To Confess Our National Sins

Yesterday, Professor Robby George of Princeton quoted on his Facebook page a portion of Abraham Lincoln’s March 30, 1863 Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day:

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Quoting that language, Professor George asked, “151 years later, is it not the case that the very same words could be said, the very same diagnosis offered, the very same remedy prescribed?”

I think there is enormous truth in Lincoln’s words and agree with Robby that the very same words could be said today. We live in a world in which there is an absence of what the Beatitudes term “poverty of spirit” – our recognition of our absolute an utter dependence on God. And we live in a world in which runs rampant not only individual sin, but what in Ignatian terms we call “social sin” – institutional or structural sins. And it does behoove us to humble ourselves in the face of our sinfulness.

The difficulty with Lincoln and Robby’s prescription that we confess our national sins is that we have no widespread agreement as to what those national sins are. (Not that there was any greater agreement on that subject in 1983.) I wonder if Robby and I (or any other two or more people for that matters) were asked to list the top five national sins of the day, how similar or different would our list be? (And I shudder to think how many would not have ever given thought to the question.)

In part this reflects the fact that our definition of social sin in this country is heavily tied to our political leanings, with the result that we don’t have widespread agreement as to what are our national sins. Sadly, however, it also reflects the fact that our list of national sins is quite large.

16.2 million children in America don’t get enough to eat.

Almost two-thirds of all US drone strikes in Pakistan target homes.

More than half a million people in the US are homeless on any given night.

US surveillance practices violate fundamental civil and political rights.

About 10.5 million Americans are working poor, that is people who spent 27 or more weeks of the year in the workforce but whose income still fell below the poverty line.

Our rhetoric on abortion has gotten so vitriolic that it can hardly be termed debate, with the result that seeking common ground seems an impossible task. And the same can be said about the tone of debate about contraception, medical care, climate change, and a host of other issues.

And those are just the things that come to mind off the top of my head.

That doesn’t mean I disagree with indictment or the prescription. I think we take structural sin far less seriously than we ought to. But our inability to agree on what those are (and, increasingly, to demonize those with whom we disagree) is itself part of the problem. And it is a part that is worth thinking about.

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The Rich Man and Lazarus

Yesterday’s Gospel was Jesus’ parable to the Pharisees of the rich man and Lazarus.

This is one of those tales we’ve all heard countless times: during their lifetimes, Lazarus lies suffering at the door of the rich man. The rich man does nothing to alleviate Lazarus’ suffering, but spends his time enjoying all of the fruits of their riches. When they die, Lazarus is carried away to heaven and the rich man is in torment in hell. The rich man cries out to Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony.” Abraham refuese, as he refuses the rich man’s subsequent plea to send Lazarus to warn his brothers so they don’t end up like him.

I confess that there are times I hear this passage when I think, well why not? If the rich man is sorry for the life he has led, why not send Lazarus to him or his brothers?

In his sermon on the Gospel, Fr. Bill Walsh made what in retrospect seems an obvious point, but one that had escaped me in all of the times I have read or heard proclaimed this passage and it provides a good answer to my occasional query. For the rich man, nothing at all has changed. During his lifetime, he thought people like Lazarus existed to serve people of his kind and he thinks no different in death. Let Lazarus come and serve me, is what he asks of Abraham. Lazarus is still inferior, still not an object of his concern. There is not repentance here of the way the rich man has lived his life.

I was struck by that observation. It is easy to regret the consequenses of our acts, especially when they involve suffering. But mere regret of the suffering conquences is not itself an indication of any change of heart. But there can not be any chance in the consequences without a real change of the heart and mind that produced them. And that change wasn’t there for the rich man.