Journey Toward Nonviolence 4: Sitting in Our Sin

I’ll be honest. 

I can’t say I’ve spent much time in my life owning up to the things I have done wrong.

Yes, there are things I wasn’t proud to have done (many things!). But somehow I always found a way to quickly explain away my having done them.

Usually I did this by believing myself to be the victim. If another person brought some wrong against me, then I believed anything I did — either to retaliate or to participate in the wrongdoing, too — exempted me from judgment.

This worked even in situations where no direct action was done against me preceding the things I did that were wrong. I could always find a reason — however remote from the actual incident — for the things I did, and it usually had to do with something someone else had done somewhere along the line to make me desperate, helpless, or angry enough to do what I did.

I had a culpability problem.

What’s more, I believed God saw things my way in this, too. He could see the root causes motivating all I did. He could see my sins as mere attempts to survive in an environment. In my mind, God understood, took pity on me, and gladly let me off the hook. (You can see one reason why, then, I’d have a tough time understanding my need for grace.)

I believed all these things — sometimes consciously, but mostly unconsciously — for almost the whole of my life. 

Then earlier this year I had an opportunity to begin facing my sin for what it really was (and is). It all began with Gandhi. As part of a two-day silent retreat I took for a school requirement, I cracked open Gandhi’s mammoth-size autobiography and began to read. 

I was not even 10 pages into the book when I came to a section describing his early marriage. Nestled inside these few pages of description, he made a passing comment about an incident that had happened between him and his father that he said he would describe in greater detail later in the book. He used the word “shame” in connection with this incident, and he said he still felt the flooding of this shame each time he recalled the incident to mind. 

Such strong language for a small, passing comment caught my attention.

Then, about 20 pages later, he related the specifics of this incident. It concerned a way he had behaved on the night of his father’s death. He was not proud at all of what he’d done. He called it his “double shame” and said it was “a blot [he had] never been able to efface or forget.”

Gandhi’s genuine, enduring remorse for his sins astounded me. Here was a man, arguably one of the most holy men ever to have walked this earth, who genuinely grieved the ways his humanity had ever brought harm to another or dishonored another person in some way.

I found myself touched in a very deep place by this story, too, because of the similarity this incident carried to an incident I faced in my own life on the night of my grandfather’s death. (I wrote about this incident here.) 

Then slowly, as I sat with this memory surrounding the night of my grandfather’s death, another memory of something I’d done even earlier in my life began to surface.

I was eight or nine years old, and I’d done something really cruel to someone I loved. I’d inflicted a rare breed of physical pain on this person, and in the split-second that followed my having done it, I remember reeling in a bit of shock that I could possibly have done such a thing. But after that initial moment of shock, I resolutely shook the remorse away and reared up in self-righteous justification: this person had wronged me, so they deserved what I had done to them.

I felt the shame associated with both of these hard memories and began to wonder what, if anything, united them. I turned in my journal to an essay I’d previously written, called “The Root of Injustice: Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”, and wondered if this same spirit of naked selfishness I’d questioned in the essay was at work in me in these two poignant and painful memories I’d just recalled to mind.

I was pretty sure the answer was yes.

Then more and more memories rose to the surface. 

I started scrawling them in a list in my journal. A long, specific list. A dreadfully incomplete list. A list that could have filled an entire journal if I’d gone on long enough to let it.

A bit later, somewhat spent, I turned to a clean page and wrote the following: 

I have only just begun, but this feels like a purging process and also an exercise in truth. Gandhi would approve, I’m sure. 

I will probably continue adding to this list — continue “sitting with my sin” — for the next period of time. It feels important to do so. Perhaps when I am finished I will sit with each instance and try to ascertain what motive lay at their roots. Perhaps there are common threads. Perhaps they all share the same thread. Perhaps I will learn much about human nature and original sin by examining my own catalog of sin.

— 4 April 2009, My Year With Gandhi Journal

I’ve come to believe the road to nonviolence must be marked by an honest reckoning with our own sin. This is what helps us see that we, too, have contributed to the sin, chaos, and devastation of this world. I remember being profoundly arrested by this truth after I spent time listing my own catalog of sins. I began to see how much I, too, have been part of the problem.

What about you: How has the acknowledgment or unacknowledgment of sin played a role in your own story?