Rooting Out Systemic Sin
It is not trite to say that what our society needs right now is more love. Jesus Himself stated that the greatest commandment is to “‘[l]ove the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’” and the second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). And who is our neighbor? Anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the Gospels knows that it is every person we come into contact with, regardless of race, creed, color, gender, or religion.
The interplay between even the most seemingly insignificant of our own thoughts, words, and deeds and the effect on our neighbors is more complex than many of us realize. St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote:
“All of us who have received one and the same Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, are in a sense blended together with one another and with God. For if Christ, together with the Father’s and his own Spirit, comes to dwell in each of us, though we are many, still the Spirit is one and undivided. He binds together the spirits of each and every one of us, . . . and makes all appear as one in Him. For just as the power of Christ’s sacred flesh unites those in whom it dwells into one body, I think that in the same way the one and undivided Spirit of God, who dwells in all, leads all into a spiritual unity.” (Emphasis added.)
We are a far cry from unity of any kind in our society right now, spiritual or otherwise. The issue de jour, of course, is systemic racism and white privilege. Before we go any further, please understand that simply because this topic is “trendy” does not diminish the fact that it is a real and ever-present problem. As Christians, we are called to speak the Truth at all times, regardless of what mainstream media considers to be a hot topic at any given moment.
Now, I am not qualified to write about the intricacies of systemic racism and white privilege, but what I am intimately familiar with is sin in general. It is not an exaggeration to say that the root cause of 100% of the problems covered by the nightly news is sin – systemic sin. And it is in rooting out this systemic sin in all its forms that we need to focus our collective and individual efforts.
How do we go about this? How do we heal this brokenness in ourselves, our families, and our society in general? With love, of course. Unfortunately, however, it can be difficult to discern what True Love is. While it is unequivocally clear that racism is a heinous sin, it is equally clear that we don’t all agree on how to solve it.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, after meeting Strider, who reveals himself to be Aragorn, Samwise Gamgee questions how he and Frodo can be sure that Aragorn is the one spoken of by Gandalf. Frodo replies, “You [Aragorn] have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would - well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.’” A lot of what the world is promoting right now as love seems fair but feels pretty foul when you get down to brass tacks. These worldly narratives (on both ends of the political spectrum) are, in reality, radically opposed to that great unifier, the Holy Spirit. They are lies masquerading as True Love.
The world is so loud, but God whispers. To discern True Love, we must practice prudence and adopt the heart-pondering attitude of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 2:19). These are not passive activities. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church in paragraph 1806 defines prudence as “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.”
Exercising prudence, then, is a three-step process. You first must discern the True Good, then choose the right means of achieving the Good, and finally take action to carry it out. This process does not lend itself to posting a “hot take” on Facebook or using the correct hashtags or quickly resharing or “liking” any polemical social media post. To discern the True Good and exercise prudence, you must first engage continuously with the Holy Spirit through the sacraments and consistent prayer and scripture study and regularly – daily even! – make a fearless and searching moral inventory of your own heart. Only then can you begin to reliably discern the True Good from that which appears on its surface as good but in reality leads to spiritual death.
Cultivating the Fruits of the Holy Spirit
St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galations that “the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other . . . ” (Galations 5:17). If the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” then it stands to reason that where these are lacking, the Holy Spirit is not at work. (Galations 5:22). Part of exercising prudence and overcoming systemic sin, then, requires us to take an honest look at where we have failed by our action or inaction to exercise the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Again, this is not a passive activity, and it’s not something we can afford to merely pay lip service to. It takes courage and honesty, and if done properly, it will probably be a pretty uncomfortable process of self-introspection that reveals some very ugly things about yourself. Ask yourself before speaking or thinking about any individual or group of individuals whether your thoughts and words are likely to produce good fruit. Are they kind? Are they gentle? Are they bringing peace? Are they generous? Particularly be aware of your use of the word “they” – in fact, try not to use “they” at all unless you are talking about a specific group of individuals that you can name. And while you may disagree whether any given thought, word, action, or inaction can be properly attributed to racism, I urge you not to get distracted by labels. If it’s producing bad fruit, cut it off.
I also encourage that if you find yourself getting defensive over the phrases “system racism” or “white privilege,” you really set aside some time to examine the root cause of those gut reactions. Is it because you are feeling personally attacked? Are you feeling the need to justify yourself as a good person? Are you comparing struggles, engaging in stereotypes, conflating issues, or employing conclusory or faulty logic? These are all dangerous places to be spiritually. Remember, one Truth does not negate another Truth, and the reality of another’s sufferings does not diminish your own sufferings. You can be a wonderfully good person in many ways but still struggle with the sin of racism (or any other sin for that matter).
Adopting Curiosity over Condemnation
In John and Julie Gottman’s book Eight Dates, the Gottmans encourage romantic couples to practice better communication skills by approaching one another with a spirit of curiosity rather than condemnation. Instead of immediately shutting down or attempting to invalidate your partner’s feelings, the Gottman’s recommend taking time and asking the right questions to understand why your partner is feeling that way. This process opens up the door for constructive conversation and resolution rather than conflict and stalemate. This attitude works equally well when engaging with others in your community. While you may still disagree whether the reactions or feelings of others are appropriate, adopting an attitude of curiosity over condemnation reminds us we are speaking to neighbors, people who “are in a sense blended together with [ourselves] and with God.” It helps us move forward together in True Love.
Do not forget the reality of what Christ is asking of each of us. Our goal is to conform our hearts to His, and His Sacred Heart resembles nothing like the flowery images we are so used to seeing in some sacred art. It is bruised, it is bloody, and it has suffered immeasurable pain. And yet it still burns hot with Love for us. So, too, should our hearts be bruised, bloodied, and pained by the sufferings we inflict on ourselves and those around us. It will hurt as we continually strive to strip away self and replace it with Him, but it’s a process we must be willing to undergo.
 If you are interested in learning more about the very real problems of systemic racism and the negative aspects of white privilege from someone who is qualified to talk about such things, I encourage you to check out Karianna Frey, a Catholic woman of color who has provided many wonderful resources on these topics through her Instagram account. You can find out more about her and these resources here.