Monday, January 7, 2019

Who Sinned? Identity and the Psychology of Sin

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The story of the man born blind in John 9 is an evocative, metaphor-laden portrayal of a poor individual caught in a contentious religious crossfire about sinners and the identity politics of righteous minds. I’m writing this post as a way of putting some thoughts into words before leading a discussion on Sunday, 13 January.

This story isn’t just for Christians. The characters in the story are mostly Jews. The sociohistorical context is the old city of Jerusalem ruled by the Romans. Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet from the Quran. But atheists and agnostics may consider the group dynamics that are part of human nature for millennia as well as the ancient author’s manner of dealing with variations of the age-old question, “Who am I?” In addition, we glimpse problems common to all humanity of thinking logically about morality and evil, group identity, and groups in conflict.


At the beginning of the story, we see a man who cannot see. We imagine him begging on an ancient path. His disciples ask the title question, “Who sinned?” And our story takes off. Jesus counters the traditional faulty understanding of effect-cause thinking by answering, no one sinned. Jesus spits on the ground, applies a mud poultice to the closed eyes, and sends the unseeing man to the sent pool (Siloam Pool) to wash. He comes back seeing a fight over the identities of the people fuming over his Sabbath Day treatment. That fight still goes on among people with righteous minds who passionately claim to possess the truth and vehemently attack those with whom they disagree.



Despite the challenging logic (affirming the consequent), there is a biblical basis for the sin, qua cause of illness, argument, which we may phrase as:

A person has a disease state
The cause of disease states is either personal sin or parental sin
Therefore, either the person sinned or his parents sinned.
The biblical notion of punishing children is usually traced to Exodus 20:5 and a contrasting punishment for personal sin found in Ezekiel 18:20. A troubling story is God’s punishment of King David. The king is cursed by the prophet Nathan and as part of the punishment, his child dies (See 2 Samuel 12).

The disciples ask the Who-Sinned question, which seems to be part of the cultural understanding of cause and effect when it comes to the role of sin in disease. Later in the chapter, the Pharisees appear to share the same cultural idea that the man’s blindness was connected to personal sin (i.e., born in sin).

Christians prone to thinking all disabilities, diseases, or other evils are caused by personal or parental sin might consider Jesus' words. Jesus offers a different view of personal sin as a cause of life problems by focusing on the good outcome in the story and the connection of that good to God.

The Who-Sinned question is also about identity. Social identity theory, helps us think about the way labels categorize people and contribute to their understanding of who they are and who they are not. Labels like sinners and blind man are still category labels people use. These labels, and many similar ones, lead to in-group and out-group distinctions that quickly become bases for discrimination. Some category labels are like chains that hold people back from a meaningful life.

Discussion 1: Clergy in the news and individuals on social media sometimes interpret personal experiences, wars, and natural disasters in terms of sin and evil. 1.1 To what extent do you or others you know interpret bad events as caused by sinful acts or by evil wrought by supernatural beings? 1.2 What is the role of an individual and other agents in causation of general illness, mental illness, war, and other tragic experiences? 1.3 How do you deal with people whose strident voices about good and evil, right and wrong, express opinions opposed to your perspective?


The author (attributed to the apostle John) seems to have a sense of humor as we see people wondering if the seeing man is the same one as the formerly blind beggar--the man they had seen before he could see them. In seeming exasperation, the subject of discussion declares, “I am the man!” 

The discussion soon shifts to the identity of the healer. At first the formerly blind man does not know Jesus’ identity but declares him a prophet. The healed man’s credibility is questioned by the local Jews, so they interrogate his parents who verify the identity of their son but not the identity of Jesus because they fear socioreligious ostracism—that is, being put out of the synagogue.

Identity groups of all kinds still use social threats to keep their membership in line. Some religious zealots still kill members who attempt to leave their faith. Other religious people rely on more benign ways to keep doubters quiet and dissenters at bay-- criticism, charges of heresy, gossip, shunning, and self-righteous statements alienate those who no longer share the group's interpretation of religious or spiritual beliefs.

The author’s use of the term, The Jews, is quizzical in context because Jesus was a Jew as were his disciples, and the parents of the man born blind. The author  appears to be informing his contemporary audience, perhaps some 50-80 years after Jesus’ ministry, that this late first century community of Christians, possibly in Asia, are not Jews. Given the Jewish rebellion and the destruction of The Temple in 70 A.D., there may be a survival reason to distinguishing their Christian group of Jesus followers from The Jews who were associated with the rebellion. In light of history, the distinction between Jesus and The Jews is disturbing because of the horrific treatment of Jews throughout history.

Discussion 2: 2.1 Why would an author write as if Jesus was not one of the Jews?  2.2 In what ways might Christians increase awareness of hostility toward other Christian groups (e.g., denominations) and people of other faiths (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc) or no faith at all?  2.3 What are some examples of harm aimed at the destruction of people (or their reputations) holding different religious-spiritual beliefs where you live and work?

