Systems of sin are a real thing

There are several reflections rumbling around in my brain right now—about Scripture and women, about abortion.

But I promised I’d try to get more specific about the thing I only addressed vaguely last week—about getting down in the weeds and wrestling with how to apply the faith to the current context of the world.

So I think the best thing I could share this week is a reflection by Christopher Dodson, of the diocese of Fargo, North Dakota. I found it because one of my email subscriptions last week referred to “systemic sin.”

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My faith journey in the past few years has really convicted me on the topic of systemic racism. There is so much pushback against the idea. The hullabaloo about critical race theory makes me absolutely CRAZY. The idea that we shouldn’t talk about the deep sins committed by U.S. institutions against Black and indigenous people, because it might make white people feel bad, must make God weep. One of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith, after all, is acknowledging our failures and confessing them.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months trying to figure out how I would ask fellow whites who resist racial reckoning to think about this. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Things like redlining, lending discrimination, and the GI bill only applying to whites—to say nothing of the lack of reparations made to Blacks after abolition—have had long, long ripple effects. We, the whites, got the good side of this equation. Blacks got the bad side. The problems faced by Black communities now are direct, generational ripple effects of injustices perpetrated by systemic racism that endured for hundreds of years.

Now, none of that is my fault, or your fault, and it might not be your parents’ fault, or even your grandparents’ fault. It’s not our FAULT.

BUT.

Whose fault it is is not the issue. The point is, the consequences are here, and we, as Christians, have to deal with them.

This is not about trying to make whites feel bad. It’s just a clear-eyed, Jesus-centered, Gospel-driven, “love your neighbor as yourself” acknowledgment that I have benefited generationally from something that harmed another group of people generationally. And that still has impacts today.

And because of that, I have a responsibility to work toward fixing it.

That’s all. The hysteria surrounding critical race theory steals all the attention that needs to be on solutions, and directs it toward division and protectionism of SYSTEMS that have aided whites at the expense of Blacks. And it’s got to stop.

When I hear the words “systemic sin,” this is what I think about.

But when that term popped up in my email last week, and I knee-jerk reacted as above, I thought I’d better walk the walk and go look up the term to make sure I wasn’t imposing my own world view upon it. I wanted to see what people with more expertise had to say about it.

That’s how I found this article. Christopher Dodson is the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, and in other articles, he addresses abortion and other subjects of importance to Catholics. He’s no radical.

This piece takes a hard look at the topic of systemic sin, specifically referencing the Catechism and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

And now I will shut up and let Dodson speak.

Many Christians, including Catholics, have difficulty understanding that “structures of sin” may exist separately from our own individual sins. I suspect that certain religious and political strains of thought in the United States that emphasize the individual as paramount contribute to this problem. The false idea that we are autonomous individuals acting in isolation prevents us from accepting and addressing the social consequences of our sins and the sins of others. (continue reading)

Christopher Dodson

Signposts from Augustine and Dorothy Day

It’s been a minute since I posted here, but not for lack of spiritual journeying… just struggling with how to write it publicly. God continues to place signposts in my journey to balance Godly anger and detachment. Sometimes I don’t quite know how to balance the two.

I spent Lent reading the letters of Dorothy Day, because I thought, “If anyone has figured out this balance, she’s that one.” “All The Way To Heaven” was the recommendation of a priest friend of a friend.

In the first 40% of the book she was not at all what I expected from Dorothy Day. It’s really interesting to watch her own spiritual journey unfold. Then there comes a sharp turn. I’m still only at the 46% mark (she wrote a lot of letters!) but I am thoroughly engrossed by it all. But I wasn’t finding the nugget I was looking for–the thing that showed me how to be an activist and advocate for social justice without being angry all the time.

Then, without warning: this.

Whoa.

But, because God doesn’t deal in the obvious and the clear-cut and the black-and-white–he just doesn’t–within 24 hours, I stumbled across this quote in the front of a novel I pulled from the library to read:

Okay, then.

So… I suppose the divine message here is to hold things in tension? That this struggle is real, and inevitable, and a part of the journey?

“Outside Agitators” and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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On Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

One of the first things that struck me was that he was writing because he had been chastised by a fellow clergyman for being an “outside agitator.” Why did this strike me so forcefully? Because I live not terribly far from Ferguson, Mo., and I heard people invoke the “outside agitator” argument myself. And at that time, I didn’t know what to make of it.

That argument goes something like this: “Those protests weren’t organized by people from ___. They were organized by national organizations who shipped people in to stir up trouble.”

I don’t think I had fully realized, until reading MLK’s letter, that “outside agitators” is how the civil rights movement works.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a lengthy paragraph in the letter from the Birmingham jail, explaining this. But then he gave the quote above. Here it is, in context.

Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.
-Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I have to admit, it was really disheartening to realize that after all this time, despite how much honor is accorded MLK across political divides, we are still using the same arguments that were used to try to shame and discredit him and his work.

The Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a breathtakingly beautiful piece which remains every bit as relevant today as it was in 1963. Well worth reading.

Archbishop Tutu on Christian’s responsibility to address racism

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This quote landed in my email inbox this morning within the Center for Contemplation and Action’s daily reflection*. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words here affirmed the convictions that have been growing in me for the past decade and a half or so: that the political issues of our time are part of our responsibility as Christians to address.

The blatant examples of racism in the U.S. are an easy target–the way in which nationalism has become inextricably (and bafflingly!) tied to racism.

But I would argue that stopping there is the easy way out. If we make the Proud Boys et al the scapegoat, then it’s tempting to give ourselves a pass on the subtler manifestations of racism—the ones that make many of us squirm when we are forced to look at them honestly. Things like inequality of educational opportunity and funding, unevenness in the justice system from top to bottom, the generational ripple effect of redlining and discrimination in housing and the GI bill… and on and on.

The “Learning How To See” podcast episode I listened to most recently explored comfort bias—the idea that our brains reject information that makes us uncomfortable. Information that is inconvenient to us.

For sure, the idea that racism is baked into American society, and that I, as a white person, am benefiting from it, is uncomfortable! To accept that would mean that if I want to be a Christian, I am required, by my faith, to do something about it. And it might even mean working against my own worldly interests, i.e., my own comfort.

The static from certain quarters surrounding critical race theory strikes me as a perfect example of comfort bias.

Which brings us right back to Desmond Tutu, doesn’t it? What is a Christian’s response to evidence of baked-in racism? Will we lean into the discomfort and allow ourselves to be made holier by advocating for just and equitable systems in our nation? Or will we dig in to our biases and continue to “spit in the face of God”?

*The reflection carried this note about sourcing: Desmond M. Tutu, “My Credo,” in Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, ed. Clifton Fadiman (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 234, 235. Note: Minor changes made to incorporate inclusive language.

Thoughts on nonviolence and how it’s organized

A few years ago, when Ferguson, Missouri was all in the news, I remember various people saying to me, “Those people are bringing in outside agitators from other places.” It was a criticism, suggesting that if “outsiders” weren’t riling up the populace, we wouldn’t be having these racial protests at all.

I wasn’t prepared to answer that argument at that time, and I haven’t heard it again since the Black Lives Matter protests swept the country. But as time goes on, I realize that the entire Civil Rights movement was structured the same way: national organizers identifying places where their presence could make a difference, and going there to support the local population.

(What we learn about history really does get distorted—whether it’s a concerted effort, or whether it’s because there’s so much of it and it gets oversimplified in an attempt to boil it down to its most important message, is another question. I’d hazard a guess the answer is “both.”)

In “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean quoted from another book, “Wild Justice,” by Susan Jacoby, which appears now to be out of print. This passage really struck me.

Nonviolence, as employed by Gandhi in India and by King in the American South, might reasonably viewed as a highly disciplined form of aggression. If one defines aggression in the primary dictionary sense of “attack,” nonviolent resistance proved to be the most powerful attack imaginable on the powers King and Gandhi were trying to overturn. … King was even more explicit on this point: the purpose of civil disobedience, he explained many times, was to force the defenders of segregation to commit brutal acts in public and thus arouse the conscience of the world on behalf of those wronged by racism. King and Gandhi did not succeed because they changed the hearts and minds of southern sheriffs and British colonial administrators (although they did, in fact, change some minds) but because they made the price of maintaining control too high for their opponents.”

Susan Jacoby, Wild Justice, pp. 336-337

Every once in a while, someone points out that Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek was the polar opposite of passive acceptance of injustice. (Read this for that mind-blowing take on a very familiar passage.)

This passage from Wild Justice also turns on its head the idea of nonviolence as passive. It made me rethink the whole movement. This describes a whole new level of courage: to go in, intending to provoke violence against oneself, which you will consciously not react to, in order to show the violence inherent in the system? Wow. Just… wow.

It was what Jesus did, too. Of course, Jesus’ crucifixion was about salvation beyond the things of the world. But God could have accomplished that any way he liked. The fact that the chosen way to get there was through nonviolent resistance to earthly injustice has to mean something for us.

Rugged Individualism as heresy

I am sharing multiple times from America’s podcast interview with Bro. Guy Consolmagno, because it kept blowing my mind. My last post, in which he pointed out that you can’t have a well formed conscience without FIRST listening to authority, leads naturally into another quote:

“That’s the great American heresy: that we’re all rugged individualists. And the truth is there is nothing we can do that doesn’t affect the people around us.”

HERESY. That’s a strong word.

But it’s so true! We have this (idealized, not terribly accurate) vision of what it means to be American. But who among us has ever stood ruggedly on our own? Not one person I’ve ever met, that’s for sure. We are all standing on the shoulders of parents, grandparents, aunts & uncles, teachers, mentors, etc. People who sheltered us and provided for our needs while we developed the skills we needed to fly the nest.

