By Julia Scheeres
We were standing in line for meat pies at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. The indoor arena south of San Francisco had been transformed into Victorian London; actors wearing top hats and crinolines roamed about wishing fairgoers “Happy Christmas.” As we contemplated the menu — haggis or shepherd’s pie? — a noisy band of temperance advocates marched by hoisting signs that stated, “Gin is Sin!”
As my 9-year-old daughter watched them pass, her forehead knitted, and then she looked up at me with solemn hazel eyes.
“Mama, what is sin?” she asked.
The merriment of the fair receded and I stared at her, my brain spinning with the magnitude of her question. By failing to teach my child the meaning of the word sin, had I somehow failed to give her a moral foundation?
Sin. That tiny word still makes me cringe with residual fear. Fear of being judged unworthy. Fear of the eternal torture of hell. Fear of my father’s belt.
The notion of sin dominated my girlhood. Raised in Indiana by fundamentalist parents, sin was the inflexible yardstick by which I was measured. Actions, words, even thoughts weren’t safe from scrutiny. The list of sinful offenses seemed infinite: listening to secular music or watching secular television, saying “gosh” or “darn” or “jeez,” questioning authorities, envying a friend’s rainbow array of Izod shirts. God was a megaphone bleating in my head: “You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad!” I had recurring nightmares of malevolent winds tornado-ing through my bedroom — a metaphor, I now realize, for an invisible and vindictive god.
I had little contact with people outside of the rigid triangle of my Calvinist home, church and school. Weekends were busy with “Calvinette” activities, and later, “Young Calvinists.” I feared non-Christians in general and atheists in particular. Because unbelievers didn’t have the stick of eternal damnation hanging over their heads, they had no reason to act morally, and were therefore, I believed, capable of utter depravity.
But then, as a teenager, I started attending a public school and my black-and-white worldview started gaining color and nuance. I became good friends with a Jewish girl, surreptitiously listened to Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40,” and hid copies of Glamour magazine under my mattress as if they were pornography. I stopped fearing the secular world and grew intrigued by it. And paid the price: At 17, after being caught “fornicating” with my high school boyfriend, I was sent to a Christian reform school where children were beaten in the name of God. It was there that I learned that religion has nothing to do with goodness and there’s a strong link between zealotry and hypocrisy.
I lost my faith by fits and starts. The absolute truths of my girlhood crumbled when I watched Carl Sagan’s 13-part “Cosmos” series in graduate school — a program that included an overview of evolution which made it verboten for me as a kid, but whose logic made irrefutable sense to me as an adult.
But still. Religious brainwashing imposed from infancy is hard to shake, and I continued to confuse “Christian” with “trustworthy” and “moral.” When my husband and I contemplated having children, I wondered how I’d teach them right from wrong without a church. I toyed with the idea of dropping them off at a Sunday school, where they could ingest bite-sized chunks of morality in catchy songs and coloring books. But my husband — Catholic by culture, atheist by intellect — wanted nothing to do with organized religion.
And after years of living a “secular” life, I realized that my notion of sin has evolved. As a girl, my focus was on gaining admittance to heaven. Now I believe that this life is the only life we’ll know; this planet, our only existence. I am no longer motivated by fear of an unproven hell, but by real-world concerns about injustice and inequality.
Although I no longer have contact with my parents and live a very different life, we do have this in common. Just as my parents’ approach to imparting their values was shaped by an effort to avoid the sins they feared, I am raising my two daughters according to my moral code. To me, the greatest sin of all is failing to be an engaged citizen of the world, so the lessons are about being open to others rather than closed off.
We started taking our kids to marches when the younger one, Davia, was an infant perched on our shoulders and 3-year-old Tessa danced between the lines of protesters as if it were a block party. We’ve marched for racial justice and for women’s rights. Our church is the street, our congregation our fellow crusaders. We teach our children to respect the earth by reducing, reusing and recycling.
It’s sinking in. My daughters make me proud by taking their own actions to confront injustice where they see it — by insisting we keep a box of protein bars in the car to hand out to homeless people at stoplights, by participating in school walkouts against gun violence, by intervening when they see kids bullied on the playground, by always questioning the world around them.
Their activism has even inspired others. In 2016, Tessa choreographed 20 grade-schoolers in a “Kids for Hillary” pantsuit flash mob in Berkeley which was featured by local media outlets as well as Fast Company and even Courrier Japon.
As we stood in line a few weeks ago at the Dickens Fair, I realized that my kids already knew what sin was, without ever having been exposed to the onerous religious weight of the word. Despite being unchurched, they are empathetic, loving and kind. And even more: They are fearless.
I gazed into Davia’s upturned face and felt a rush of love and happiness. I had raised her without sin. Here was a kid who’d recently joked that the Christmas standard “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” should be changed to “I’m Dreaming of a Diverse Christmas.”
She did have a moral code — one she followed not from obligation, but from her own desire to make the world a better place. A group of carolers strolled by, and she turned to watch them with a delighted smile, her question already forgotten. I leaned down and put my arms around her, watching the world from her perspective.
An explanation of sin could wait.