Years ago I read an article by Patrick McCormick entitled “Bless me, Father, for I have ism-ed.” (U.S. Catholic, March 2001) In the article McCormick proposes a different kind of examination of conscience for Lent, one that focuses not so much on personal sins but on social sins.
McCormick lists seven “deadly isms” of our contemporary American society. (Other countries share in many of these.) The seven are: individualism, consumerism, racism, sexism, classism, militarism, and voyeurism. I’ll briefly address four of these isms and offer a few reflective questions after each one.
Individualism is the disposition to withdraw into ourselves while letting the rest of society fend for itself. Other authors have traced this growing tendency in our country—for example, Robert Putman in his book Bowling Alone. Our individualism is seen in the fact that the U.S. is the only modern democracy without an adequate welfare system. In addition, we in the U.S. give less per capita in foreign aid than our European counterparts.
Reflective Questions: How do I as an individual invest my time and talents in the communities to which I belong: family, parish, religious congregation, local civic community? How do these communities contribute to the larger communities such as the diocese, the city, the state, the country, the world? Do I consciously make myself aware of people in need in my local, national, or world community? In what ways do I reach out to them?
Consumerism can be another social sin. We Americans consume more fossil fuels (gas, coal, oil) than any other country in the world except China. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population; the Chinese comprise 20% of the world’s population. According to the Global Footprint Network, it would take four planet earths for the world’s current population to live an American middle class existence.
Reflective Questions: What steps can we take as individuals, families, and communities to reduce our consumption of resources such as electricity, natural gas, gasoline? Do we recycle? Do we donate our surplus goods to our brothers and sisters in need? How do we live more simply amid the affluence of our culture? Do we ever say, “I have enough stuff”? Have we ever consciously “fasted” from consuming electricity or gas even for a day?
Racism is discrimination against another group of individuals. We can be racist toward anyone: African Americans, Native Americans, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, and Muslims, to name a few. Racism can be subtle. Sometimes it is hidden even from the person who is exhibiting racist attitudes or behaviors.
Reflective Questions: Have I as an individual ever acknowledged and asked forgiveness for my prejudices against certain groups of people? Have we as a parish or local civic community ever acknowledged or asked forgiveness for our racist attitudes or actions? If not, how might we do this? How strong are our corporate commitments to people who suffer from the effects of racism?
Militarism. Here are a few facts. The U.S. maintains an arsenal of 4,760 nuclear warheads. Below is a graph of the U.S. military budget compared to the budgets of other countries with a major military.
There are 310 million firearms in the U.S. excluding those owned by the military. There are over 33,000 deaths by firearms in this country annually excluding deaths by legal intervention. The U.S. also has the highest number of people in prison than any other so-called developed country in the world. We have an estimated 2.4 million people behind bars.
Questions for Reflection: To what extent do I participate in a “militaristic” way of relating with other people? For example, what “weapons” do I use against others: sarcasm, cutting remarks, giving them the silent treatment? Have I ever committed an act of violence against someone by mocking them, repeating vicious rumors, or by speaking to them in a demeaning way? Have I ever “imprisoned” someone by refusing to forgive them or failing to give them a second chance? Have we as a parish, religious congregation, or local community ever taken a corporate stance against the violence in our country?
At the end of his article, Patrick McCormick says, “Since the sins of our communities are often found in our disordered appetites, conversion doesn’t so much mean eliminating these passions as learning to place them at the service of our love of God and neighbor.” My prayer for Lent is two-fold. May we recognize and acknowledge our disordered appetites as individuals and as communities. And may we take some definite steps to place our passions and resources at the service of God and others.
Conversion from social sins begins with individuals like me. And my conversion begins with a change of heart. This gentle song simply asks: “Change My Heart, O God.”
Does anything touch you in this reflection or song that you’d like to share with us?
PS: This past weekend I facilitated a Lenten weekend retreat for alumnae of Regina High School. It was held at Bethany, our SND retreat center in Chardon. I want to thank the 14 women who participated. I appreciated their goodness, vitality, attentiveness, and prayerfulness. Special thanks to Sister Kay O’Malley for inviting me to lead this retreat and for taking care of the many details involved in hosting such an event!