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

Faith formed by politics, or politics informed by faith?

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I’ve developed a new morning ritual the last few months. I get up, warm my hot pack, and listen to two podcasts while doing the stretches and exercises required by a couple of chronic conditions. The two podcasts are the Bible in a Year and Evolving Faith. They’re quite different… one quite self-aware in its orthodoxy and the other quite aware of its not-orthodoxy. I think this is probably a good balance.

Sometime in my tween/teen years, I read the Bible straight through. But having it read to me as an adult is enlightening. I’m making connections I never did before. I’m understanding the relationship between different books in a new way. I appreciate Scripture on a whole new level. When you are steeped in the Lectionary, as most of us Catholics are, and liturgy people more than most, it’s really good to get a sense of the way the very familiar excerpts fit into the larger context.

The Evolving Faith podcast hits in a whole different way. More visceral, more immediate. These are people—almost entirely non-Catholics—who are wrestling with faith and the world in the same way that I am. Unlike me, many have abandoned institutional churches (though not Jesus). The podcast consists of talks from the Evolving Faith conference, which was founded by a group including Rachel Held Evans—whose work, in my mind, all Catholics should read, even though her perspective on the world came from a very different faith tradition. She has so much to offer us.

And so do the other speakers I’m hearing.

It’s a truism that faith formation is generally pretty bad… everywhere. Some blame it on Vatican 2, but I would submit that the older crowd might have known plenty ABOUT the faith, but they weren’t any better equipped to apply it to the real world. Plus, far too many quit faith formation at a certain point—graduation from Catholic school? Confirmation? etc.—so faith doesn’t always mature the way understanding does.

So then, as we interact with the world, we have head-on collisions with realities that don’t fit what our faith taught us about How Things Are Supposed To Work. At that point, a few different things can happen.

One is to deny the validity of the thing that is challenging our faith, so as to protect the faith as it stands. (I believe the focus on “Marxism” at the expense of honest examination of the ripple effects of racism is one example of this.)

Another is to admit that the faith in its current, comfortable form is woefully insufficient for said realities, and to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Which is why so many people leave organized religion, or even God.)

The third is to get down in the weeds and ask the really hard, uncomfortable questions, and deal with the doubt and turmoil and lack of clarity that come with them. To accept as your faith gets bruised and bumped. To accept the muddiness of faith in the real world, and the reality that sometimes there AREN’T pat answers. To quest, to seek, to wrestle with the hard stuff.

It’s not an easy thing to do, because basically it means you’re uncomfortable all the time. (All those fingers pointing at myself.)

But isn’t that exactly what it means to be “in the world, yet not of it?” There’s a now and not yet, a tension that human nature doesn’t like. According to one narrative I’ve been bludgeoned with a lot in recent memory, the Kingdom is Jesus, it’s not something we build. It was never meant to be on earth–only in Heaven.

But then why did Jesus tell us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN”?

This weekend, two of my kids were confirmed, and the bishop said, in essence, your words about faith are not enough. People need to SEE the kingdom of God embodied in YOU.

Which means we HAVE to get our hands dirty, working the earth around those messy subjects like abortion and immigration and racism and health care and the balance of personal and social responsibility and the common good. We have to accept that neither of our political extremes has it entirely right and be willing to take a deep breath and enter into dialogue. The world is always going to try to box us into an either/or, and we’re all susceptible to picking a side and planting our flag and failing to recognize when we’ve made that flag—or money (so much of our political discourse is about our own financial self-interest!)—the center of our world view, rather than God.

All of this to introduce a quote from speaker Nish Weiseth, because when she said these words, they rang a deafening bell in my soul:

“What we see from those previously mentioned leaders is a faith that is formed by politics, and not a politics that is informed by faith.”

If I have the energy, I’ll do more specific writing on this in a day or two. We shall see.

“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.

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.

How To Detach

I set myself the task of cultivating detachment this year, but the problem is I don’t know how to start.

Last year, I had some path markers to follow through contemplation—people who had a tried & true method I could tap into. Incidentally, centering prayer will be with me the rest of my life. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a foundational skill for detachment.

But I don’t have that well-trodden path to follow in cultivating detachment. So the other day I just said a prayer, asking God to put sign posts in my pathway.

God does not disappoint.

Here are several things that have spontaneously crossed my online feeds in recent days. Things I have done nothing to seek out. Maybe they will give you food for thought as they have given me:

#1. a blog post

If you can’t take in anymore, there’s a reason: it’s all too much. What I took from this blog post: Social media, news, everything that’s wrong in the world is important, but we were only built to withstand so much of it. (Language alert.)

