The Sins of the Son (Part One)

Have you ever heard the expression, “the sins of the father are visited upon the son?”  I’m paraphrasing here, and probably paraphrasing horribly at that,  since there are so many iterations of the idea, but I think you know what idiom I’m talking about..

Apparently, depending on the Bible you read, or the way you interpret the Bible, sometimes the sins are:

  1. (Exodus 20:5) – “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,”
  2. (Deuteronomy 5:9) – “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,”
  3. (Exodus 34:6-7) – “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
  4. (1 Cor. 15:22) – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.”

…and sometimes they aren’t:

  1. (Deuteronomy 24:16) – “Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.”
  2. (Ezekiel 18:20) – “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”

http://carm.org/bible-difficulties/genesis-deuteronomy/do-sons-bear-sins-fathers-or-not

Obviously, there’s context and symbolism and metaphor and language limits and all sorts of other things that have to be kept in mind while processing and interpreting those passages.    But yesterday, on a particularly long crosstown bus trek to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on the east side of Manhattan, I found myself wrestling  with that annoying Judeo-Christian guilt-slash-morality that so permates oh, I don’t know, everything…

…and wondering if maybe mom got cancer because of something I did.

It was a quick flash of a thought.  Nothing I lingered on for any length of time,  but something which I contemplated and volleyed back and forth for a minute or two at least .  Could mom’s illness be some sort of punishment aimed at me for past sins?  Was she suffering in some way for lies I’ve told her, or friends, or my ex?   For undeserved cruelty/snark toward people who couldn’t defends themselves (let alone my most hated frienemies)?   For teasing that girl mercilessly ’til she cried when we were in 4th grade, an act I was strangely proud of at nine but one that has grown to haunt me to this day?  For unpaid taxes that haven’t gone to fix roads, bridges — and hospitals?

(Actually,  I’ve suffered aplenty under various tax burdens, so I’m gonna rule that one out, just because).

But maybe… just maybe… it was for something else?

Absurd, right?  But beyond the insane, self-centered narcissism required by that line of thinking (grotesquely transforming mom’s illness and fight against it into something that, at its root, would be rights be all about me), it also defies the simple facts:

My mother has  cancer because because many, many people in our family have cancer, suggesting a geneetic disposition toward it.  My mother has non-small cell lung cancer because she was a smoker for 45 years (she started smoking when she was back in 1954, when she was just 11 years old, and only quit about 12 years ago), and because non-small  lung cancer is caused by mutation of growth-regulating genes by the mutagenic chemicals of cigarette smoke.    She has non-small cell lung cancer because  the cells in her lungs began to divide rapidly and uncontrollaby, creating tumors, and those tumors are interfering with her ability to breathe (indeed, after invading the bronchi of her lung, the tumor collapsed it.)  My mother has various secondary cancers in her skeleton, skin, adrenal glands, lymph nodes, and breasts because non-small cell lung cancer is incredibly aggressive, and infects the body quickly and vigorously if left unfound or unchecked.

For  storytellers, and, I’d wager, for those raised in most traditional religious households, those answers are neither very satisfying nor overtly educational in any kind of spiritual way.  There’s no great character transformation, no cosmic principle revealed, no grand ethical dilemma tackled while rattling off the scientific facts behind her cancer.  They begin to touch on behavior and its ramifications (there’s an obvious correlation between 45 years of smoking and the cancer), but not necessarily “universal truth” that reveals some great lesson about humanity — at least not obviously.

As I understand it, this is one of the biggest issues in the “religion vs. science” debate: depending on what side you fall on, and what’s more important to you: the “facts” of the matter, and then the “truth” of the matter — which may or may not be the same thing, but often provide succinctly different answers (to me, anyway) to life’s biggest question: why?

To be continued.

7 thoughts on “The Sins of the Son (Part One)

  1. hoganbcmj says:

    My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago. I wasn’t brought up around religion, but I’ve done my share of sinning. I’m really hoping if her cancer was brought on by sin, it was her sins and not mine (is that considered narcissistic or just selfish?). This is the first I’ve seen of your site. Interesting blog entry. A little more going on in your head than pretty pictures and super heroes obviously.

