Sin and ash: On our collective guilt and the need for reconciliation
I have had a hard time at confession recently. Yes, it can be a balm. It can reveal, each time, that there is a capacity in my life for more grace than I have let in. I can see the poverties of my own making and the joys available to me when I focus on what is holy. The examination of conscience prompts a series of yes or no questions: Was I impatient, angry, envious, proud, jealous, revengeful, lazy? Have I forgiven others? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. No.
A false implication (harbored from parochial school days) is that you can be perfectly holy—a saint—if you are able to answer these questions differently. Of course, the holiest people I have known cannot always do this. But there has been a sense that the options of yes and no are in my control.
This understanding of sin has come up short for me over the past few years. There are poverties in my soul that are beyond my own making, but for which I feel I must account. There are sins, complicity and guilt for which I know I must answer, even though I cannot get the answer “right.”
There are poverties in my soul that are beyond my own making, but for which I feel I must account.
I read about the cruelty shown to migrants at the southern U.S. border and all those in need of sanctuary who are turned away. Is the importance of your safety being invoked to endanger and imprison others? Yes.
A policeman smiles at me as I cross the street, headed to the Jesuit university where I work. Does the legacy of slavery enrich your life daily? Yes.
I text friends on my phone while I pick up food and cleaning supplies. Have you irrevocably robbed, polluted and broken the earth, shared home of all creation? Yes.
I cross myself with holy water, and I am interrupted by the memory of its use in cases of clergy sexual abuse. Have you done enough to honor the holiness of the victims of your own church? No.
We each live at the intersection of different sinful structures from which we benefit.
I cannot give the right answer. It’s no matter how vociferously I protest hate, how much I have prayed or how kind I am to the people I encounter. It’s no matter what I post on Facebook or how “green” the products I buy are. The answer is: Yes, I am guilty. In fact, my actions look paltry, embarrassing, seen against the enormity of the evil from which I sinfully benefit.
In theology we speak of structural or social sin. This is opposed to the way we usually think of sin, as individual. With individual sins, I have complete control over my answer. No, I did not cheat. No, I did not gossip. Not so with social sins. We each live at the intersection of different sinful structures from which we benefit. Not everyone who reads the questions above will answer the same way. We must each make our own examination of how we benefit from social sin.
This does not mean we have no freedom. This kind of guilt, which no change of action can completely obviate, should not cause us to throw up our hands. We cannot get defensive, cynical or nihilistic, as if there were nothing we can do. Guilty of social sin, we still have the freedom to seek God’s grace.
As with personal sin, we must work for reconciliation. While talk of social sin is somewhat new, I am struck by a classic formulation in Dostoyevsky: All are guilty before all. The response of both Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment to the question of their guilt is helpful. In both books, the characters are faced with guilt, even as they have tried to do right. At a crossroads, they have the freedom to choose life or death.
Do we embrace life, even though it is full of suffering that we cause and benefit from, or do we give up and refuse our own humanity? In the end, both of Dostoyevsky’s characters seek reconciliation with God and with humanity the same way: they lay themselves face down, arms outstretched on the earth, and kiss it.
They come to see themselves, with sorrow and joy, as dust. Face in the dust, they are able to see their place in the world. They accept their guilt. Understanding themselves as dust, what they seek is humility toward all they have defiled.
This is our choice in the face of social sin: to be defensive and defeated, or to accept our guilt, ourselves as ash, and then work and pray for life, for reconciliation and the kingdom of God. Faced with social sin, the balm of confession must not be one of absolution but of hope, loving service to a vision of how things might be different. Guilty, I seek life.