In the next scene, the newly seeing man is questioned again; however, he becomes combative. Harsh words and accusations follow. The questioners claim the authority of their moral high ground by tracing their identity to God via Moses in contrast to the beggar’s heritage of a man born in sin. Ironically, yet consistent with a moral purity dynamic, the seeing man is cast out of the religious group.

The author’s presentation of the heritage-identity connection is still a way people form their own identities. As I write, the DNA-ancestry discovery fad is popular as is the related interest in the development of family trees. People want to know their roots—at least until they find a rascal. I’ve been in Christian groups where folks humbly brag about their connection to famous religious leaders. Sometimes the talk is reminiscent of the early church disputes about the followers of Paul or Apollos (1 Cor. 3: 4-6). Then, as now, the winner in such discussions is the one claiming to be a follower of Jesus qua God.

Now Jesus re-enters the story and asks the newly seeing man if he believes in The Son of Man. Jesus identifies himself as such to the former blind one, who quickly becomes a believer. The healed man has a new identity. He is not one of the Jews but a follower of Jesus--the people who can see the truth.

This story closes with a brief metaphorical clash between the religious leaders, the group known as Pharisees, and Jesus about people who are spiritually blind and thus deserving of judgment because they are guilty. In this clash, the author is still clarifying who Jesus is and who he is not.

It is worth considering Jesus’ attitude toward religious leaders, which is often quite hostile. Some contemporary Christians emphasize the love of Christ for all people and dwell on stories of kindness and compassion as shown to the blind man in this story. Many contemporary Christians have formed an identity of Jesus that ignores his harsh edge.  There is ample evidence that Jesus did not routinely shower loving words upon the religious leaders of the day in a manner that 21st century Christians usually understand love.

Discussion 3: Discuss the importance of religious-spiritual identity.  3.1 How do biblical authors like John use ancestry to say something important about Jesus ' identity?  3.2 How is religious conversion about changing one's identity?  3.3 How important is religious identity to other aspects of one's identity?  3.4 How important is ancestry to understanding personal identity (who one is and who one is not)?  3.5 What ought Christians to do to reduce the harm done when extremists insist on rigid criteria for belonging to a privileged occupational, religious, social, national, or political group?


The concept of identity is important to psychological scientists and clinicians because it appears to drive much of human behavior. The importance of identity is powerful enough that some people kill others over identity-related issues.

In a less destructive but still meaningful way, people are keen to protect the identity of their group and keep others out, which can hurt the sense of identity of the person seeking to belong to a privileged group. You can probably fill in the blank: “You can’t be a Christian if_____” We can imagine the same kind of phrase about nationalities too. That is, identifying what it means to be a true American, Briton, European, and so on.

Sometimes money, benefits, and privileges are tied to ethnic, class, religious, and national identities. When social rules change and personal identities shift, it can be a challenge to consistently answer the questions Who am I? and Who am I not?

When reading the Bible and any literary work, we learn about the identities of the people presented to us as filtered by the author and ourselves as readers. There are so many questions we might ask to learn something about the characters, the author, and ourselves.


1. My use of the term righteous minds is taken from the book of the same name by Jonathan Haidt (2012) who summarizes research in moral psychology, which explores the dimensions of human morality and the way people form like-minded groups. I have explored this moral foundations theory in A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures (Sutton, 2016).  I have found both conservative and progressive Christians willing to discuss ways to deal with people having different opinions.

In a recent empirical study with colleagues, we explored Haidt’s model in relationship to social identity theory including both sociopolitical identity and religious-spiritual identity (Sutton, Kelly, & Huver, 2018).

2. Philosophers of science are aware that researchers also commit the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent in drawing conclusions from empirical studies. We humans often have trouble thinking clearly about matters of great importance.

3. Science and the text. In the text, Jesus did not pray for the man born blind but used a procedure akin to what physicians tell parents whose infants have encrusted or “sticky” eyes. Parents are advised to wash the eyes with a saline solution (link). Jesus uses salty saliva and the salty Israeli soil to treat the closed eyes, which are then washed. The text refers to opening the eyes as if they were literally closed. I briefly searched the internet for others having explored this eye treatment connection but did not find any. Feel free to add a comment if you find an earlier reference. I’m not claiming any special insight here nor am I attempting to debunk the scripture. I just ask questions when I think about faith and science.

4. Identities in conflict. Recently (2018), a Christian psychologist, Mark Yarhouse of Wheaton College and his colleagues, wrote Listening to Sexual Minorities. A recurring theme in the book is the struggle of young Christians who experience same-sex attraction while at a Christian college where the two identities (Christian, Not Heterosexual) appear in conflict with traditional Christian teaching. This book in itself is worthy of a discussion.


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