One of the things that hooked me pretty early on in my journey into Anglicanism was the weekly confession of sin. I grew up in a charismatic megachurch and had no reference for the concept. Sure, we knew we needed to confess sin, but it was always treated as something done quietly, individually, and was always about things we knew we did wrong – active transgressions, easily named. It was jarring, then, to transform this exercise into a public, corporate act. However, the discomfort waned as I thought about it more. Here we were, with our neighbors, saying out loud that we “have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Suddenly, confession was no longer centered on the private failings of my personal life of faith. I had to start recognizing the reality that sin is about broken relationships – with God, with each other, with creation. We all humbly acknowledge we’ve failed to love each other well, and need God’s grace and mercy to make this right.
But one other clause in the liturgy of penance has opened my eyes more than any other. We ask God to forgive us for the things we have done, but also for the things we have left undone. Again, this statement was at odds with my previous understanding of sin. Sin was something I did, committed, acted out. What could we mean when we said “left undone”? With this lens, though, I began to see Jesus’ teachings in a new way. The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is about a man who “lived in luxury every day,” yet failed to see and meet the needs of the beggar at his gate. He sinned by leaving undone the work of loving his neighbor. A similar scene of judgement in Matthew 25:31-46 has the King expelling those who left the work of ministry undone: “I was hungry and you gave me nothing…I was thirsty and you gave me nothing…whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” One more example is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where the first two passersby sin simply by continuing their journeys, one foot in front of the other, with no mention in the text of their even being conflicted or hesitant in their denial to show mercy to the victim of injustice in their path. It is clear from the teachings of Jesus that when we are presented with a reality that is at odds with the kingdom of God, it is a sin to simply go about our business and act like it doesn’t exist.
This sin of leaving things undone came to mind in a convicting way for me as I read the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. In the book, Alexander argues convincingly that the current era of incarceration disproportionately punishes people of color, creating a new underclass of people, a division that was supposed to be eliminated by the legislation of the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras. After her meticulous historical account of the issue, Alexander muses on why the system is allowed to function and exist the way it does. In one passage that broke my heart, she suggests “racial indifference” as the root problem.
Race plays a major role — indeed, a defining role — in the current system (of mass incarceration), but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry. This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility… (p. 204)
The data clearly shows that racial disparities permeate the structures of our criminal justice system (here’s a recent helpful compilation), and indifference is the only explanation for the overwhelming silence and inaction of the white church. It is not ripping our families apart. It is not destroying our communities. For my part, it was ignorance to the scope and severity of the problem until recently that kept me from speaking and acting on this issue. But if we were better neighbors to communities of different races and ethnicities, we would know and understand that this is a crisis of our time that needs to be addressed. If we were quicker to stop on the Jericho road, we might notice that many people are left hurting on the roads of our lives, mistreated and harmed from the effect of things like mass incarceration. We might hear Jesus saying: “I was in prison, and you visited me.” I pray that we would start to know and name “what we have left undone,” so that we can repent of our indifference, and move forward in the name of Jesus to spread his kingdom of love and peace to all.