Against Moral Innocence
Against Moral Innocence

Against Moral Innocence

To think Christianly is to seek not innocence but repair.

April 1 st 2021

Alfred Bourgeois had green eyes. He was a father, though a terrible one. Married several times, he drove a truck with skill and had at least one friend. None of these things make him other than what he was, which was a murderer. They simply help us to locate Bourgeois as what he also was—a fallen creature.

I would like this talk of “fallen creature” to do more than it currently does for Christians. At the most it seems to hearken back to a time before the Fall, when the state of our moral doing was different. At its worst (and this is where I think we are), language of “fallenness” is paired with “guilt,” over against “unfallen” and “innocent.” It is this last word that I am particularly concerned about. Innocence when understood as the natural state of the creature moves the Christian imagination away from a view of the shared, fallen condition of all creatures.

When we think about innocence as our natural state, what is a theological mistake can become a social problem. We begin to think about “sin” as if it were simply discrete actions that we do—and therefore that we might not do. When we operate this way, we can rank our relative goodness next to others and conclude that some are beyond repair. But Christ comes for the damaged ones, to mend, and we are all mended in the same way. To have a truly Christian view of sin is to understand repair as the shared human condition.

The Problem of Moral Innocence

Any Christian talk of creatures of course might take two directions—who we are, and who we might have been, before the Fall. But what constitutes this difference? This is the space where much error sets in. One might imagine that the first condition—the unfallen one—was of moral innocence. If innocence was the state of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, then perhaps it is the desirable state of the creature in this life. We might imagine that some humans also exist before they have sinned—certainly children, perhaps also saints. The logic might be extended then to those who seem to have sinned “just a little”; the morally virtuous, the well-scrubbed ones. There is an easy slide here to imagining that some human individuals are more like what Adam and Eve were. This, however, is a critical error. Innocence is not compatible with the Christian doctrine of sin, and to conflate the two is not only to make a theological error but also to misunderstand our social imaginary.

Eve’s innocence in the Garden was a lack of both knowledge and experience. She had never known the evil she had never chosen, had never even known what it was to choose in this sense. Philosopher Elizabeth Wolgast writes that it is this pairing of ignorance and inexperience that constitutes our understanding of an “innocent”:

What is morally lacking in the innocent is precisely what makes her morally beautiful, namely experience with wrong and wickedness. Her understanding of self and others provides no ground for moral discriminations, the naturalness of her goodness is a barrier to getting it. She is untainted by wrong but also untaught by it, with insufficient material to form a moral perspective.

Innocence can be seen as a protected ignorance. The romanticization of such a state was a great pastime of Victorian literature. Flaxen-haired children felled in their youth by raging fevers, dying of accidents—the trope of an innocent sent to the grave before life could sully them is prominent. It was a trope which carried the assumption, and the hope even, that one might remain unsullied by the world.

Such a lingering love for innocents remains in our day. Innocence is clean to guilt’s dirty, unlined to its cragged and worn. It is fresh fallen snow that young children have yet to find; a newly frosted cake discovered by no greedy fingertips; a smooth, unblemished linen, light in colour and unmarked by use of wear, never cut or ripped or torn. Moral innocence suggests a state that is untarnished, intact. It is not that innocence is without transgression but that it has never transgressed.

This is more than lexical hairsplitting; such a view operates in our social imaginary. Of itself this notion of innocence is a pleasant fiction. But when innocence becomes our chief way of imagining our mythic past and future hope, we can struggle to understand the condition we find ourselves in. More critically, with “innocence” populating our social imaginary we can struggle to see our neighbour as truly our brother.

You can understand the work of this imaginary when you ask and answer the following: Who is thought to be “morally innocent”? Like the Victorians, we long to uphold our children as innocent, their character as unstained as their cheeks are unlined. We see in them unlimited potential for goodness, and we hope for our future through their possibility. But placing our hope in innocence is not to think Christianly.

This is why the language of the sin of infants is so clarifying. Infants, having never done much, could indeed not yet have chosen wrongly. But to call them sinful creatures, as the Western tradition does, is not to evaluate their actions. To recognize that an infant herself is sinful is to see her as in need of mending, perhaps not immediately, but before too long and inevitably. This is what it is to see things Christianly—to mark ourselves as in need of grace. Not to create conditions of innocence or preserve our innocence or even return to it, but to be mended, to be repaired.

In Augustine’s telling of the story of the Fall, what we have is not a slide from order into chaos, from meticulous beauty to horror. The change is more subtle than that, and it begins within. When Adam and Eve were persuaded “to love to excess their own power,” as Augustine says, the Garden changed from a tranquil, happy place to a potentially malevolent one.

When Eve and Adam failed to stand guard, misusing their “middle rank” between God and the animals, they made a choice to prefer the good that had not been given to them over the good that had. It was not a matter of loving evil, per se. What had been given by God as good was not instantly corrupted. There was not a cataclysmic earthquake that felled every tree or a climate event that shrivelled every fruit on the vine. Rather, upon that first choice apart from God, the change occurred within humanity.

After this failure to guard what had been given, Eve’s eyes were opened, and she lost the simplicity that had once been hers. Eve’s “innocence” was indeed lost in the Fall. But to narrate the Christian story of sin primarily through a narrative of “lost innocence” misunderstands what sin is.

Perhaps it would help to think of the problem of sin grammatically. For Christian theology sin is not primarily a common noun, a way to name a particular thing. Rather sin is a pronoun, a way to name a state of being. Sin is a way of describing the state of each human individual who must now, after the Fall, experience a sundering of their will from the good.

This is what it is to see things Christianly—to mark ourselves as in need of grace.

