Thursday, June 17, 2010

Loving the Individual Sinner, Hating the Institutional Sin

... and forgive us of our sins as we forgive the sins of those who trespass against us...
- Jesus
I just got back from a retreat that was bookended by some furious moments*. Rising early on Monday morning I was greeted (if that's the word for it) by an email from a friend of a friend**. In an honestly odd and disturbing manner he took me to task for standing up for African Americans in a conversation with our mutual friend. And then he practically ordered that I defend him as he - according to his story - is constantly under attack by the African Americans that live around him. After telling him a truncated version of my life story I assured him that I stand and advocate for all who are abused, marginalized, oppressed and beaten-down. And then I challenged him and told him that he should stand WITH those that attack him.

He didn't like that. His response showed anger that I wasn't siding with him and against them. And with that, he showed his true colors.

But I'll talk more on that later.

I was in a rush to see my wife this evening. As usual, running late to an event (this one an appreciation dinner for volunteers - of which I'm one, though a small part - at a local social services organization) and passing a group of African Americans, one of whom calls me by name. I couldn't recognize him instantly, but he did me and asked me about church, etc. Feeling bad that I was running behind and frustrated that I couldn't place him, I told him I had to get going to this event. As I made way down the block, some kid (I can only presume) throws a pen at my back. I didn't have time (or the patience) to return to the scene of the crime, so I kept walking and lifted my shoulders as if to ask, "Why?"

There is something that I want to say to both of these people, to the child and to the man:
Open your eyes and realize that you are enslaved. Break the shackles off your mental slavery, from your feelings of woeful inadequacy. You are better than what society has told you you are, and you do not need to hurt others to feel better about yourself. Together, we can defeat your mindset and the tools and armies of oppression that surround us all. Divided, we only fight and die divided.
But it was my toddler's near-ragged, relentlessly exhausted and exhausting, cragginess and violent rebuttals to night-night that caused me to look inward as well. I struggle to not continue the cycle of violence and shame that I learned from my own dad and thus drag her into it. And that's harder to perform than swinging a good, swift swat. But I also have to remember about grace, and redemption. And about not continuing the same block-headed stubbornness that my father and I were locked into for some eighteen long years.

Sure, Jocelyn - the sinful and stubborn little booger that she is - needed a time-out. She needed to learn to listen to her daddy and sit in that corner until the bell rang as a reminder to not hit. But she also needed grace. And a blankie. And forgiveness. And a long hug.

I gave her those things. And sent her back to her corner for the last minute or so. And then we cleaned out her nose and read stories and laughed.

And I asked if I could pray for her. And as she was falling featherly deeper and sounder into her sleep-state, I prayed the Lord's prayer over her. And I decidedly meant every word. Whether or not my child understood every word, I felt her approval as if God were nodding as she was nodding off.

Forgive me my pettiness, Oh Lord.

Now on to the title of the piece and the idea of true colors:

A motif that I've noticed recently is that people (and this tends to be White people, but they're certainly not the only ones. But what I've noticed recently has to do with Whites' responses to racism and racial injustice) have this incessant need to be forgiven for the systemic sins that they have no intentions of repenting from. It is ridiculous and stupid and evil and immoral and needs to be corrected, but I also realize that they are slaves to the institutional sin that they propagate (and that has been practiced on them). It is a sign of true colors: we're all slaves in one way or another to some system of sin, some - as we Christians sometimes call it - demonic stronghold.

This stronghold, this institutional sin, this immoral injustice needs to be rectified. And the person practicing it and legitimizing it needs to be corrected. But she also needs grace. He also needs to be loved. The hope is that we get to save both the lost sinner and end the enslaving system. That, in the long run, is win-win.

And I like those odds.

*There is one more moment that I can not stand to testify about, at least at this moment. But in sticking up for a (somewhat righteously) stigmatized group, I was labeled with the same stigma. I can only imagine that the young man who made such uncharitable, inflammatory and just plain hurtful remarks toward me has suffered some deep, uncharitable, inflammatory and just plain hurtful pain himself - possibly in a related way.
Or, he could just be a self-righteous prick hiding under the relative anonymity of Facebook. I did offer to kick his ass if he so desires to come to Chicago and he hasn't taken me up on that offer yet...

**Friend and email both being loose terms as this was all done through the miracle of Facebook.


  1. That was a great post. "We are all slaves to sin" seems to be something all Christians nod pleasantly about... but show remarkably little curiosity over concerning personal specifics.

    "I'm a sinner, Lord!" (Tears, drama)

    "Oh, why are black people always whining about race?"

    "Obama favors black people."

    "Black people need to just let it go. The Civil War is over."

    And so on, proving we white people are as stupid as fence posts and as incurious about our own systemic blindnesses.

  2. Having long been influenced by eastern modes of thinking ... I noticed a Ying - Yang symbol in the sidebar to your blog ... been thinking of this construct in the light of my Christian belief and some recent readings from various modern (????) post-, Neo- emergent ... whatever !!! writers. Our belief is not one of balance but of redemption and reconciliation whereby the light side eventually (time or space wise being a matter of considerable conjecture) overwhelms, overtakes and utterly subsumes the dark side.

    The challenge for us is not to delicately retain the balance between opposites but to most fully recognize and exhibit the light dwelling within each of us and through all creation manifest truth. Subjecting ourselves to His perfect sacrifice. Love recognizes hate instantaneously and fully, yet our bodies and minds struggle to retain a hardened heart and stiff-neck. Is this self-preservation? or self-loathing ... both?

    We struggle to understand ... to decide ... from moment to moment the best course of action. Systemic issues seem almost a distraction from that internal turmoil which can only be addressed on the most personal and intimate level.

    Keep those prayers flowing on that little one ... each generation may be the one upon who providence surely is recognized.

  3. thanks Jon and David.

    i must be quick (maybe too quick?) to point out that the ying-yang symbol is not mine, but related to a blog published by the great Andy Whitman. i haven't read this particular post yet, but i can guarantee it would be a nice adjunct to your thoughts.

    for me, i like to join with Dr. King in saying that the arch of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

    very, very, very long.


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