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:
- (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,”
- (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,”
- (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.”
- (1 Cor. 15:22) – “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.”
…and sometimes they aren’t:
- (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.”
- (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.”
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.