If sin were a noun, then to call someone a sinner would be to make a constitutive judgment of that person. It might, in other words, be heard to make an equivalence between “person” and “bad,” to pronounce a moral judgment on each individual. But if sin is not a noun, not primarily a way to call things “bad,” but a pronoun, a name for the category each of us is in, then to call each human individual a sinner is not in any way to call each individual human “bad.” Rather it is to say that we are irretrievably lost in a deep wood, and we navigate with a faulty compass. The Christian story is that the hiker is already lost and left to herself would remain that way perpetually. It is not simply that we have chosen wrongly, but that we cannot choose well, for the faculty of our choosing has already been compromised.

The myth of moral innocence suggests that there is a creatureliness that is pristine or pure. But this is not the cloth the world is made of. Ours is a fabric of use and misuse, of mending and repair. Such a preference for moral purity can be harmful, as it suggests that it is innocence and not guilt that binds us to God and one to another. But it is guilt, and God’s providential repair, that is common to us all.

Blameless or Innocent?

The biblical text further clarifies this distinction between innocence and sinlessness. Where Scripture features David and Job speaking of their “blamelessness” before God, we hear them claiming “innocence.” The word “blameless” (tam) in the Hebrew Bible, however, speaks not of one who is perfect or pristine, but of an individual who has integrity within the covenantal system. “Blameless” in the Hebrew Bible means “without guilt,” but “innocence” in common Christian vocabulary means “without sin,” a claim that Christians in the Western tradition cannot coherently make.

The word used for “blameless” in the Hebrew Bible speaks to the integrity of its object. Something that is blameless is complete or perfect. So when we read in Song of Songs that the beloved is “flawless” or “perfect,” we are encountering the same word that speaks of Job’s moral integrity in Job 2:3. A life that is “blameless” is one lived with integrity, where there is a fit between the shape of one’s conduct and the shape of one’s loves and desires. The same word is often used to speak of the complete or blameless condition of a sacrificial animal. A “blemishless” ram and a “blameless” life both present an integrity between the inside and outside, and both are suited to the task for which they are intended, which is life before God.

One of the most radical claims of the Christian faith is that Christ’s blood is the cure equally for the sin of the child and the sin of the criminal.

The word “blameless” does not appear as an attribute of God, which suggests that it is appropriately designated only of creatures whose lives might reveal flaws of various kinds. So the difference between “blameless” and “innocent” is between one who has kept the law, and another who has never not kept the law. Innocence, if we understand it to mean the existence of one who has never not kept the law, seems to apply seldom if ever to humans: there is “none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3).

One of the most radical claims of the Christian faith is that Christ’s blood is the cure equally for the sin of the child and the sin of the criminal. There is no “extra-strength” blood of Christ. We do not go back at Sunday morning’s Communion some weeks for a second helping.

The logic of this is odd and even repugnant to us. Yet this is our Christian hope—not to have never sinned, but to have sinned and received grace. It is not that none are guilty but that none are innocent. The cloth of which I am made has also been repaired, and we are all cut from the same cloth.

The Broken Math of Justice

In December of 2020, Alfred Bourgeois was executed in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the murder of his two-year-old daughter in 2002. Some of the details of the crime are disputed, but enough was certain that Bourgeois could be rightly convicted of it. Few—in fact, likely none—would argue that the act Bourgeois committed was morally ambivalent. But that guilt necessitates punishment, and particularly that guilt demands punishment of this particular kind, is a social commitment we in the United States have made. (In other situations guilt might be thought to necessitate rehabilitation or restitution, and not punishment alone.) 

That there is not social consensus on this broken math of capital punishment suggests that it does, to some, make a certain kind of moral sense. At least one of the ways it does so is by preserving a sort of justice according to which wrongs are addressed in proportionate form. Capital punishment claims to be more than an exercise of state power; as Elizabeth Bruenig writes, “So much time and effort goes into making executions seem like exercises of justice, not just power; extreme measures are taken at each juncture to convince the public, and perhaps the executioners themselves, that the process is a fair, dispassionate, rational one.” Capital punishment, in this sense, is thought to preserve the distinction between the guilty and the innocent. This taking of the life of the guilty party makes a certain kind of moral sense if it is assumed that one is wiping the slate clean or correcting the record of wrongs. But the math, however you reckon it, ends with two lives lost.

In our concern for purity, for innocence, we value the pristine over the repaired, but the work of Christ is repair.

It is not difficult to imagine why some desire the existence of something like the death penalty. As Bruenig notes, “Arguments against the death penalty tend to be abstract: moral declarations about taking human life, conclusions from academic studies of legal procedures, dissections of prosecutions, or philosophical concerns about the limits of government power. But arguments for the death penalty are visceral: the blood of a baby girl seeping out into her eyes, the tangled scars crisscrossing her soft skin.” With redress to the language of violence against such an innocent, the need for “justice” is imagined as made concrete, with equivalent violence done now to the guilty. But the truth of the story, as Bruenig writes it, is that there is a second embodied individual whose skin and arms and veins are touched in his last moments, whose eyes convey both fear and resignation. The guilt of this one does not render him any less a creature, any less imbued with joy and sorrow. By taking this life, the scales of justice are not righted. They are simply weighted heavier.

The Christian should seek to protect the unborn and the death-row inmate with equal zeal. That we do not, that we perceive them as different in their composition, suggests that we do not know they are cut from the same cloth, or that we ourselves are as well. The myth of moral innocence contributes to this confusion, and we should trade it for a story of mending and repair. We are not unsullied linen. We are wrinkled and worn and threadbare. The fabric of which we are made will tear and wear out. In our concern for purity, for innocence, we value the pristine over the repaired, but the work of Christ is repair.

Kirsten Sanders
Kirsten Sanders

Kirsten Sanders is a theologian and mother of three. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.


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