  2. Erik Warns says:

    Ezekiel is speaking of the guilt of the father’s sin never being held agains’t the sons, but Moses was refering to the consequences of the father’s sins being passed on to their children.
    Reading up on a lot of genetic stuff seems to point to people being predisposed to certain types of diseases. As Francis Collins puts it “predisposition does not mean preditermination” Our actions and lifestyle can have a huge effect on things. Too much on that subject to go into here.
    Ultimately none of that matters. Pam! is awesome and so are you. This is not your fault but it’s natural that the thought would cross your mind. My mom and dad had the same thoughts when their parents had health troubles late in life.
    Pam! stopped smoking 12 years ago. Imagine if she hadn’t. All of this would have happened sooner. Most likely she stopped smoking because of you or your influence. Think of what she has accomplished in recent years and how much of it is thanks to you.

  3. “There’s no great character transformation, no cosmic principle revealed, no grand ethical dilemma tackled while rattling off the scientific facts behind her cancer. ”
    Not inherently, it must be projected onto what we’re seeing.
    Those answers satisfy the “how,” but not the “why.”

    Only we can really project meaning onto events like these.
    We sometimes yearn for someone or something else to impose meaning but…
    I optimistically assert that, “if WE give things their meaning, then nothing has to be meaningless.”

    The relationship between you and your mother, from what I’ve seen, is a thing of beauty.
    There are many (too many) parent/child relationships, that despite the modicum of love, may be described as emotionally and psychologically cancerous.
    Your relationship isn’t of that kind, despite the physical circumstances.
    But it may make losing it all the more painful, when you feel a deep connection, the loss feels like a vital organ being ripped out.

    When you described taking care of her the same way she took care of you… I have to admit the thought of doing so for my own parents doesn’t particularly appeal to me.
    At first I felt like an ungrateful bastard for not sharing your sentiment, but then I realized I don’t have that level of connection to them as you do to your mother.

    And in that area, I think you’re much more fortunate than my brother and I. (assuming we don’t roll up our sleeves and get our stuff sorted before the need expires.)

    I’m thinking about many of these superheroes we admire: Superman, Spider-man, Batman, The Flash… it’s like their whole careers are founded on compensation for unfulfilled parental relationships. They KEEP fighting for more altruistic reasons, but it all began with what they wanted, but can’t have with their parents.

    You seem to have that which they never could.

    Being mortal, this thing had to have changed or ended in some way…
    Like this, you’ve been given the opportunity to give this story as beautiful an ending it deserves.

    (Sorry for the rant, just… trying.)

    • The super-hero I admire most (well, in the incarnation I love the most) is Wonder Woman — and I love it because her relationship with her parent, Hippolyta, is so strong (well, before writers go mucking with it (including me)). I connect so strongly to their familial/child love (I’m writing a blog about it now); in her best iteration, Diana fights and does the right thing BECAUSE of Hippolyta, not in spite of her.

      • John Burton says:

        Off topic in a way….but I do not think you mucked with anything. Your run showed Diana and us that Hippolyta was more than just a what Diana thought she should be, that she was not only a mother but a woman and a person. This is one of the toughest things for a child to deal with sometimes, that the mother exists in many ways other than what we want them to be. Being able to accept our parents beyond what we need of them or think they should be is part of REALLY loving you parent as a person. I fell very much in love with Hippolyta under your lead, and was devastated when we lost her. I had just lost my Dad to suicide a year earlier, and was trying to cope with that, and you helped me alot in a weird Wonder Woman way…lol. I even named one of my dogs Hippolyta, my other dog being named after my Father.

      • I think of it as both in spite of/because of…
        As Queen/liberator/commander/mediator of the island and her people, she’s lived a life of responsibility/stress/danger/responsibility/pain that she wouldn’t necessarily want for anyone else, especially not her daughter.
        (Remember Hippolyta was born as an adult with divinely implanted knowledge to carry out her role as leader. Never a childhood.)

        All the while inspiring her daughter to follow in her footsteps… to greatness.

        Kinda like how Barbara Gordon wanted to fight crime like Jim Gordon in spite of his objections.

        But they both put on masks… and did so anyway.

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