There was a small platform, a single microphone, and two large speakers set up just outside the campus center. A large crowd was beginning to form, so I rushed to see what was happening. As I came within earshot of the demonstration, I heard the voice of one of my students. She had stepped up to the microphone, and was sharing her experience as a black woman on our campus. Her experience included general feelings of neglect from professors and administration, micro-aggressions from faculty and students alike, and a longing for more racially diverse leadership. Her story was followed by many other students, some of whom had never shared with their classmates or teachers the deep pain they feel as people of color on our campus. I stood in the sea of students and faculty for well over an hour, listening intently. In part, I listened because I wanted to demonstrate the fullness of my concern and genuine solidarity. But I also listened because I was afraid. I was afraid that I might be called out. I was afraid that my department might be called out. “What if we’re the problem?” I wondered. “What if I have harmed somebody without knowing it?”
I recently vocalized this concern to a friend, who is not affiliated with this university. I explained that I have sometimes been unaware of other peoples’ experiences, and thereby, have enabled injustice to continue in their lives. I articulated that I feel an urgency to help improve the experiences of our students to the best of my ability. The friend interjected, “Amy, Amy, Amy. Calm down. You worry too much. It’s not like YOU owned slaves. YOU are not to blame for any of this, and you shouldn’t have to apologize for it.”
This is a sentiment that I often hear from people who look like me. If we didn’t commit the sin, we shouldn’t have to take responsibility for it. We are only responsible for our own personal sins, not the sins of our ancestors, and not the sins generated within our present communities. This hyper-individualized idea of sin leads me to manage my sins in privacy, and glean a certain level of pride when I conquer my own temptations. It allows me to presume that my sins only affect me and my immediate surroundings, and that my sins are my responsibility, and mine only. The relative privacy of my own struggle enables me to look upon the sins of others with disdain, as though their sins are worse than mine. I then detach myself from the actions of others, in an effort to keep my hands clean.
I believe this notion of sin is impeding our call to live as Christ, and is actively eroding our communities. The truth is that sin is much bigger than the immediate results of my choices. Sin is like a web-—it’s a network of choices made by all humans past and present. When I was born, I was born into a world that was already suffering from sin. I may not have personally generated the suffering that surrounded me as a child, but from the moment I was born, I have been a part of the puzzle. We cannot detach ourselves from the sin of others, because we cannot detach ourselves from the consequences that manifest in our communities.
I do not mean to imply that I am guilty of another’s sins. However, I do mean to imply that I bear some responsibility for sins that are not my own. For example, I did not personally own slaves. But whether I like it or not, I am now a part of a society that has been deeply shaped by the widespread suffering that results from the sins of our history. I am a part of a society that has been shaped by racism, and as a white woman, I now benefit from the sins our nation’s past. I can try to hide from the suffering; I can try to isolate myself with my own sins, away from the sins of others. But there is no amount of hiding, running, or denying that will make the problem go away.
My choice is either to reject responsibility, and ignore the suffering of others because I was not the one to directly cause the suffering, or to engage our communal suffering, and take responsibility for helping our society to heal from the web of sin that entangles us all.
If I claim to follow Christ, the choice is clear. Christians claim to follow a Messiah who took responsibility for healing us from our sins. They were not his sins. But thank God he did not leave us alone in our sin! So here is my Christian response to the notion that racism, bigotry, poverty, or any other societal ill is not my responsibility if I was not the one to carry out the actions: Christ made it his problem, and so will I.
As I consider how I might follow Christ in taking responsibility for the suffering in our world, I am reminded of the famous Prayer of Saint Francis.
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
Let us die to ourselves; let us die to our desperate attempts at self-preservation, our selfish refusal to be tangled up in the wounds of our communities, our unwillingness to listen to the cries of the suffering. Let us offer consolation, let us seek understanding, and let us take on the burdens of our neighbors. We are our brother’s keeper-—it is time to remove our pride, and take responsibility.