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.”

Photo by Philip Warp on Pexels.com

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

High Conflict and Spiritual Attack

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A while back, I heard a discussion on the radio about a book called “High Conflict.” As I listened, I thought, “That’s me. That’s what I’m feeling.” I put it on hold at the library, but I was way down the list. And when my turn came a few weeks ago, my heart quailed. I thought, “This is not going to be an enjoyable read.”

Then I pulled up my big girl panties and read it, praying throughout for openness. Because this, clearly, was God’s next signpost in my spiritual journey this year, toward balancing Godly anger at injustice with detachment. Because—also clearly—high conflict is NOT what God is calling me to.

Or any of us.

It was an incredible book… eye opening for myself, and extremely balanced in calling people across spectrums on the carpet. (You can tell a well balanced book by the fact that reviewers from both sides of the High Conflict that is American politics gripe about how their side was treated more harshly than the other.)

Reading that book did change me. Among the many valuable things she urged was to “muddy the waters.” The fact is that we like to put people in “us” and “them” categories, and we need to remember that we are all products of multiple influences, and just because two people share an identity in one of those influences doesn’t mean they will in others.

For myself, Catholic is my identity above all others. It is the filter through which I view everything. It is the measuring stick by which I gauge my secular work and my advocacy (“Disability Mom” and “writer” are tied for a close second in my identity)– and advocacy is, in fact, one of the red flags she warns of as an indicator of high conflict.

Anyway, the point wasn’t to detail the book, because everyone just needs to read it.

The point is that it helped me. It cooled down the temperature of my passion. Let me tell you, in the past two to three weeks, that cooling trend was critical… and not for any of the reasons I thought it would be. It’s just been a rough few weeks, personally.

And yet, yesterday I found myself triggered again. Multiple times. By multiple triggers, in multiple places. I found myself starting arguments with no one again.

The most bizarre thing was that I had a flashback to an incredibly contentious… and thankfully, defunct… relationship that caused me tremendous mental anguish over the course of COVID. I have zero contact with these people anymore. I have almost, if not completely, removed myself from these people’s orbit.

And yet, suddenly I was there in the middle of the emotions again, reliving the offenses, reliving the, well, anguish of trying to behave in a Christlike manner, cringing at the one mistake I made, raging at the certainty that they didn’t learn a thing from that conflict, that because of my mistake, they never admitted their own.

It was as if it happened yesterday instead of more than a year ago.

And sometime during Mass, as I sat behind the piano, wrenching my mind back to the liturgy again and again, it occurred to me: “I wonder if this is a spiritual attack.”

Because I WAS making progress toward what I know God is calling me to do.

I don’t have a neat and tidy bow to wrap around this post. I am just sharing the journey. Maybe high conflict, itself, is indication of a spiritual attack almost all of us are suffering…

Anyway… here’s that book you should all read, regardless of where you stand on any of the multitudes of points of contention we have all elevated to High Conflicts.

“Outside Agitators” and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Background image by EasyGiftWizard, via Pixabay

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.

Anger, Detachment, and Love

This past Sunday, my pastor’s homily focused on the second reading, I Cor. 13, the famous explanation of love: patient, kind; bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring in all circumstances.

Along with that is the explanation of what love is NOT: quick tempered, brooding over injury. Those are the two that spoke to me personally.

Sitting there in the front row of church, it occurred to me that this was my next signpost from God about detachment vs. Godly anger. Anger tempered by love—the kind of love described in this passage–is a very different thing from plain old garden variety anger. You express it differently. In a healthier way.

So that is my food for reflection as I go through these days where the news cycle continues to provide daily reason for anger. How do I express that anger through a lens of patience and kindness, believing that there is hope?

Extra note: my youngest sister sent me a book a while back called “A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space.” Not a religious book AT ALL, and the language sometimes reflects it. But one of the many things she wrote that struck me was the distinction between “nice” and “kind.” We often confuse the two, but nice, she argues, is what we’re conditioned to be—don’t make waves, never make anyone uncomfortable, stuff our own resentments, etc. Whereas “kind” is more authentic. You don’t have to be a jerk to tell the truth, is what it amounts to. I believe reading this book and having this reading come up in short order afterward is a God moment.

