The Curious Faces of Sin
The faces of sin, of course, are many.
Anger, greed, lust, pride — we have seen, stood before, the menacing
faces of sin and we instinctively recognize them despite all efforts
to conceal or disguise the malice they portend. They contort and disfigure
the face that leers at us, the face behind which the turbulence of sin
implacably roils. We recoil from them in either fear or disgust — and
we abhor them. The signature of sin is the same even as the faces change,
but it is always inscribed on distinguishable faces, on identifiable
persons. The sin, the malice, is personal — that is to say, it infects
a personality, an individual to whom we have some manifest connection.
In a sense the malice, the evil, is personified; it assumes the personality
of another. Avoid the person and avoid the malice, a very reasonable
and effective remedy — for us as individuals.
There is, however, another and much less clearly defined (but no less
pernicious) aspect of sin that we are far less disposed to recognize
— despite ample and apparently futile lessons from history.
Our Silence: the Sin of Omission
While most of us grasp the existence of our
own individual sins — and even more clearly the sins of others — there
is little awareness of our own complicity in sins that lacerate us as
a people, a society, a nation — even a civilization. This absence of
the realization of an evil to which we contribute beyond our individual
culpability, this failure to recognize the reality of collective as
well as personal sin – essentially a recognition of our complicity in
appalling moral enormities — not through our acts but through our silence
— is just as grave in nature (but more far-reaching and devastating
in consequences) than most of our personal sins. The sin, as we see
it, is not our own. It is not of our making. We do not will it, therefore
we are not responsible for it. We recognize the evil. We lament it.
But in the end, because we do not enact the evil ourselves, we have
no responsibility for it.
Now, multiply that by a society, a nation, a civilization, and we
begin to understand the nature of collective sin, the sin for which
all are responsible but in which no one personally participates ...
It might be summed up in three words: “Let it pass. Whatever the
evil, whatever the injustice, whatever the oppression — in whatever
form it takes —“let it pass.”
We do not see — it is inconvenient to see — that when we fail to raise
our voice against evil, to stamp it out as inimical to the good, as
irreconcilably contrary to a Law greater than any men legislate (and
subsequently amend, discard, or abolish) in courts or seats of legislature,
however august, esteemed, and established its venue. Whenever we fail
to raise our voice, and simply “let it pass” —we have entered into complicity
with that outrage through our silence. We fear to condemn it, to reveal
our abhorrence of it ... to act against it ... and in remaining silent
we promote it. It is the sin of omission.
Unlike individual sin which both confronts us and indicts us in
clear and personal terms, collective sin is a much more subtle evil
that attempts to elude the responsibility of the individual by
diffusing and propagating itself in a social context. It is
collaborative sin, sin that is only possible through the
collaboration of the many. The Holocaust, slavery, and pornography
come immediately to mind. And because it is so subtle it is
extremely pervasive. In fact, we come to believe that the more
pervasive it is, the less evil it must be. It is essentially
morality as distributive, or more simply, morals as mathematics. In
effect, “it is legitimized; it has become a matter of open policy,
and since a majority are either practicing or condoning it, I myself
cannot conceivably be held responsible for it, even if I loathe it.
In fact, I have no right to personally object to what is publicly
acceptable, and moreover, no legal recourse, should I choose to. So
... I let it pass.”
We may recognize the evil, but believe that we can abstract ourselves
from it and place the fault, the responsibility upon others. We distribute
the blame, the guilt, until it becomes so suffuse that it is no longer
morally tangible. That failing, any residual guilt can simply be ascribed
to some impersonal corporate body, to the vast number — of which we,
in fact, are part. This amorphous corporate body populated by real but
somehow anonymous persons, becomes our scapegoat when the core meltdown
of moral imperatives reaches critical mass and can no longer be ignored
without catastrophic consequences to the individual and society at large.
We would do extremely well to reflect deeply upon the consequences of
articulating morality through numbers.
“Let it pass ...”
In Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ,
a very brief, but memorable moment occurs when, amid the violence of
the mob, an old woman stands, looking quizzically upon the scene of
personal carnage. She looks with detachment, indifference, neither incited
nor perturbed. This is such a frightening vignette that encapsulates
our moral indifference in the face of evil. Her indifference, coupled
with her curiosity, makes her the metaphor of evil through omission,
of complicity through indifference. In this sense, she is a more frightening
figure than the soldiers.
“Let it pass ... what has it to do with me?”
Unknown to her ... everything, both in time and in eternity.
Collective sin is malice through mathematics,; and because it is rooted
in exponential numbers, it is inherently cumulative. So much so, in
fact, that the individual sense of responsibility is diminished by the
same exponent through which the collective sin is multiplied. There
is a clearly inverse proportion between the magnitude of the distributed
number and diminished responsibility.
What, then, was your place, my place, in the crucifying of Christ? What
is our place and what our responsibility in the starving of a child,
in the "therapeutic" killing of a baby in the womb, of the little girl
sold into the slavery of prostitution and pornography?
|Meditating on the Passion, how easily we abhor the weakness, the conspiracy
of the crowd — failing to see that we persecute Christ in our brother,
our sister before us ... with the same malice that motivated the Immolation
of the Lamb ... when we ourselves are the wolves ...
Do you still think that you can take refuge in numbers, loose yourself
in the crowd? And how long will you continue “to let is pass” — until
it comes to your own doorstep?
Geoffrey K. Mondello
for the Boston Catholic Journal
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