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  A crude distinction between sin and crime is that sin is an offence against God, whereas crime is first an offence against society and may be only indirectly sin as well. For example, in some faiths, touching a menstruating woman or breaking the rules of caste are sins, but no crimes are involved. Contraception, abortion and suicide are regarded as sins by the Roman Catholic Church but are not controlled by law in every ‘Catholic’ country. Because of the Judaeo-Christian tradition that to harm a fellow human being is not only to damage the community but to offend God, it is hard to imagine a crime which is not also a sin. However, this does not mean that all laws are to be obeyed. The state can sin in passing unjust laws, making it a duty to rebel; but clearly without belief in God sin has no meaning. It is only in a theocracy that crime becomes coterminous with sin.

In the Christian tradition a further distinction is made, between a sinful act and the state of sin of which sins are only an outward symptom. In the West, following Augustine, sin is seen as a state of utter depravity inherent in the human condition (though few nowadays would agree that it is the very act of procreation, which being sinful, re-creates the sin of Adam in the child). Reinterpretation of the myth sees humankind in a state of total alienation from God, the concept of alienation itself being derived from modern psychology and existentialist philosophy, but consistent with biblical texts. Many of Jesus\' healings were of people who had made themselves ill with guilt and angst. In the East, the original Greek word for sin, hamartia, meant a failing, a falling short, as when an arrow falls short of the target. Compared with the righteousness and glory of God, humankind was sinful, but it was a deprivation of good, a negative rather than a positive state of evil. This sense of inadequacy before God is a common feature of mystics in all religions, as is the conviction that however redemption is achieved, humankind is rescued by the grace and love of God.

It was a commonplace of the old Christian evangelism that other religions lacked a sense of sin, but this idea owed more to the need for a moral justification for colonialism than an accurate reading of non-Christian scriptures. There are different ideas of what constitutes a sin in different cultures; infanticide and female circumcision (for instance) can be justified by theological sleight of hand just as easily as were slavery and the Inquisition in Christendom. In all faiths sin is in essence disobedience to God, however the numinous is perceived: by direct defiance of divine law, by breach of one\'s dharma or by stifling the potential for enlightenment. In some faiths, such as African traditional religions, sin is always social, against the tribe and the ancestors (for example, abortion is wrong because it deprives the ancestors of descendants), and it can be overcome by propitiation, usually a sacrifice. EMJ

Further reading Sören Kierkegaard, The Concept of Dread (1844); , C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters; , Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society.



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