Even in adulthood, we don’t stand on our own. When we get knocked off our feet (death, hospitalizations, loss of income), our resilience depends in large part on the community around us, who fill our refrigerators, watch our kids, mow our lawns, and pitch in financially. I’ve been on the receiving end more times than I can count—some very recently. And I’m also giving that same support to other members of my extended community—at this very moment.

Being a Christian is the opposite of being a rugged individualist.

But the second part of that quote is the part that brings it all home. Rugged individualism is actually impossible, because everything we do impacts others. Both this quote and the one about conscience & authority were shared in the context of resistance to vaccines and masking. Whatever decisions we make in those areas are not about us alone; they have implications for the life and health of others.

Of course, that’s just the most obvious application. Brother Guy’s words resonate across all the questions that plague us. But if we want to interact with the world as Christians, that truth is important to keep in sight.

Being a Christian is the opposite of being a rugged individualist.

Freedom, Masks, and Vaccines

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This summer, a good friend and I started a small faith group with our middle- and upper-elementary school kids. We’re using an old morality textbook to get them thinking about their faith in relation to the real world.

Any discussion of morality begins with freedom, and the words of the Catechism on that topic have been rumbling around in my brain ever since we encountered them:

1731: Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. … Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God.

I bold faced that latter part because we tend to focus on the first part and forget that the second is what gives meaning to it. Freedom isn’t meant to be “You’re not the boss of me!” It’s meant to be “I am capable of and free to choose GOOD.”

In other words, if I am addicted to alcohol, or opioids, or video games, or social media, or conspiracy theories, or political disinformation—if I am consumed by fear of socialists, or fear of death—then I am not actually free at all, because those things, rather than my free will, will direct my choices and words and beliefs. The same is true if I am a prisoner of my desires (food, sex, whatever).

Being free is not supposed to be about “you can’t make me.” We’re not toddlers. Freedom is SUPPOSED to be about the ability to choose good (i.e., God).

So much bandwidth is being thrown around these days on the subject of freedom. Of course I’m thinking about vaccines and masking. Some people have genuine obstacles to vaccinating and masking, some more profound, some less so.

But mostly, people are objecting on the basis of “freedom.” I even heard someone on the radio shouting “It’s my body, it’s my choice!” at school board members. An odd, odd juxtaposition, since the demographic of people objecting to vaccines & masks are almost entirely on the pro-life side of the political spectrum, and no prolife person has ever accepted that argument!

I don’t understand pro-life people protesting masks. The entire objection seems, to me, to rest upon the first part of the definition of freedom while ignoring the reason freedom is important at all—the ability to choose the good of all. “You can’t make me! It’s my body! This is a violation of my liberty!” These are worldy arguments, based on one’s self-interest. Where is God in those protests? Nowhere I can see. All I see is, “I don’t want to, so I shouldn’t have to.” If this is what liberty and freedom have come to mean in America, God help us all.

Of course, we likely wouldn’t need to mask anymore if people had just gotten vaccinated in the first place. But lots of people who oppose masking also oppose vaccines, and are using the same arguments, while adding objections based on poor information. mRNA as a vaccine technique did use embryonic stem cells to test whether it was even a viable idea. But that’s it. Working on a COVID vaccine there’s been zero connection to abortion.

Moreover, I read a BBC report in 2019—pre-pandemic, just to emphasize that this is a long-standing question—that talked about a whole host of scientific and medical advances we take for granted that were developed using morally bankrupt techniques. Why are all those okay, and this one is so offensive that we’re willing to let hundreds of thousands of people die over it?

More to the point, the Church has spoken and it’s been consistent from the words and example of our Pope and bishops. Only fringe elements are in conflict.

So I don’t understand the vehement objection among a sizable chunk of people who call themselves prolife. Clearly, people are dying of COVID. Our health care workers are overwhelmed and exhausted. These things cannot be argued away.

Vaccines are GOOD. Masks are GOOD. How can one use faith as a reason to use their “freedom” not to mask and vaccinate?

Face To Face With Homelessness in New Orleans

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I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.

We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.

The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.

I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.

I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.

The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.

So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.

But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.

Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.

Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.

The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!

Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?

I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.

What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.

The more things change…

If you notice the copyright on this, it comes from 1986. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose 35 years is not a huge length of time. Nonetheless, it’s been more than a generation, and we’re still bickering about the same things. That feels a little disheartening to me.

The rest of this quote says, “These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” Solidarity is a scary word. A lot of us live in a pretty significant bubble, which allows us to view the problems of others in an abstract way, rather than as something concrete and heartbreaking and intensely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue in this respect. I’m no better at solidarity than anyone else, despite my best intentions. But it twinges my conscience and forms my approach to the political and social issues that so preoccupy modern discourse.