In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is publicly censured for the sin of adultery, and sentenced to a perpetual penance of wearing a huge red letter A as a mark of her transgression. She lives the next few years on a peninsula raising her daughter Pearl, and although she is socially ostracized and ridiculed she is called on frequently to do fine needlework, an occupation that provides a living. There are two sinners who remain hidden: Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the spiritual conscience of the town and Hester’s secret lover, and Roger Chillingworth, physician and apothecary who is Hester’s secret husband. Both men are consumed by their hidden evil: Dimmesdale finds no solace in physical mortification from overpowering guilt, and Chillingworth through his slow torture of Dimmesdale under the guise of medicine. The obvious sinner survives, and hidden sinners do not. The hidden sinners are destroyed by the sins they do not surface, they do not accept.
Once someone is convicted of a crime in this country, everything is different. A mark is on your record, and access is closed to many occupations, careers and lifestyles. The nature of the crime is almost irrelevant. The purpose of justice in America is the punish the perpetrator, and if the punishment is painful, degrading, and humiliating, the offender deserves it. When the prison term is over, the mark remains. Even crimes in the court of public opinion inflict this mark: once caught in a scandal, there is almost never a return. The leper remains a leper after Jesus heals them.
Hidden sins are another story. In the past year, the issues of men abusing women have come into focus with stories of spousal abuse by NFL players, and new accusations against Bill Cosby. Sins like this have festered not only because they remained hidden, but as hidden wounds they have not healed. The epidemic still goes on out of sight, as well as other sins which remain hidden. Scarlet letters are still handed out, when the sins committed against humanity in the halls of power, public and private, go unexposed and unpunished. We generally distrust and decry the sins of Congress, but re-elect them in overwhelming numbers, even though they are committed to ignoring our voice and engineering a society where their pride rules unchallenged. We doubt the mechanizations of Wall Street, but do nothing to expose or control them, even though history has proven amply lack of restraint is a recipe for disaster. We deplore the mind numbing dreck put out as not only entertainment but as essential news, but do nothing to break the entertainment monopoly that spews it.
Privileged Sin implies the ability to forgive is limited. Although all sins are not equal in the same way all illness are not equal, choosing which sin gets the most punishment always makes the chooser into a judge, and Christ repeated called his disciples not to pass judgement on one another. Usually, Privileged Sins are called self-condemning, freeing the witnesses from moral repercussions or guilt about inflicting harsh punishment. Biblical justice focuses on making things right. Privileged Sin is about keeping things wrong. Privileged Sin is about making sure the self-condemned stay that way, and we don’t worry ourselves about the wicked’s fate. Privileged Sins is about perpetuating suffering and denying healing.
Healing means more than punishment, pain and lasting condemnation. Healing means exposing the truth and treating deeper disease, not just the obvious surface symptoms. Healing means freeing everyone of the sin, rather than handing out Scarlet Letters and abdicating responsibility for our own faults. Healing is about caring for everyone’s fate, no matter what has happened or who has suffered from the consequences.
This is a time of thanksgiving, and we have much to be thankful for. In spite of what’s wrong with our society and our world, there is still more hope and charity in the human psyche than there is evil. We are survivors and we will survive. Privileged Sins and Scarlet Letters undermine the feast, all our banquets are flawed by them. A challenge for a time of thanksgiving is to let healing come to the table, let truth stand unashamed, and let the Scarlet Letters be tossed in the stream.