Wow, we’ve been hearing a lot about classified documents in the US news lately. If you’re not paying attention to the rhetoric closely enough, it seems like it’s suddenly this huge problem that EVERYONE in government has. AND, significantly, like everyone ON ALL SIDES of US government is equally guilty of mishandling classified documents. In this piece I plan to unwrap why that simply isn’t so, and how this kind of largely right-wing rhetoric mirrors nature and the effects of the concept from studies of spiritual abuse known as sin-leveling.
And by the end, I’ll discuss how we can assertively stand up for keeping the focus on justice and accountability for (actually) egregious misdeeds.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m coming at this from the perspective of a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate Protestant denomination in the Midwest US who went on to become a communication scholar. I’ve studied fascistic rhetoric.
I’ve also heard an awful lot of the type of rhetoric known as sin-leveling while growing up. In fact, I’ve heard SO much of the rhetoric known as sin-leveling that I didn’t actually believe it was a real problem for a year or two after I first heard the term as connected to studies of spiritual abuse.
(In fact, I’ve been so viscerally trained in this understanding of how the moral world must work that even when objectively I know it’s the right thing to do to assertively write this article, on a visceral level it still feels like a betrayal of something. That’s how insidious this stuff is.)
What is sin-leveling? In short, it’s an assumption that all sins are equally bad in the sight of God. As I heard it, the idea that people like Paul in the Bible listed seemingly unlike sins—say, gossip and rage—back to back was meant to imply this.
The words of Jesus himself are also corralled into the argument, his equivalencies between lust—sins of the mind—and adultery—sins of actual behavior—being taken as absolute proof that both of those things were clearly both equally bad.
Of course—Good News! This also presumed that “both sides” ought to be just as easily forgiven. You were allowed to take a few minutes to feel hurt if someone abused or hurt you or others, sure. But then you were expected to “forgive” and move on. (Insert all the eyeroll emojis here.)
After all, (and this is not an exaggeration of the rhetoric!), if even Hitler repented on his deathbed, it would be presumed that God would forgive him all of that death and pain he caused.
(You know! Grace!)
Just as Guilty as Hitler? (Ouch.)
So–and, again, this is not an exaggeration of the rhetoric I grew up with–if we had trouble “forgiving” Hitler and others guilty of causing trauma, well, we must be just as guilty as him.
Of course, there was more to it than that, but those are the basics. I just assumed it was business-as-usual, this kind of rhetoric.
But surely you can see how it has some, er, minor issues. (Hash tag “understatement of the year.”)
Hmmmm, But Wait, This Interpretation Involves Ignoring Big Chunks of the Bible…
Even while I’ve been so deeply socialized into the ideas behind sin-leveling theology, I’ve had a hard time with what seemed to be opposing themes in the Bible. See, these large chunks of the Bible rail against exploiters and corrupt people who abused power, asking for the vulnerable and exploited to be cared for and given special treatment.
Over time I’ve come to believe that, in fact, if we cared for the vulnerable and marginalized and exploited and abused, we were caring for the Christlike ones.
This large theme of the Bible simply didn’t fit with the concept that all sins were equal and equally to be forgiven.
Because what it calls for, according to my read, is the direct opposite of sin-leveling. It calls those in positions of power and that are causing the most harm to others to genuinely change their ways and be held to account.
The Unhealthy Effects of Sin-Leveling Doctrines
What sin-leveling much much too often does, ultimately, as I’ve discussed before without using the term, is protect bullies and abusers while trying to act as though those who have been harmed by them are “just as guilty” as the abusers because they see them as “guilty of bitterness” and/or a “lack of forgiveness.”
What this ends up doing is taking victims and their allies and imbuing them in the eyes of fellow church folks with a kind of moral disgust (I’ve previously discussed moral and political disgusts in a series starting here). As discussed in a recent post, of course, this is made worse in situations of sexual abuse, where purity culture actually blames victims who were assaulted for “having sex”—which is of course a sin. (Imagine ALL the eyeroll emojis here, if you will!)
But Wait, What Does Any of This Have to Do with the Secular Discourse Around Classified Documents????
All of this is important because I’ve been paying attention to the rhetoric around classified documents. And as I do, I’m hearing shades of sin-leveling going on in this same seemingly more secular rhetoric.
Let me explain.
Many Too Many Similarities to Sin-Leveling Here!
So as historian Heather Cox Richardson explains in one of her latest email newsletters, recent rhetoric that’s making it seem like everyone and their mother in government, on “all sides,” must be guilty of infractions regarding classified documents is a form of attempted distraction from the genuinely egregious infractions the 45th president committed regarding classified documents.
