of talk of “doing something forbidden” and “guilt,” but there is no mention of God’s anger. Much like I’m not angry when my five year old picks her nose. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to make her stop, and probably make her go wash her hands. Just like with my girls, this sin offering is part of the learning process.
Finally, I want to point out that the sin offerings described here are practically identical to earlier offerings qualified as “an aroma pleasing to the Lord. This chapter doesn’t use that exact terminology, but I don’t think it’s too far a leap to say that God is well pleased (perhaps even proud of us?) when we recognize our wrongs and correct them. We please God when we make amends because we act as Xyr agents in the world when we do so.
Growing in faith and action
If we stop pointing fingers, saying “it wasn’t us!” or “I’m not like that!” If we stop being defensive and actually buckle down and do the work of atoning, look at what we stand to gain: a healthy planet, a healthy populace, equality among all people, and so much more. These are lofty goals, but the road to all of them starts by knowing better, and doing better. Let’s not let fear or ignorance stand in our way. Growth can be scary and uncomfortable – remember being a teenager? But would you really want to be proverbially stuck at twelve forever? Sure, not having to pay taxes or make dinner every night was nice, but just think of all the things you’d miss out on, stuck as a pre-teen. Let’s grow! Let’s learn! There’s literally nothing to lose, but there is everything to gain.
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