Sin

Lets Talk Sin and Systems

For a time, as a child in the 1970’s, I lived on or near my grandparents farm.  The farm was forty acres of fruit trees and grapevines in which I, with my sister and cousins, freely roamed and played in.  There were few rules, one of them was that we weren’t to bother or speak to the farm workers.  Our freedom of movement on the farm was largely tied to this rule.  It makes sense when the workers were in the field they were there to do a job and they shouldn’t have to worry about  their boss’s grandchildren getting in their way.  However, the  farm workers were all Mexican migrant workers or Mexican-Americans.  As a child I gave little thought to this, outside of not bothering the farm workers I had Latino friends, we were invited over to  Mexican-American foreman’s home, and he and his family were often in my grandparents home, they were friends.  Years, later in seminary I had a friend who while in seminary was working on campus as part of the janitorial staff.  One day he came up to me and asked “Is everything okay?” I was puzzled. He clarified “Between us…did I do something to offend?” I was even more dumbfounded. He explained ” I saw you yesterday as you were walking to class and I waved, you even looked my direction but you ignored me.”  I had no recollection of this.  Slowly, it dawned on me he was Indian, and when he saw me the day before he was wearing the janitorial uniform. The simple instruction from my childhood had taught me to not see people of color at work.  Even more devastating, was that I also realized that I didn’t ignore another friend who was white when he was wearing the janitor uniform.

The above experience would have been unintelligible to me  had it not been for a College Camp seminar on the system of Racism (lead by a Latino and and an African American). In that seminar I found  illuminating the idea that Racism was structural and systemic. While Racism can be about attitudes and opinions racism is more about the power, privilege, and the participation in racist structure and system.  This was transformative because even at 19 or 20 , I was a ware that the persistence of Racism had to do with more than whether I individually had overt negative feelings and attitudes towards an individual of another race.  It also helped explain why my behavior towards people of color didn’t always match what I felt and believed.  It was liberating because it offered me as a member  of the Church to find in my self where the systems of the World had a hold of me having yet been transformed and illuminated by the Mind of Christ. Because of that seminar I could begin to recognize and seek to route out the ways the system of Racism was influencing me through a childhood rule that hadn’t been racist in intention.

This systemic and structural view of Racism was also helpful, because such an understanding of Racism as structural and systemic and not individual and attitudinal, resonated with certain Pauline themes of the effect of Sin on the humanity and each of us personally.  Such a view of Racism looks very much like the struggle with the Flesh: the sinful system that can cling to one like a body of death.   This allowed me to see Racism as not only about opinions and attitudes that may or may not be based in fact or science or whatever, but part of the system of Sin that, through the incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, was now (slowly at least from our perspective) passing away.

We are currently facing, what seems to most of us, the inexplicable persistence of Racism most blatantly seen in the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, and in the disparities of the system of mass incarceration.  Although we often speak of Racism as a systemic reality, when I hear expressions of puzzlement of the persistence of racism we are so puzzled either because we think the American system of government and law existed separate from and before an overlay of Racist ideology, and/or we believe that Racism is primarily about individuals holding racist attitudes and opinions and overtly holding to an ideology of racial superiority and purity.  Which means we actually think Racism is about individuals and not systems.

We are having difficulty accounting for the persistence of Racist structures and outcomes without overt racism.  Or more strikingly, when we speak of Racist policing we immediately think that the way to  eradicate racism from policing is to find and remove  racist police officers, or at least curtail the actions of a racist police officer.

As such we then see systems as being grounded in the isolated individuals attitudes and/or actions.  It is offensive and incomprehensible to us that we may act and or be subjected to things we individually don’t intend and individually have no control over.

What I wish to suggest is that Sin and systems function similarly.  For sin and systems to have their power and function they don’t require my overt participation as an individual. Rather the power of sin and systems is to function and dictate our actions depends on my lack of awareness of their effect upon my will and actions.

When we speak of Racism, we aren’t simply speaking of the mere amalgamation of  the actions and attitudes of individuals who think themselves superior to another race and actively and intentionally seek to disenfranchise those seen as members of another race, deemed inferior (though this does occur, and depending on various conditions may or may not be the case).

Granted this thinking runs counter to the idea of the human as an autonomous individual who is the soul source of their self, intentions and actions.

Paul in Romans, speaks of the power of Sin in this way as well, as that which acts upon us often in contradiction and violation of our individual will and desires.  Paul says “What I wish to do I don’t do and that which I don’t want to do I do.”

Racism is part of that reality in which the systems of this world are bound to Sin and Death.

Paul asks who or what will save us from this, his answer Christ Jesus.

Paul’s answer of course requires unpacking,  as well as why the systems of sin and death, like Racism, continue to dominate even among those who have claimed the name of Jesus, and Christian.

Here’s an account from Britney Cooper on experiencing the persistence of Racism.

