“I am a sinner.”
In his first interview after his election in March 2013, this was the response of Pope Francis to the question, “Who are you?” He did not say this because he is scrupulous or has self-esteem problems. He said it because he humbly owned the truth about himself. He also said it full of gratitude — gratitude because he knows he is a loved sinner, blessed by the immense mercy of God.
I am still waiting for a celebrity who sexually abused women to say, “I am a sinner.” Some insist it was consensual. They refuse to be honest about what they did or the power they possessed in the situation. Some say, “If I have offended you, I am sorry you feel that way” — an absolute refusal to own any sinful behavior. Or others have used our system of legalized bribery — paying off millions to women who promise to remain silent.
In the Gospel of John, the primary metaphor for sin is blindness. Consequently, the prayer of every Christian who understands this Gospel should be, “Lord, I want to see.” I want to see where my blindness has damaged people or caused me to fail to respond like the Good Samaritan.
Many of these men who sexual abused women are bright people with great communication skills. Yet they continue to be blind. They don’t want to see.
I am particularly saddened by those in my own church.
Cardinal Bernard Law died Dec. 20. He was a highly intelligent, well-read person who was a champion for the rural poor and the civil rights movement. He had much influence in naming bishops in the United States. Yet he was blind to the horrific damage done to children by sexual abusing priests. Because of his blindness, he led a systemic cover-up of his abusing priests.
Yet as a write this, I am haunted by Jesus’ words, “Let the one without sin, cast the first stone.” And John’s Gospel continues, “They drifted away one by one.”
Recently, I went to confession. I have been working on my blindness to racism and prejudice toward obese people.
I came to these attitudes with relative innocence. I grew up in a small, totally white, community. In high school, a common put-down was to call someone the N-word. Also, because I’ve been committed to regular exercise, I am quick to judge “obese people who just let themselves go.” I am working hard to become conscious of these unconscious attitudes so that I don’t blindly stumble into sinful judgments or behaviors.
I read “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America” by Michael Eric Dyson, an ordained African American minister and professor of sociology at Georgetown University. The saddest section of the book for me begins, “I saw what being thought of as a nigger did to my father.”
When I see people who are obese, I try to quickly move to empathetic thoughts: “It must be difficult to maintain your self confidence in a world that glorifies thin people.” Or, “I wonder if you were denied a job simply because of your size.”
When I read about the lives of the saints, I was baffled that these holiest people were most paradoxically conscious of their sinfulness. Spiritual masters like Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Augustine were painfully aware of how much they fell short of sanctity.
Then I read a statement by Robert Barron, bishop of Los Angeles, who helped me understand this paradox. He uses the metaphor of a windshield. While you are driving a car in the morning, when it is still somewhat dark, your windshield looks clean and transparent. But when the sun shines on it, you notice streaks and smudges. That’s how the spiritual life works. The closer we get to the luminosity of God, the more our inner life is exposed for what it really is. This is a blessing. For once we know the truth about ourselves, our sinfulness can be healed.
Apparently, from videotape evidence, our president is blind to his sexual abuse of women and his repeated lies. But I am not here to examine his conscience.
What does his election say about us? Maybe he is the shadow side of our own culture now out in the open. Maybe the gift of his presidency will be for us to admit we have been blind to our own sins. This will take brutally honest inner work, but it is the only way to make America great again.