We Are About: Examining the Violence in Our Hearts and Lives

(This post is part of a short series we're chronicling based on the individual points of the JTN manifesto. It is also material that may be familiar to some readers, as it contains a large section of material I published elsewhere on the importance of allowing ourselves to "sit in our sin.") ---

The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.

-- Mahatma Gandhi

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.

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.

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

Slowly, more and more memories of my wrongdoings 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.

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.

In the near future, after we finish exploring each point of the JTN manifesto in greater detail, we will begin a recurring feature here called Repentance Thursdays. This is going to be a place for us to repent of our own violences of heart, to the extent each of us is comfortable doing so. More details to come on this, but I wanted to give you a heads-up that it's in our future.

In the meantime, let's hear your thoughts on the subject:

How in touch have you been with your sin and violence of heart over the years?