Seeing the lie behind a truth: Sermon for First Sunday in Lent

Sermon preached for the Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler.  I don’t always post my sermons here but this sermon has a tone and subject matter that fits well within the Cure of Souls thread.  Our approach to Lent at the Oratory is a form of  group spiritual direction around different aspects of Lent and spiritual disciplines.  This Lent we are fasting together.  

Was the serpent correct?  Today we read the account of the Fall and Temptation of Christ. We hear of the first and last temptation of humanity.  During Lent we confront sin and its consequences.

What are we to make of the words of the Serpent and this story of the fall? Is it fair of God to put in front of us this fruit we couldn’t eat, and did death truly result from it?  In one sense, the serpents mocking of the consequence of eating the the fruit was correct, Adam and Eve didn’t drop dead on the spot, but as Paul says it brought condemnation and dominion of death.  We see this immediately, Adam and Eve who were open and free with each other suddenly experience separation and shame and they hide from each other and from God.  No longer are they free and completely open, naked with each other.  They experienced separation; death ultimately is a separation that can’t be bridged.    Don’t we know this separation, from ourselves, from our loved ones, from our friends, and most obviously from our enemies?  We may have moments of connection, and yet there is always already separation; a painful awareness that we could be left alone.  We have the painful awareness that making and keeping the connection with others is tenuous, this is part of the dominion of death. We might say that one act set in motion a world torn apart, where relationships are tenuous, even the best ones still come to an end.  The serpent spoke a half truth.

We humans have this tendency to believe the half-truth, which is really to believe the lie that is contained in the other half of the half-truth.   In both the temptation in the garden and Jesus’ temptation in the desert, we see what we are up against and what we (I think) can recognize in our own souls:  temptation often comes as half-truth that appeals to a good desire, but asks us to trust only the desire, rather than trust the whole truth about the world, others, and God.

The tempter comes and says, “ Look, you won’t drop dead!  You can look and see that this fruit is not poisonous. You can see and smell that it is good to eat.”  All true but covered over in these true words is the lie that God doesn’t really care for you, God is keeping this from you for no good reason.  This is the slipperiness of temptation and the winding path we follow into Sin.

We don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t grabbed at the knowledge of good and evil.  We arent’ told what was ultimately intended by this one fruit. Did God intended us to have the knowledge of God and evil?  What we are told is that we grabbed it.  And what we do know is that our knowledge of good and evil didn’t give us the power to only do the good and avoid the evil, rather it has given us the propensity for both, and in such away that our doing good never really overcomes the evil. Many faithful have said that at some point this knowledge would have been given to us, but because we took it, because we sought it separated from God and God’s caring love for us, it could only distort our true humanity.  Now that we have it we can’t deliver ourselves from evil and the consequences of that first mistrust of God, that first failure of faith.

The good news is that all our sin, our separation our pain and suffering all the evil  in the world is just the beginning of the story, not the end.  When we sin, when we see oppression and violence in the world, we are simply playing out that scene in the Garden with Eve and Adam and the Serpent, but God tells another story .   God rewrites the story and changes the ending.  This rewrite is that one comes, a human, and meets the serpent again. This human being is so united with God that trust in God isn’t shaken by the half-truths the serpent speaks; the tempter, Devil using the Scriptures the Word of God against God in human flesh.  So, this time humanity is ready, In Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son, sees through the half-truth to the lie, and trusts that God truly fulfills our good desires.  Jesus of Nazareth, hungry and tested doesn’t need to grasp after the good things because God never intends to keep from us any good thing.  In fact all good is from God.  Your desire is from God, even that desire which might be unfulfilled at any particular moment, or even for one’s whole life.

Here we are, on the edge of the desert and the garden, intentionally entering a period of fasting and yes temptation, called into the desert with Jesus.  You will hear the tempter, the serpent; you will encounter your demons.  Be not afraid, know your desires are good, know that God will truly fulfill them.  However, hold your desires lightly.  Accept that not all desire can or should be fulfilled immediately or at all times. We fast to remind ourselves that our desire for food and other things while good should not devour and control us.  Desire is good, but if we accept the lie in the truth of the goodness of desire and believe that a good desire must be satiated now we fall into sin: we become separated from the one who will fulfill the desires of our hearts, the one who is what our hearts ultimately desire.

So, contemplate this Lent these two temptations, one which lead to our fall, the other which lead to our victory.  Let Christ’s faithfulness be your faithfulness.  Remember this Lent that you are Christ, you are the beloved, and in baptism you have the Spirit and have taken on Christ.  Trust in this and see the Tempter flee from you.  Even so, don’t be disheartened by a failure, for even in failure you are still Christ’s.  Repent, get up and accept God’s grace and forgiveness, assured that you are being transformed into this new humanity, which saw through the half-truth to the lie through faith and trust.

God loves you, your desires are good but they don’t need to be fulfilled: before temptation trust this truth. And to paraphrase St Augustine: as we begin this Lent and fast together, Love this one who is the desire of your soul, and do what you will.  Amen