Early on in the pontificate of Pope Francis, during an interview, when asked who he was Pope Francis responded with the statement “I am a sinner.” At the time, this statement was used in the U.S., to exclaim the humbleness and relatable-ness of Pope Francis to the everyday person. In the light of recent events (like the Charlottesville protests and attack), I believe we as a people need to return to the concept of Sin. Like Pope Francis, I myself am a sinner. A sinner is one who engages in sin, so what is Sin? Within the Roman Catholic tradition ‘to sin’ was understood to be ‘off the mark,’ like an archer who misses the target. This insight into sin, as being off the mark, offers an important path to understanding who we are as a people, in relationship to ourselves, others, nature, and God.
Labels Place Limitations
One way for a sinner to be off the mark, in a social relationship, is manifested through the application of labels. When I look at another and I apply a label like “you are a *blank*” I place limitations on who that person is in relationship to me. Now, as social beings we need to craft some order and structure to the world that we live in, so we can function in it. Labels in a way help. The problem lies in our sinfulness. As sinners, our labels, those categories we place onto others, are off the mark! If a person applies a label to another, without reference to her or his own sinfulness, then their label only shines forth with a façade of truthfulness, but underneath that façade, within our hearts and minds, we say to ourselves about the other “you are that thing I have labeled you to be.” Our ability to label others and ourselves knows no limits, particularly in this age of identitarian politics.
I remember growing up in rural Michigan and being taught not to go to Flint and Detroit alone because the people there (predominately African Americans) will want to harm and/or kill me. Cities and the people there in were dangerous and not to be trusted. Now, the reality was that these cities did have high crime, meaning that some of the fear my elders had was justified. However, over time that label of “city folks” and “African Americans” became twisted in my head, to the point that, I always had a suspicion of ‘them.’ I was not raised in any faith, that could challenge this stereotype, nor did I have any ability to know people from these areas.
Then, I went to college. It was in college that I started to meet people from Flint and Detroit, who were African Americans, and other races. I could see that these people I was getting to know were folks of great character. They, also, showed their kindness to me, by meeting me where I was at in my understanding of them (an understanding shaped by my labels of them) and by having frank and meaningful conversations with me about who they were as a person. Also, during this time, I was called home to the Catholic Church, where I started to see and confront my own sinfulness, and realize, that I did not have ‘everything together’ and I was wrong on many of my ideas I had about myself and others.
I believe without that latter event of my life in college, returning to the Church, I would have merely thought of these people, I had met, as exceptions to the rules that my labels for them were built upon. My labels I had for those I saw as ‘others’ needed to be removed from me because they were like a poisonous plant that had deep roots down into the nether regions of my soul. Just as an archer, who misses her or his mark, needs help from an instructor, I needed someone, other than myself, to help me change from negatively labeling people to seeing them as they truly are, individuals. Another way of understanding this change is through the word conversion, i.e. to turn away from one thing or way of being to another.
A ship with a broken rudder cannot turn, before those college years, I was like a broken ship, unable to change or redirect my own course. God, by His providential hands, gave me opportunities that helped me to become aware of my brokenness and made it possible for me to change. Not by my own hand, but through His and, also, by the people I meet in college.
Labeling Controls Others
Finally, labels may also work as a means of control, like a horse with blinders. If you want to control a horse, then you must control what a horse sees, so we place blinders on the side of a horse’s eyes. In a way, our labels work like that. Labels shape not just how we see, but what we see. For example, if a person was raised to hate all Latinos, so her or his label for Latinos are utterly negative then that label will only allow in what supports its own existence.
When we define, what are labels are for others, labels become our windows for the world. The more malice the label, the smaller the window, and therefore less of the world is let into the mind and heart of the person that holds that label as a truth. Having a healthy awareness of our own sinfulness, allows us to look away from our ‘window like labels,’ so we can see how dark our hearts and minds have become. It is only in that self-awareness, of our own sinfulness, that change within ourselves can occur, and then a change in the world.
As Gandhi said,
If you change how you think then you will change how you feel and what actions you take. And so, the world around you will change. Not only because you are now viewing your environment through new lenses of thoughts and emotions but also because the change within can allow you to take action in ways you wouldn’t have – or maybe even have thought about – while stuck in your old thought patterns.
How does this change that Gandhi spoke about to occur, let us return to the Pope Francis. When Pope Francis declared himself a sinner, he also said: “[…] but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept it in a spirit of penance.” When we acknowledge and accept our own sinfulness, we are not called to destroy who we are, NO.
We must be like Jesus, and be merciful and patient with ourselves, as we journey down the path of penance, which means ‘to be sorry for (paenitere).’ By becoming aware of our own sinfulness, and responding like Jesus, we can show mercy and patience to all we meet, and thus, begin to change the world for the better. How? Well, instead of casting the ‘other’ aside by the labels we place upon her or him, we can now embrace her or him as a fellow sinner, making it possible for us to journey together through this life we have received.