The problem with Christmas is not “happy holidays”

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve scrubbed my social media feeds or if the ruckus really has died down, but this year I’m not seeing as much about the so-called “war on Christmas.”

I did see one thing, though, as part of a different conversation with someone I love. It was a forward of an email from the Catholic League, which began by condemning that disgusting gun Christmas card Twitter photo from someone who has power in America. I’ll give no more details than that, because that person deserves no amplification.

So the email started in the right place. But it went on to decry the “dumbing down” of Christmas. The corruption of Christmas is, indeed, a huge problem. But the author got the source all wrong. His highlighted example was Christmas cards that don’t say Merry Christmas.

Really???????

Isn’t the ACTUAL problem with Christmas that capitalism has erased Christ and turned it into a moneymaking scheme??????

Hence my illustration this morning.

This is one week’s worth of trash and two weeks’ worth of recycling for a family of six in the holiday shopping season.

Dragging it all outside, I thought, “And Christian culture thinks ‘happy holidays’ is the problem??????”

It feels hypocritical to write this out. The majority of those efficiently-nested boxes are there because we ordered them. The second trash bag is full of styrofoam packing. Normally we only put out 2/3 of a bag of trash a week. (I have no idea how so many households of two and three people put out 3, 4, or 5 bags of trash a week. Where is it all coming from? Even when we were in diapers we didn’t fill a bag a week.)

I don’t like that I’m caught in this consumeristic view of the holiday. Of course, I love giving gifts to my children—as any good parent does. What brings joy to our children brings joy to us.

But it seems so odd to me that when we as Catholics are in the season of Advent, a time ostensibly devoted to simplifying our lives and letting “every heart prepare him room,” what we’re actually doing is piling on more, more, more. Cluttering things up. Both physically and mentally.

Come to think of it, I’ll bet there’s a clear reason Christian culture is so desperate to find a scapegoat that they’ll chase after Christmas cards that don’t say “Merry Christmas”:

Otherwise, we’d have to admit that everything that’s wrong with Christmas, we did to it ourselves.

Open My Eyes…

I launched Intentional Catholic with the story of how the birth of my daughter, who has Down syndrome, turned my world upside down and made me see the relationship between faith and the real world in a whole new light.

You need a little upheaval every once in a while in your life to show you where your blind spots are. Celiac disease is doing this to me all over again.

In the past three(ish) weeks, I’ve realized how little attention I have spared for people with dietary restrictions. To be perfectly blunt, I’ve never taken it very seriously. I mean, I get the peanut thing. The shellfish thing. But a lot of other things I’ve regarded with a certain skepticism.

Of course, if someone has a dietary restriction I will accommodate it. But usually with some inner sense of, “I’ll do this to be courteous, but I’m not entirely convinced this is really a thing.”

Putting that in words makes me cringe, now that I’m on the other side of it.

It never occurred to me—despite hearing about it for years–how thoughtless we are about food. Everything’s got corn in it. In our case, everything’s got gluten in it: Chicken broth. Soy sauce. Taco seasoning. Breakfast sausage. (MEAT? REALLY?!?!?!?!?!)

The insistence of the Church—it’s in canon law, even!–about having to have gluten in Eucharistic hosts is just one more indication of how completely blind we are to anything that lies outside our western European culture blinders.

People with food allergies have a really sucky situation in our world, because we’ve developed a food culture that’s inflexible, crawling with cross-contamination and people like me three weeks ago, who shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, if you can’t have gluten, just don’t eat it, even if that means 98% of the food we have at this gathering is off limits. Here’s your ONE gluten-free option.” It’s a level of self-absorption I didn’t think myself capable of anymore, and learning what it feels like on the other side has been another bruising collision with the mirror.

