I recently finished watching the excellent Netflix series Narcos, which tells the story of the pursuit of the notorious Colombian drug trafficker, Pablo Escobar. It is a powerful reminder of the challenge of justice in the face of seemingly overwhelming and unstoppable evil, and the compromises that are often deemed necessary in the name of “good”.
But what struck me most were the apparent double standards of Escobar’s family. How could they turn a blind eye to the violence, death and destruction that supported their lifestyle? More pointedly, how could they be so indignant when the same violence was turned upon them by the government and rival cartels? They were happy to enjoy wealth and luxury achieved through violence against others, but burned with injustice when the violence touched them. Worse still, that they could do this while maintaining a veneer of Christianity, attending Mass and invoking God’s blessings upon their activities. The same theme runs through other shows, such as The Sopranos, where the nominally Catholic Mafia maintain a semblance of religiosity, all while participating in acts of violence and crime, or condoning those who do.
But while I rolled my eyes at the hypocrisy of Escobar’s family, it occurred to me that we all tend to respond the same way to our own sin. Don’t we all prefer to overlook our own sin while highlighting the sins of others? Too easily we condemn in others what we condone in ourselves. We beg forgiveness for our own transgressions but hold grudges and call judgement upon those who sin against us.
The easiest way we justify these things is by convincing ourselves that our own sins are “no big deal” while the sins of others are monstrous. I deserve forgiveness, but you don’t. Escobar murdered thousands, but I just lie to my family, or withhold income from the Tax Office. We grade and classify sin, with some more deserving of judgement and punishment than others.
I don’t think God sees sin this way. “All have sinned…” (Romans 3:23), and one sin makes us just as guilty as any other (James 2:10-11). Once you concede this, there is no point comparing ourselves with one another; our sins with the sins of another. In this way, I think that sin is fractal. We like to think that sins are different, some worse than others, but if you look close enough, they are exactly the same. Jesus makes this point in Matthew 5. Murder and hate might look different on the surface, but if you look at hate close enough, it is identical to murder. The same is true of adultery and lust, grand promises and white lies. Escobar’s murder and my pride differ only in their outward manifestation. At the heart, the issues are exactly the same. And God cares about our hearts.
When we think about sin this way, we will have to confront the sin in ourselves above that in others. Not only will our efforts be directed where they can do the most good (it’s easier to change ourselves than to change others), but we will also be more forgiving of those around us, regardless of how their sin manifests. We will recognise our own sin in them, building compassion instead of condemnation.
Escobar did horrendous things, as did Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and pick your favourite bad guy. But so have I. So do I. So do we all.