Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Sin of Presumption

I would like to begin with four examples:

• Wife-Mate used to work in an office with an older woman who was very “fashion conscious.” This woman was always buying clothes, wearing them once or twice, and then giving them away to her co-workers. She gave Wife-Mate things from time to time which she would accept politely and then never wear. Finally, after giving her a black scarf covered with perfectly hideous orange and tan polka-dots, she asked why Wife-Mate never wore any of the things she gave her.

Trying to be diplomatic, Wife-Mate answered, “I usually wear black.”

“But everything I’ve given you has black in it!”

It was only then that Wife-Mate explained that it wasn’t so much that she liked black, as that she hated being colorful.

• When we were first married I caused quite a number of spills in the refrigerator. I would reach over the things of the front of the shelf and grab something, like pickles, by the lid, lift it up, and then the lid would come loose and there would be pickle juice all over the shelf. Each time this would happen I would curse Wife-Mate for being too lazy to screw lids on properly as I cleaned up the mess.

Finally, one day, Wife-Mate asked me why I screwed on jar lids so tight that she could never get them loose.

• One dark winter evening about two years ago, I was leaving work. As I went up the stairs, I could see a young black fellow hanging around the front entrance to my building. He was probably trying to sneak into the building so I began to think through how I was going to get out the door without letting him in. I figured that I would open the door just a crack, slip out, and tell the fellow that he would have to be buzzed in by using the intercom. However, this fellow proved to be quite bold. As soon as I opened the door a crack, he yanked it right open and tried to bolt in before I could stop him. I was about to block him, when I realized that it was Barack Obama. He was there to see a political consultant whose offices were in my building.

• I go to anti-war protests as often as I can. Usually, in fact almost always, there are protestors with signs along the lines of “Keep Abortion Legal.” If you confront these people and ask them why they’re bringing abortion signs to an anti-war rally, they will usually answer something like, “The same people who got us into this war want to oppress us at home by taking our rights away!”

What’s going on here is a sin we don’t often think of: the sin of presumption. When we act on assumptions about other people’s intentions and motivations we fall into venal sin even if these assumptions are correct. Presumption is a sin against charity when we assume the worst of people and at this point becomes a mortal sin. This is a tricky situation, because we often need to act upon assumptions and are not in a position to discern the truth. Sure I tell my kids to keep away from strangers, and yeah my guard is up whenever I’m approached by young black men, because that’s the prudent thing to do. But it is also not the Christian thing to do. The best we can usually hope to do is to assume the best motivations for our friends, give the benefit of the doubt to strangers, question our stereotypes before we act upon them, talk things over whenever possible, and remember to confess this sin frequently.

POSTSCRIPT: A few years ago there was a peace march down State Street. Before we began, I confronted a woman about her “Keep Abortion Legal” sign and she called me a hypocrite for “.. pretending to be for human rights when you’re not against patriarchy!”

At that point I let it drop. But later two older black women who were walking down State Street pointed at the home-made sign I was carrying that said: “Christian morality cannot justify a war with Iraq!” — Pope Benedict XVI.

One of them came over to me and said, “I like your sign!”

So I pointed to the abortion sign and asked, “What do you think of that sign?”

She just made a nasty scowl and shook her head.

I guess I just presumed she would, huh?


Subvet said...

Very good points about presumption and the acceptance of stereotypes.

When I joined the sub service back in the 70's a constant refrain was that blacks couldn't be good mechanics because they just weren't mentally equipped for it. That one took a while to beat down but by the time 1979 rolled around I'd worked with and for some very competent blacks.

Postscript to that example; in 1990 one of my collateral duties aboard the USS Orion was to conduct seminars for the Navy's Equal Opportunity Program. During one session I amusedly listened to two sailors pontificate on the natural inability of women to have any mechanical aptitude.

The two sailors were as black as the ace of spades. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Maggie said...

I think another excellent example of presumption is also related to abortion. Young women seem to presume that abortion is an easy choice. This may be because there are so many women who are outspoken about the choice to have them, or the way abortion has been portrayed in the popular culture.

Great is the shock that young women, finally confronted with the decision they fought to preserve, experience when it is their own body and child they are making decisions for.