#2. … same message.

#3: not a religious article, just a summary of some research that supports the effort.

How To Be Ambivalent. The attitude they are calling ambivalence sounds a lot like what I am seeking: a degree of emotional distance from difficult realities. If it doesn’t matter so much to you, you’re more likely to be able to approach it objectively. That isn’t what they claim to be advocating for, but that’s how it reads to me.

#4: Pope Francis never disappoints, either. I get these “Journey with the Pope” emails every day, I suspect because I donated to Missio.


Complexity and Confidence

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Our brains prefer a simple lie to a complex truth.
Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth.

These are two of the biases explored in the “Learning How To See” podcast. Everything I heard on the first season was like an earthquake in my heart, but these two line up so thoroughly with my own experience, it reaches a whole other plane.

There are so many times when my kids ask a faith question, and I can think of a glib answer that will take three seconds and wholly misrepresent the complexity and the gravity of the issue at hand. But to do so would be to ignore the reality of the situation. More to the point, it would ignore the dignity of the soul that’s seeking authentic truth. Truth that stands up to their lived reality, which is, let’s face it, complex. Because it’s a complex world.

So I reply with complexity and hesitancy. I pause–to choose my words, to pray and think.

Believe it or not, this is me on Intentional Catholic, too. I know I come across loud and opinionated, and I am. But a lot of thought and inner wrestling goes into these posts. A lot of care for how the things I say will feel when read by different people.

Complexity bias, confidence bias. These two have played out so many times in the years I’ve been involved in discussions (and arguments) online. Through blogging, too. One memorable time, I waded into current events with unshakable certainty and ended up with egg on my face. It taught me to value caution and deliberation. Research before reacting. Well. Reacting in words, at least. Reacting in my heart is a whole different matter. I spend a lot of time talking myself down from initial reactions. But the point is, I do it.

The absolute confidence with which some people of faith respond to complex situations, erasing all complexities and nuance, waters down the Gospel. If people feel that the Gospel can’t address complexity, of course they’re going to dismiss it. It doesn’t help them process their own experiences. That’s not a weakness in the Gospel. It’s a weakness in those of us trying to spread it.

It is in our nature to prefer the simple lie, told confidently (stolen elections, anyone?), but I pray that we can all learn to recognize how much damage it does to be satisfied to wallow in the blindness of those biases.

(And if it’s at all unclear, that prayer is for myself, too.)

When your mind gets blown open, it can be hard to put into words

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I have had my mind blown in the past few months by a podcast from the Center for Action and Contemplation. I’m not normally a podcast person, but the premise was so compelling, I had to make time for it. It’s called “Learning How To See.”

Ever since I listened to episode 1— “Why can’t we see?”—I have been wanting to blog about it. But I haven’t known what to say. Why summarize it when I’d rather you listen for yourselves? In fact, everyone in the world needs to listen to it, because it’s about all of us.
It boils down to this: a Protestant minister who is involved in the interfaith contemplative prayer movement did a deep dive into research on psychology (and maybe sociology?), because he couldn’t understand what has happened in the U. S. in the last few years.

What he found is that there are thirteen universal biases that constitute the “planks” in our own eyes that prevent us from seeing the world as it really is. Biases that cause us to cling blindly to our own view of the world, and to find another’s experience and perspective threatening.

He called in Fr. Richard Rohr as one of his companions on the first season. That’s how I encountered it—because one of my choir members loaned me Rohr’s book Just This, and I was so overwhelmed by it, I signed up for his newsletter, which led me to the podcast.

As longtime readers know, I underwent a really profound shift in world view between 2007 and, say, 2014. Most of what baffles and enrages me now is particularly “angrifying” because it’s where I came from. It’s where I used to be, not so long ago.

Listening to this podcast–with people sharing their own spiritual face plants frankly–with its prayers for openness and eyes to see as God sees, rather than as my biases would have me see—it’s like hearing my own story told through brand new stories.

It prepared me for the rude awakening that has surrounded my daughter’s celiac diagnosis. The one that showed that despite all my spiritual growth, I have plenty of blinders left.

It caused me to ask what blinders I put on to replace the ones I left behind.

I’m not sure where I’m going to go with this. I might do my own reflections on each of these biases. Maybe. But for now, I just want everyone to go listen. It’s so, so worth it.

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.