I met a woman this weekend who was telling me that someone in her professional realm has been asked for years to bring her own food to parties, because they weren’t willing to provide gluten-free accommodation themselves. And now that they’re feeling ashamed of themselves for that level of un-hospitality, and are trying to do something about it, they’re discovering just how incredibility difficult it is to accommodate.

I have been listening to a podcast lately called “Why Can’t We See?” It’s an ecumenical trio of contemplative Christian pastors (one of them is Fr. Richard Rohr) who are exploring the biases that prevent all of us from seeing as God sees. I guarantee you will hear more about this podcast… it’s INCREDIBLE… but for now I want to draw out one of those biases: CONTACT bias. In other words, we don’t give credence to issues unless we get to know people who are impacted by them. We dismiss their pain until we love someone who fits whatever label we’re talking about. (Muslim. Democrat/Republican. Black. Gay. Disabled. You get the idea.)

One we do love a person in a label like that, it changes how we view the issues.

The truth of this bias is VERY clear to me in this holiday time, as our family is learning to navigate celiac disease for my daughter. I care about this issue now, when a few months ago, I wouldn’t have wasted a moment thinking about it, let alone doing anything.

There’s an action item in there. For me, for you. For all of us. It should be a wakeup call that Christian hospitality is way, way bigger than we have ever allowed it to be, and the prayer to open our eyes is not a metaphysical one, but a real, practical, rubber-to-the-road one.

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.

Conscience must first listen to authoirty

A week or two ago I mentioned a podcast I’d listened to. The guest was Brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory, and he was speaking about the intersection of faith and science.

The quote in this graphic blew my mind. Conscience gets thrown around a lot, by people across the spectrum. The question of primacy of conscience is one of the many things I’m pondering at this time in my life. And this quote peeled back half a dozen layers.

“A well formed conscience is one that has listened to authority.”

Boy, if that doesn’t twinge your conscience, I don’t know what will.

A house divided…

I have not been posting much the last few months. I keep chewing over the same baffling questions again and again, and feeling that I am shouting into a void. So I’ve focused my energy instead on my fiction. There’s precious little time in my life for splitting my focus these days, anyway.

But the US bishops’ daily reflection Friday morning was on the topic of division and unity. A house divided cannot stand, Jesus cautioned. If good work is being done, it can’t be of the devil. And if there’s division, it is not of Christ.

The Church is a hot mess of division right now, just as our nation is. Every time I come up against an entrenched position that baffles me, because it is so clearly contrary to my faith, and it’s being held by people who are using their faith as justification for their beliefs, I think of this question of division. I think, “How can this be, when we all claim to believe the same things?”

Spoiler alert: if you’re reading this post in hope of there being an answer at the end, prepare to be disappointed.

Every time I come up against one of these, I think, “There’s no way God could be calling both of these sides to these beliefs. Is there?” Then I pause to search my own conscience and try to see how I could be the one who is wrong. I frequently find that I am wrong in my anger toward, judgment of, and assumptions about people who think differently than me. But I have rarely found the Spirit nudging me that I am, in fact, wrong in my beliefs. Not given the information I have.

So then I go and do research to see if my information could be wrong. I look at the sources, I think, “Nope, not going to read that, it’s too far left and I can’t trust it to be objective. Nope, not going to read that either, because that’s clearly a group with a dog in this fight. There, that’s a moderately-right-leaning source, that should give me a good counterbalance to my own biases.” Occasionally I moderate a position; I think, “this thing people are freaking out about on the left is probably not as big a deal as they’re making it out to be.”

But not often.

It is deeply disturbing to me that so much of our discourse these days is arguing over things that are so easy to disprove. It really isn’t hard to discern between credible sources and conspiracy-theories.

A good friend of mine recently left Facebook, because it was an exercise in scrolling through things that made her angry. “I feel like we’re conditioned to look for the next thing to get angry about,” she said. “I just needed to get away from that.”

How do we seek unity—Christ—instead of division—the devil—when it seems that so many of our conflicts are based, not on reason, but on appeals to all that is sinful within us—our selfishness, our lack of empathy for others?