instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, April 30, 2004

"Slowly I turned..."

Here are the rules for Black Out, a card game I invented:
Object: Get rid of all red cards from your hand.

Set-up: Dealer shuffles a normal deck of cards, deal each player 3 cards. Undealt cards are placed in the middle as a draw pile. Any player whose cards are all black shows his hand and sits out.

Play: The first remaining player to the left of the dealer draws a card from the draw pile and may either discard one card face up next to the draw pile or pass one card to the player to his left.

Play goes to the left. If a card was not passed to a player, he draws a card from the draw pile, then either discards a card or passes one to his left.

When all three cards in a player's hand are black, he shows his hand and is out.

The last remaining player is the loser.
This game is something like a dollar auction, in that the rules lead to unstable play. Players may find themselves frantically passing the same red card around, not because it helps their own hand any, but because it keeps other players from drawing a card that might be black.

I invented this game for a CCD class, with the idea that the red cards represent offenses toward us which we can choose to either pass on to someone else or simply discard.

For a long time, my primary way of thinking of the communal effects of sin has been like this. I sin against you, causing you to sin against someone else, and so on. At any link in this chain, a person may choose to end it by accepting the sin against him and refusing to sin in reaction.

But in the last day or so, I've noticed a different dynamic at work, or at least a different aspect of a dynamic I thought I understood. It's the communal nature of scandal.

As most of the fanatics who read Catholic blogs probably know, in moral theology "scandal" refers to an act that causes others to sin. A scandal isn't necessarily a sinful in itself (e.g., the "scandal of the Cross"), but it certainly can be, and when it is the fact it causes scandal increases its gravity.

I know all this; what's been brought home to me just now is how diffusive scandal can be.

When I act, I change things. The environment in which I act has more of what I act for and less of what I act against. When my act is a sin, the environment has less goodness, less of what it ought to have.

This will affect the other actors in that environment, but -- and this is what I mean by "diffusive scandal" -- each actor will be affected differently, because each actor has different virtues and vices and is susceptible to different temptations.

As a simple example, suppose a person steals office supplies, creating an environment in which office supplies are stolen. (Everyone still with me?) Two days ago, I would have said the scandal stealing office supplies causes is primarily making people think stealing office supplies isn't wrong. But only people who aren't convinced stealing office supplies is wrong would be scandalized in this way. Someone who was scrupulous about using office supplies would not suddenly think stealing them is fine just because a co-worker does it. Is it not more likely the scrupulous worker would be tempted to unrighteous anger at the thief, or even to detraction of the employer too stupid to notice what was going on?

My sin, then, doesn't only (maybe not even primarily) tempt you to that same sin. It also changes the circumstances you find yourself in, in a way that may lead you to a sin you would have resisted had I not committed mine. And there's no way, generally speaking, I could ever guess what sort of sins might be committed that can trace their causes back to include my own sin, which wasn't such a big deal and certainly is no one's business but my own.

I don't see this as a matter of moral culpability, but of the communal tragedy of sin. You bear responsibility for your own sins, but ah, if only I hadn't shifted things to expose your weakness!