And yeah, OF COURSE it reminded me of sin-levelling. It’s so d*mned similar.
In fact, I would argue that this kind of argument leverages the fundamentals of sin-levelling to make its case.
At the very least, it hijacks the same parts of the brain that get people to believe in sin-leveling logic.
“All Have Sinned”—So Ignore that Dude Making Away with Nuclear Secrets, Please!
See, if the focus of the conversation shifts from the 45th president having not only low-level classified documents in his possession but also top secret nuclear-type secrets and those related to major state secrets and national security concerns—and repeatedly resisting official requests to return them—to all of us shaking our heads over how “all have sinned and fallen short of returning classified documents” it is exactly the same effect as sin-levelling.
Yup, It’s a Distraction—and an Attempt to Paint Innocent Folks with Moral Disgust
This broadening of the conversation might seem reasonable.
But the problem with this conversation is that our focus is shifted from holding the initial extremely egregious party responsible for actual crimes related to classified documents.
And yeah, here too the effect is the same as sin-leveling’s effects. It calls us to imbue those who are making low-level unintentional mistakes with moral disgust, and to do so AT THE SAME LEVEL or even higher as those who are egregiously flouting the law in this area.
Everyone in Government Is Equally at Fault—Right??? (Sigh)
In doing so, it plays on existing moral disgusts by burned out people primed to think that the whole government must somehow be equally corrupt (which tends, by the way, to be a HUGE tenet of the conspiracy theory community).
Universal Forgiveness Too??? But…Wait….
Note that both sin-levelling rhetoric and the classified document rhetoric don’t actually call for the forgiveness of all sins equally. In fact, by imbuing all with moral disgust, those who don’t deserve it are sanctioned and guilted as a way to get the attention off the actually guilty parties.
So while there may be a “forgiveness” rhetoric at play in this case, as with sin-leveling situations with abusers, the fact that everyone gets guilted actually means that it’s the egregious offenders who actually get “forgiven.” In fact, everyone else gets unjustly painted with guilt and scapegoated.
Hmmmm….You Too Could Be Tinged with Moral Disgust if You Assertively Disagree!
And…this is super important…it’s NOT only those in government who get painted as “guilty” in the eyes of this rhetoric. The sin-leveling goes way beyond that.
Just as with the sin-leveling theology I described above, it’s actually anyone in the public who tries to assertively insist that those who may be convicted of doing genuinely awful things with state secrets actually be held to account for those offenses.
Yup, Definitely an Abusive Secular Application of Sin-Leveling
In this way, large swaths of the public are taught to presume that the egregious offender’s actions are not actually that bad and as worthy of “forgiveness” as anyone else’s.
And, in fact, as with the sin-leveling theological rhetoric, those who are tempted to call to hold him accountable for his egregious offenses are painted with moral disgust as well.
(Begin sarcasm) After all, is it not “bitter” and “angry” to try to pursue justice against someone who did barely more than anyone else in government has done regarding classified documents? (end sarcasm)
How Good People Get Sucked In to Enabling Unhealthy Rhetoric
I would argue that THIS—this exact part of the argument—is how good people can get sucked into believing this kind of argument on a visceral level.
Because yeah, at its base, this kind of argument subtly argues that assertive action to call even the most egregious offenders to account makes you a bad person.
The Same Logic as the Toxic Sides of Christian Nice
In short, sin-leveling does the same thing I’ve argued that Christian Nice does. It normalizes the fawn stress response—making nice with bullies to stay safe—as the highest form of morality.
And while the national conversation around classified documents is a purportedly secular one, it hijacks the same parts of the brain as those of unhealthy theological rhetoric around sin-leveling.
What to Do in Response
What, then, should we do in response, as people who are trying to resist unhealthy rhetoric across the religio-political spectrum?
Well, we need, first, to remind ourselves and each other of the insidious nature of this kind of stuff.
Reminding Ourselves that Assertiveness about Egregious Offenses IS Moral!
As an extension of that, we need to try to remind ourselves and others, both on an objective and on a visceral level, that it is absolutely the right thing to do to assertively avoid the traps I’ve outlined above.
As such, we need to learn to recognize and call out attempts toward sin-leveling, whether in or out of the church.
Not Everything Is Equal. It’s Just Not.
The truth is that not all situations or actions deserve the same responses as others.
They just don’t.
I could go on, but I’m going to wrap this up today. May we all continue to assertively move against insidious rhetorical techniques like this moving forward.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can to speak out against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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