Examining Our Social Sins

America Magazine
Daniel P. Horan
Lent is a time dedicated to evaluation and reflection, conversion and return to God. But what does it mean to embrace honestly an examination of conscience at a time and in a world where racism, violence and environmental degradation are so present?
Over the last few months, our attention has been drawn to events that reflect persistent structures of inequity and injustice in our society. Because we are all interrelated in ways that are not always easily recognized, few are willing to take responsibility for the abiding reality of social sin. It can be so satisfying and self-gratifying to assess our lives and actions by what we have done that we ignore the evangelical challenge to confess our responsibility for what we have failed to do.
That is why I believe that our prayer, penance and alms giving this Lent should begin with an examination of conscience, one that forces us to confront our own complicity in the structures that permit and perpetuate the particular sins we see on the news and witness in our communities. Here are just three examples.

Racism. The recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice at the hands of police officers have thrown our nation into a heated discussion about the treatment of men and women of color, especially by law enforcement. While the tragedies of lives ended prematurely are always particular and uniquely painful, the persistent injustice of the racism that provides the condition for gross inequality is all too common. Part of what permits its continuation is the unacknowledged white privilege and supremacy in the United States.
We must ask ourselves how we choose to view the world and whether we intentionally or inadvertently overlook how things really are. Those of us who are white (especially white men like me, who are beneficiaries of gender privilege too) need to recognize the unfair privileges from which we benefit in the United States. The benefits are often masked over by omission, by the lack of negative or oppressive experiences, by the absence of the skeptical gaze or the dismissive posture or the guilty-by-color association, by never having been targeted or judged because of the color of our skin. Others do not have these privileges. Racism cannot be addressed until those of us who benefit from it, knowingly and unwittingly alike, acknowledge our privilege and own our responsibility to work toward surrendering it.

Violence. I have never shot or stabbed or seriously punched anyone. But still I can recognize ways that I contribute to the prevailing culture of violence. Typically, unless we are direct victims of violence or know someone who has been, we are likely to go about living life as guilty bystanders. We are desensitized to the violence that is a daily reality for many people around the world. We are often willfully ignorant of the physical, emotional, psychological and sexual violence in our own communities. By not talking about violence, by not asking questions about human trafficking, by not thinking about what is happening beyond the comfortable borders of our own experience, we may still not be shooting or stabbing or punching another, but there is much that we have nevertheless failed to do.

The environment. Rumors of Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on care for creation have generated much speculation and curiosity. In some circles, the mere notion has led commentators to dismiss or negatively pre-empt whatever call to action and challenge to conscience the pope may present. It can be easy to be “for the environment” in word only, without the moral fortitude and will to put that talk into action. How do I make decisions about what to buy, what to eat, where to go, how to travel and how to live with the rest of creation in mind? What about the rest of the human family, particularly the poor, who suffer disproportionately from climate change and pollution? We can advocate for changes in corporate and government policies that better protect our planet, but do we?

These are just a few of the many aspects of our common life that call us to reflection; one could easily add sexism, poverty, homophobia, poor care for the elderly, religious intolerance or any of the many other systemic evils in our world. This Lent, may we spend some time evaluating not just what we have done but what we continually fail to do. It is never too late to repent and be faithful to the Gospel.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton (2014).