One day I was talking to some friends (one male and one female) from work about my experience as a female in that particular work place. I expressed my frustrations about how it felt like I could never advance, even though I had more education and experience than my male counterparts. There was never a man in my face telling me to go home and have some babies, or that my brain was too small to handle a more complex job. But, it always felt like an invisible barrier kept me from progressing. In the midst of this conversation, a man walked up and addressed the male in the group. When he was finished, he walked away without acknowledging me or my female friend’s existence (not even a head nod).
Once he left, I looked at my friends and said “this is what I am talking about”.
It was not overt sexism, but there were these subtle snubs happening all of the time. It was hard for me to pinpoint what was going on until a friend of mine, who had worked there for years, affirmed my experiences. She named the un-namable dynamic at play. One gender is preferred here over the other. The perpetrators were likely not aware of their preferences, yet, this dynamic meant that men had endless opportunities, while women had to fight to make it past the administrative realm, often with little to no movement. Honestly, her explanation was freeing for me, because I was both affirmed in my observations, and those very observations were now defined. That experience began to open my eyes to the many ways that unconscious/semi-conscious preferences play out in society, especially when it comes to race and gender. My experiences of sexism have been minor in comparison to the experiences of many men and women in the world. I hear story after story that breaks my heart. Not just stories around the world, but stories in our own country. I hear stories in our own country of the racism and sexism that still beats its ugly heart.
Earlier this month I went back to the cinema (it is that most wonderful time of year when all of the awardsy-type films are released) to watch “Hidden Figures.” By the way, congratulations to the film for picking up some Oscar nominations, including one for the Best Picture category. As I watched the story unfold, I became increasingly aware of the ignorance that was continually present. Sure, there were moments of overt racism, such as when a separate coffee pot was designated for Katherine Johnson’s character, who was the only African American woman in her division. However, it was the subtle moments of racism that really stood out to me. In one scene, Katherine asks where the bathroom is located (restrooms at NASA were segregated). The administrative assistant for her division shrugs, neither knowing nor caring about where the “colored” bathroom is located. It was painful to watch this woman run around just trying to find a restroom. Rather than help Katherine find a closer restroom, or alert authorities of the situation, this woman decides to remain inactive. This act of ignorance had a very tangible impact on Katherine, who was forced to walk half a mile each way just to use the facilities.
Within the Christian tradition, sin is divided into two categories: sins of commission and sins of omission. Those who grew up Catholic may be familiar with this terminology. Basically, sins of commission are sins that are enacted by the individual, such as murder, stealing, etc. Sins of omission are those sins that involve our ignorance or apathy, when we avoid doing the things that we ought to do. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan. A thief beats and robs a man who is traveling. He has committed a sin of commission. Then, men pass by the victim without helping him. Those men have committed sins of omission.
I have found it increasingly helpful to look at issues dealing with race and gender through a similar lens. Not too long ago, many different people groups did not have the right to vote in the United States. There was, and continues to be, racially motivated violence. The rates of sexual assault are horrifying (one in five women in the US within their lifetime*). These are racial and gendered sins of commission. However, what is more prevalent is the un-namable dynamic, these racial and gendered sins of omission. These are the structures that keep the powerful in control, and those without power at the mercy of those who are leading. Under these structures, it is common to be overlooked for jobs and promotions. Those not in control are often doled out stricter punishments. It is hard to have any sort of mobility.
There are complex reasons for these systems (which there just is not space to explore here), but the most challenging reality is how ignorant we are about our unconscious biases and preferences. We like to remain in denial of what truly exists in our hearts (I know I so often choose ignorance over truth). That is why any sin of omission is so dangerous. We often do not know (or do not want to know) what sins are lurking just under the surface. Yet, the impact of these hidden sins are wide reaching. And if we are unaware of their existence, then how can we be open to God’s transforming work in these parts of our heart? Thankfully, the Holy Spirit finds ways to reveal these truths in his own ways and his own time.
Lord, help us to receive these truths with open hands and clear eyes.
Two Ways to become aware of Sins of Omission in Your Life
- Change shoes. How would you want someone to respond to you if you were in another person’s situation? If you felt oppressed/taken advantage of, how would you want your friends and family to respond and care for you?
- Pray. In my church every week, we pray the following prayer before taking Communion. I love how the words bring us to a place of acknowledging the ways we have sinned by our actions and by our in-actions. You may want to starting praying this on a regular basis and see what God brings up in your heart:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
*According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC.org)