by Jason Wilde
It was Sunday morning, and I was at the ‘Super’ buying the last few groceries for our nice family lunch - a chicken breast, some sweet peppers, an onion, and some bananas for a snack. I set my haul onto the end of the counter where the cashier was ringing up the man in front of me. In front of him was a six-pack of beer and a liter of liquor that he requested from the well-stocked shelf behind the cashier.
“Cuatro mil ochocientos” (4800 colones), the cashier rambled out. The man handed a red 5 mil (5,000 colones) bill, got his change of two 100 colones coins, and then walked out to mount his waiting motorcycle at the curb.
“Cuatro mil ochocientos sesenta” (4870 colones), the cashier states after weighing my produce and finishing the sale.
Incredible, I thought, that the man just bought his day’s supply of alcohol for cheaper than a few ingredients for a single meal.
This comparison is a pretty good preface for the rest of my Sunday.
Walking back to our house, I could see Miguel* visiting with our neighbor missionaries. He tends to show up intoxicated on Sunday mornings, usually crying that he is failing God and asking for food. We usually offer coffee and a bowl of whatever food we may have in the refrigerator or crock pot.
This morning, I sat with him for a while on our porch while he asked if God will forgive him, and he expressed a desire to play our ukulele (he loves to play Phil’s guitar).
When it was time for our family’s lunch, I was asked if I could bring another family that we were visiting with back to their house. I agreed, but before I could leave, Miguel asked if he could get a ride too. I reluctantly agreed because I didn’t really know where he lived and I have a hard time understanding him when he is in such a state. When I returned from the first drop-off, another man who was visiting with the missionaries also asked for a ride home with Miguel. When we got to this man’s house, both he and Miguel jumped out of the van, and then I saw Miguel take a drink of the man’s homemade brew from a plastic bottle in his back pocket. Miguel jumped back in the car, and we drove to the other side of town (only a couple of minutes, really). When we got to Miguel’s house, he was noticeably more intoxicated than when we started. He refused to leave the van, crying that he wanted to visit his ‘rancho’, and that he was all alone at his house. After several minutes trying to convince him, his son and another man eventually were able to coax him out, crying.
Feeling emotionally drained as I drove back to our house, I couldn’t help but notice the bar at that end of town already opening up for the day. We like to say that we live in a one-road town, marked at both ends by ‘bars’, referring to the two largest businesses in town that are no doubt doing well each weekend. Consumption of alcohol and alcoholism is a real chain around the people we serve. It offers a reprieve from the hard life that most men serve six days a week earning only about $15-20 a day in the best case. And as illustrated this morning at the ‘Super’, it is quite literally as affordable to live on alcohol as on food due to the high cost of groceries. We live in a town where an alcoholic or even casual drinker is constantly enticed and bombarded by their vice and there are very few barriers preventing them from partaking. So, they work all week, then stop by the bar or the ‘Super’ for some alcohol, and then drink away their earnings, leaving them with nothing left to help families or even buy food for the next week. In a way, there is a structure of sin that keeps many working men in constant alternative states of poverty and intoxication.
Of course, this is hardly a problem only here in rural Costa Rica. Even in San Jose, the large tourist capital city, the same structures of sin are there, but they sometimes get drowned out by the glamour and wealthy and beautiful mountains. Or, a slightly more affluent life and the expectations that go behind such a life allow the same person to resist or fight the urge, either through formal programs such as AA or through social norms that require one to be sober to have friends, family, and a job. Even in the USA, the same structures exist, and in many cases it is considered glamorous to live such a life. Many movies in the past decades are set in a life of intoxication, and supporting such media would be supporting this structure of sin, as well as sins of omission by not urging for more restrictive policies against such a life.
This is how structures of sin works - they are ignored until they become so ingrained in a society that they self-perpetuate and even cause sins in those who don’t partake in the sin first-hand (e.g. through sins of omission) to the point that people don’t even think sin is occurring. I suspect that most people wouldn’t even consider drinking in such a way as a sin because it doesn’t affect anyone.
Until it does…
That afternoon, we were shuttling the kids to Casa de Jesus so we could prepare for our afternoon ministries - sacramental preparation classes for adults and our children’s ministry. I noticed a Jeep slowing down on the road, and as I waved, the driver began explaining that the boy in the back of his car was beat by his father and abandoned. The men found the 9- or 10-year old boy on the road, and he was crying, visibly upset. He had a backpack full of what I would guess are his belongings and was reasonably well dressed in a collared shirt. Through some encouragement and a helpful neighbor, we were able to get the boy out of the car and then I went with another missionary to inform the local frontera police. Unfortunately we don’t think there are very formal laws regarding such situations in the frontera, and the police really don’t care to do much other than keep the peace unless they find an illegal immigrant doing something that warrants deportation. It would be completely possible that they just drove him back to his home and dropped him off with a warning to the family.
Knowing very little about the boy’s situation, it is very hard to actually know what happened. But it would also be very reasonable to believe that the situation that occurred was not just an incident of anger, but instead involves some other social sin that keeps him from loving his son.
