The Sin of Willful Ignorance
“…I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do…”
Every Sunday the assembled community publicly confesses that each member of the Body of Christ has sinned during the preceding week. We pray for God’s forgiveness, for the intercession of Theotokos and ask our brothers and sisters gathered to remember us in their prayers. We admit to those thoughts, words, actions and lack of actions that are sinful. But do we really realize what it is that we are doing?
I think the first three aspects of our imperfection, our sinfulness — thoughts, words and actions — goes without saying. We get it. We did it, whatever it may be. But asking for forgiveness for “what we have failed to do” can at times be a bit more elusive, and I think that the elusiveness of that type of sin is behind much of the willful ignorance in our world.
This was never so clear to me as it was when I was leaving for the Dominican Republic last week with a group of students from Siena College. Our group was going to a very impoverished barrio on the outskirts of Santo Domingo to work at a poor elementary school run by the most holy and dedicated Franciscan sisters. In the terminal of JFK airport there were lots and lots of young adults like the college students I would spend the week with. However, most of those students, decked out as they were in their respective college hoodies, were dressed for the beach, for vacation, for a party. They were drinking at the airport and loudly celebrating the forthcoming spring break abroad in places like Florida, Mexico and the beaches of the Dominican Republic.
The thing about the trip some of those students were making to the Dominican Republic was that they would be isolated in a pseudo-community of wealthy North Americans and Europeans, mostly white Westerners. They would be in all-inclusive resorts located in gated communities where the only experience of locality would be found in the generic trinkets for sale in the resort gift shop and the glimpse of the Dominican men and woman who work at the hotels, preparing food and cleaning up after these young tourists.
This line from the prayer at Mass came to mind as I thought about the stark contrast and what the difference in experience really entailed. Some young men and women desired to not know, were willfully ignorant of the reality that is the poverty of a poor island nation where only a very few benefit from their beachside sojourn.
Are those young adults bad people? I wouldn’t say they are malicious nor do I think that they intentionally act in a way to harm others, but what about that fourth type of sin to which we confess weekly? Is the desire not to know about the reality, to help those in need, to strive for solidarity with our brothers and sisters not a form of “for what I have failed to do?”
Some will insist that vacationers in places like impoverished Dominican Republic and Jamaica mean well, are not culpable for anything other than wanting an enjoyable vacation and might even aid the local economy a little by their week-long presence. Yet, I have this gnawing feeling inside that we are too quick to mitigate those instances for which we need to own up to that “which we have failed to do.”
Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance leads to a false sense of how you and I might live in the United States as the normative experience for the rest of the world. Yet, as I explained to the students on my trip, the poverty that is the everyday reality for those we have come to know, serve and love is actually normative for most of the world. The global community lives much more like the poor in places like The Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Bolivia and Kenya than we do in the United States or most European countries.
“I just don’t want to know” is not a legitimate or justifiable excuse. It is a reflection of the sin of willful ignorance, because, although what you don’t know may not hurt you, it most certainly hurts others. We have an obligation, a responsibility as members of the human family and the Body of Christ to learn about both the “joys and hopes” as well as the “sorrows and anxieties” of the people of the world. And we should then, aware of suffering in the world, work to bring about justice and alleviate suffering in whatever way we can.