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

“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

Photo credit: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com via Flickr

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.

Remembering the MLK memorial on MLK day

“Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope”

A few years ago, we went to Washington, D.C. We took the kids out of school for a week. We toured the Capitol, saw the Declaration and Thomas Jefferson’s library. We liked the Smithsonian. We couldn’t get into the African American museum, which was new, or the Holocaust museum. We had great food. We walked the national mall at night. My husband & oldest child ran on the National Mall like Captain America. We saw the Tomb of Christ exhibit at National Geographic, and explored the Spy Museum.

But I was deeply underwhelmed by the things I expected to find the most stirring. In fact, as we looked at the Washington and Lincoln memorials, I found myself more jaded than moved. They were overrun, and all I could see was the sinful division in our country rendering impotent everything we believe in.

Our last morning in D.C. was gray and drizzly and cold. We had a noon flight. We packed up and, on the way to the airport, parked along the Tidal Basin to walk from the Jefferson Memorial to the FDR to the MLK.

That morning, at last, I felt the swelling of patriotism. I’m sure, in part, I was reacting to the solitude, since the memorials were deserted. But I also think it was because in those memorials, I recognized the proper relationship between God and country. I saw how country can reflect Godly ideals—of making God’s will for humanity known: in justice, in care for each other.

I once read an opinion piece in which someone said that many who lionize Martin Luther King, Jr. would be very uncomfortable if they actually read all his words. It took a long time to understood that, which is why it’s stuck with me. But I realize now: it’s easy to get on board with “I have a dream,” because “I have a dream” doesn’t ask us to leave our comfort zone. But when you start dissecting the practicalities of what is required to transform from dream to reality, it’s a lot more threatening.

Enough from me. I want to share Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which is my reading project for today, in honor of Rev. Dr. King. Will you join me?

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.

Freedom and Fraternity

There’s a lot in this section of Fratelli Tutti that should make us squirm in America. In #103, Pope Francis reminds us that freedom and equality are insufficient without dedication to concrete love of neighbor. Without making a political (he does use that word) priority of taking care of each other, liberty is nothing more than “living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit.” Liberty, as God intends it, is directed toward the welfare of the other.

And then, of course, there’s the excerpt above. What follows it is a reminder that efficiency is often at odds with the common good.

In recent years, I’ve become deeply convicted about the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” #109 addresses this. Plenty of us don’t, in fact, need help from a “proactive state,” because we’ve been born into functional educational systems and families that can get us to the doctor.

We all stand on the backs of our parents, grandparents, teachers and communities. Within our communities, we support each other; this is good. It WORKS. I certainly didn’t need any of those COVID stimulus checks, and how to use them in a way that best served the common good was a matter of no small debate in our household.

But it’s a mistake, and I would argue, contrary to Christian discipleship, to assume that simply because many of us don’t have need for a proactive state means nobody does. Look at the injustices and inequalities that litter America’s history:

These are just a few structural realities whose consequences have rippled down through history. If we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, then some among us are fighting a way, way bigger battle than others.

These are hard realities to accept in a time of such profound division. But the Cross IS hard, and the Holy Spirit gave us a shepherd at this time who’s calling us to confront the things that make us uncomfortable.

The Word in the World

This seems like a throwaway, but so much of recent history has revolved around the need for Christians to recognize how our faith interacts with the real world–what does it mean to live Christian faith in a world where misinformation is so rampant? Where social media rules, and encourages us to be our worst selves? What does it mean to live the Gospel when we face problems of lack of respect for human dignity–from abortion through inequality of education and opportunity leading to poverty, homelessness? How does the Gospel call interact with questions of tax code and societal responsibility? With policies around immigration and race?

It’s easy to get complacent about one’s faith if that faith is totally disconnected from the real world–or if one issue overshadows all others. But Romero, in the part that lives in those ellipses, says when the Gospel is taken out of the context of the real world, it ceases to become the word of God at all.

These are the questions I wrestle–knowing always that when I get self-righteous, I’m part of the same problem.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was a glorious and humbling moment this summer when I first encountered “Lift Every Heart And Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem. Glorious, because as a pastoral musician, it moved me for its universality and the challenge contained within. Humbling, because how did I make it to the age of forty-six as a pastoral musician and never hear it?

So I want to share this video today in honor of today’s commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a very simple version and they give you the background of the hymn before they sing it. I’ll paste the text below.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Now and Not Yet

As I continue praying “Advent With Oscar Romero,” I find that so much of what he says resonates. In recent months, I’ve encountered a perspective that baffles me–one that argues we shouldn’t work for justice in the here and now, because the only thing that matters is Heaven. St. Oscar Romero’s words speak to this beautifully. He says, “In preaching the gospel I do not speak about a non-incarnated gospel, but one that is incarnated and that enlightens the realities of our time.”

And then, farther down, he summarizes the “virtues that the Word of God highlights: first, poverty and hunger for God; second, vigilance and faith; third, Christian presence and action in the world.”

What I read in this is a reminder that God came among us in bodily form for a reason–to demonstrate that what happens in the physical world matters to God. (Poverty, racism, injustices of all kinds.) And therefore, it should matter to us, too.

Christian Brotherhood and Immigration

Background image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

Returning to Fratelli Tutti today. This comes from a section subtitled “An Absence of Human Dignity on the Borders,” calls out conflicts around immigration as a violation of Christian brotherhood. “They,” in this case, refers to migrants.

This quote struck me with particular force because it encapsulates what I’ve been struggling with in arguments over race and immigration. In the abstract, we all agree that racism is bad and immigrants have human dignity, but whenever discussions of particulars arise, an almighty outcry rises in protest, saying such and such a thing is not racist, that of course they have human dignity BUT (fill in the blank). Here, Pope Francis calls that out.

One thing I found particularly interesting: the assertion that communities whose people flee are losing “their most vigorous and enterprising elements” (#38). I’d never thought about that. His point is that in addition to the right to immigrate, there’s also the right to be able to stay where you are. People flee when that right is violated. So in addition to justice for immigrants seeking new homes, responsibility also rests on those who create the dire situations that force people to flee.

As tempting as it is to read this section in light of U.S. immigration battles, we have to remember we aren’t the only ones dealing with conflicts over migration. #40 actually names Europe as particularly at risk of prioritizing its own citizens so high, it sets aside the rights of migrants.

This section ends with a heartfelt acknowledgment of the fears that cause people’s reaction to immigration, and begs us to face those fears and move beyond them, because they cause us to act in ways that are “intolerant, closed and perhaps even–without realizing it–racist.” The closing statement is just beautiful: “Fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other.”