Fighting these structures of sin that are so intertwined with social norms is difficult and usually results in persecution. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings provides a good allegory for the life of such evil. Sin loves to live in darkness, slowly festering and growing, while those who could defeat it deny its existence. This continues to the point that people don’t even recognize the sin as evil anymore, and will tell anyone who fights it that it is a useless battle. In most cases, it is hard to even identify such structures because ‘that isn’t really a problem here’, or ‘that’s not really a sin’, or ‘he just makes bad choices’. I’ve found that if any of these answers come to my mind, then it is more than likely sin concealing itself.
One of our friends who is in most need financially recently confided in us that she had been taking birth control shots, and it was causing her to be sick. She didn’t know what to do because she felt that she was so poor that she would be sinning by trying to raise another baby when she couldn’t afford food for tomorrow. Here is another structure of sin that has caused the birth rates in Costa Rica to drop significantly since poverty aid organizations entered the country several decades ago providing free birth control as a way to fight poverty. But to argue this case with most of the world would incite dissention and persecution.
Unfortunately, the same sentiment exists in the United States, and it has even manifested as a sin among Catholics. Most people know that Catholics believe abortion is a sin, but we haven’t really been very upfront with promoting programs which would address the same concerns as this friend. Most of the time, Catholics like to focus on things like ‘sexual promiscuity’, or ‘glamorizing’, or ‘free will to have sex’ as the reasons why people want to have birth control and abortions, but in reality, poverty and exclusion are major factors. We live in a society that is anti-family and anti-poor, and so most women don’t see how bringing up a child in such a situation is just. Focusing on the individual sins of doctors or prospective mothers is almost hypocritical when at the same time, we tell the mother that she is not guaranteed paid maternity leave, and that she must either choose not to work (in which case we don’t want to pay welfare or medical care, i.e. meritocracy), or she must put her baby in a daycare that costs more than she makes per hour at her minimum wage job. We claim to be pro-life and pro-family but at the same time, we won’t go out of our way to help a parent with ‘an unruly child’ and instead isolate them in the little glass room at the back of church. And as an ultimate sin of omission, we fail to speak up whenever families are forcibly separated by world powers.
So what can we do to fight structures of sin? First of all, we do not judge the sinner for what they do, lest we be judged (Mat 7:1), we must offer no resistance to one who is evil (Mat 5:39), and we must be a light shining before others (Mat 5:16). In fact, we must ‘lean in’ to persecution, offering the other cheek. What this may mean in many cases is to go out of our comfort zone, become uncomfortable, meet the sinner, encounter trials and risk, and ultimately, live in solidarity with those affected by these structures. Living in solidarity is the “responsibility of everyone to everyone” (Pope Benedict); it helps us to find out the real depth of such problems, and therefore helps us to keep from judging the sinner and instead begin to solve the problem by changing the culture. In other cases, it may mean that we need to sacrifice our own treasure to put our heart in the place of the blessed poor. Using meritocracy, for example, as an excuse to not support the unemployed is just another way these structures of sin entangle the rich along with poor. Instead, we must offer to pay more for goods that are produced by people who have no other means of employment, and pay a fair wage that is based on the cost of living. We must relax our grip on our own riches when it comes to providing infrastructure or safety nets, and when we have to take care of our own planet.
That evening, I noticed a fog hovering around my back door. But this wasn’t a cool wet fog from the humid air. No, it was a cloud of gnats hovering over our heaping pile of trash by the back door; one that was in danger of attracting much bigger insects and animals as well. I looked out at the 55 gallon drum in our backyard that was to be used to burn trash. I can’t stand the smell of burning plastic, and yet it seems to constantly hang in the air around our town because there is no trash pickup for over an hour’s drive, and the nearest recycling center that we can find is nearly two hours away. It’s not that people don’t know the fumes from burning trash are harmful, it’s that there is no feasible alternative. It’s a structure of sin that exists in most of the poorest and most remote areas of the world and is ignored by many who have the resources to battle it.
I am going to do something about it.
Instead of judging people or telling them what they are doing is wrong, I am going to do something better. I don’t even have a fully-developed plan yet, but I know I am going to try to do something about this sin. My first step began almost two months ago when we started to focus our family’s roadside trash pickup on plastics with the intent of bringing them to a recycling center. Last week was our first drop off in San Jose. At the same time, we are trying to figure out how to compost in an area where wild dogs roam the neighborhoods and insects that look like they came from Jurassic Park beg to invade your home. Maybe sometime in the future our witness may spread as a way to generate better soil in an area where dense red clay makes many fruits sour and tasteless. Maybe we’ll work with a local farmer to create a landfill or have a regular recycling pick-up service. I don’t know, but it’s all I can do to fight sin, and I’m sure I’ll reap the rewards of persecution and/or rejection. People will say that this isn’t the ‘most important’ thing to do, or that it is useless, or that it will cost too much.
We should all take the same attitude when it comes to abortion, alcoholism, poverty, drugs, atheism, gangs, etc., all of which are intertwined in a nasty web of social sins.
On a Mission
Two passionate parents and their four children are excited to bring His Word to everyone in need while living a life of Gospel poverty as missionaries. They invite you to join them on a journey to encounter our global neighbors that Jesus commands us to love through works of charity and service.