When Jimmy Carter was president I heard the late Bishop Fulton Sheen speak at the National Prayer Breakfast. It was Sheen’s last public message.
He began his address to the crowd of notables – including senators and congressmen, five star generals, and supreme court judges – like this:
“Mr. President, Mrs. Carter, and fellow sinners.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, then a ripple of laughter, as the group realized he was right! He continued, “And inasmuch as the president in his Sunday School class quoted the apostle Paul as saying all have sinned, I will include him in that designation”!
That came back to me listening to a recent interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, on the appallingly high rate of minority incarceration. Here’s part of what she said:
“I really believe that this notion of us-versus-them, drawing lines and labeling one another all turns on this notion that we can define who the bad guys are, and rest assured that they’re not us … We have to acknowledge that all of us have done wrong in our lives.
“All of us have broken the law at some point in our lives … even if you haven’t experimented with drugs, even if you didn’t drink underage, if the worst thing you’ve done in your life is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, well, you’ve put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of their living room. But who do we shame and who do we blame? I’ve spoken in churches and I’ll say to a large congregation, “We’re all sinners.” And everyone will nod their head, oh, yes, we’re all sinners. And then I’ll say, “And we’re all criminals.” And everyone just stares at me kind of bug eyed, like, what? You’re calling me a criminal?
“A young man came up to me after I spoke in one church and he said, ‘Isn’t it interesting how eager we are all to admit that we violated God’s law, but how reluctant we are to admit that we’ve violated man’s law?’ And I think that there is a way in which we kind of give lip service to this idea that we’re all sinners, or we all make mistakes … Those people that have been shamed and blamed and stigmatized, actually, we are on so many levels not really better than them. We may be luckier than them.”
Well, I might prefer to think I have been a lawbreaker rather than a criminal. But she made me stop and think.
Do you agree or disagree with her? And Bishop Sheen? And with the apostle Paul? Or, for that matter, with your own conscience?