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From Powerlessness, Freedom

Grappling with America's "original sin"


I have always had a problem with original sin because it doesn’t seem fair. I didn’t choose to be born, and I didn’t choose to do anything wrong, so why should I suffer from this condition that makes everything so difficult? But when I look at myself, and those around me, I can’t but admit it’s true. It explains part of me and a lot of the world.


Slavery has been called America’s "original sin." And the comparison is apt because, like original sin, it taints and affects every single person who lives in America whether they want it to or not. As a white person, I’ve had the same defensive reactions in relation to racism as I have to original sin. I didn’t choose to be racist. I’m a good person. I’m not affected by it. But, similarly, when I look around me, I see it has shaped the public structures and systems in our country, and to the extent we operate in them, we’re influenced by it. I’ve inherited and live with white privilege. These are just facts about America, and me.


I draw this comparison because our school of community on morality has been really helpful for me to understand some of what’s going on right now. The default, and very American, understanding of morality is totally individualistic: I, an individual, choose right or wrong actions with my will, which is autonomous and supreme. I choose good or bad actions, on my own; I’m in control of these choices at all times; and those choices totally define my character. From this starting point, no wonder everyone is either defensive about or eager to prove their virtue.


My dad is in Alcoholics Anonymous, and the first step is to admit powerlessness, to admit needing help. (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.”) It’s actually in admitting to having no control that, paradoxically, the alcoholic is free—to ask for help, to choose to follow the program, to see that he isn’t defined by his addictive choices.


People in AA often repeat that quote about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I feel like that’s what I do with my life sometimes—make a better schedule, a reading list, a food plan. It’s what we do societally—pass another law, hold another protest. None of these things are bad; in fact, they ought to be done. But they don’t necessarily change us. We continue to fall back into our instincts and reactions, and then justify our failures. This is described by Giussani so well as “pharisaism” and “readiness to lie.” “Man is impotent before the ideals that he himself lays down as a path to follow on his journey” (Generating Traces, 57).


Over the years, my defensiveness about both original sin and racism/white privilege have slowly crumbled, but only because—through a lot of experiences—I’ve grown in my awareness that what defines me is being loved, being in relationship with an Other, “love for being.” From that starting point, I can humbly admit my powerlessness about these unfortunate human conditions I find myself stuck in. I don’t need to prop myself up. It’s only from that position of powerlessness that my desire really emerges—“a kind of flood comes from the depths of our heart, like a breath that rises from the breast and pervades the whole person, making it act, making it want to act more justly” (62). But this is not the end of the path; it’s a new beginning, the true point from which to start walking. There are eleven more steps after this one.


Signed Letter

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