On Original Sin and Racism
A great thing about writing for Conciliar Post: any time I’m unsure of what to write about, all I have to do is read recent posts from my fellow contributors and without fail a) a writing topic is sparked by one of their pieces, or b) I find something I disagree with and decide to respond. Both are welcome sights. This time, it’s the latter and directed at AJ Maynard (my resident competition in facial hair).
In his recent article, “Reclaiming Original Sin in the Face of White Supremacy,” AJ argues,
[N]ow is the time for every white Christian to consider, perhaps counterfactually, not if we are racist, but rather how we are racist.
Just as one may identify oneself as a sinner without being able to explicitly identify [with] every personal sin and its impact, white Christians must accept the likelihood that our collective worldview and individual behaviors are the inevitable byproducts of overt, racial sin.
AJ’s premise, the “not if but how,” is now common parlance, courtesy of Robin DiAngelo, and requires certain ideological commitments to become tenable (more on that in a bit). AJ is correct, of course, that sin is not just the sum of discrete actions, but a moral status before God resultant from the departure from his law and idolatrous worship. In distinctly modern terms, sin is an identity. But as Jody Byrkett rightly reminded me when reviewing this article, for those of us who are in union with Christ, we are sinners no longer. Though we sin we are saints before God.
What is specious at best is the suggestion that the necessary and inescapable result, in every person, of this debased moral status is the particular sin of racism. In support of this premise AJ repurposes the doctrines of original sin and total depravity in service of his claim. He sees a contradiction in the fact that Christians willingly admit their fallen, sinful nature but are generally unwilling to acknowledge their racism.
[M]any white Christians, despite being unable to always identify their sin, freely identify as sinners. However, I have yet to encounter white Christians who—despite the racist history of the American Church, and the likelihood of possessing implicit, anti-black bias—freely identify as racist. This raises the question, “Why is it easy for a white Christian to identify as a sinner, but not as a racist?” Is our reality truly one in which white Christians see themselves as susceptible to the impact of Original Sin to the point of radical corruption, but remain immune to the impact of hundreds of years of white supremacy? Is it not possible that you and I—despite our intention, and perhaps without our complete awareness—possess inherently racist beliefs?
Here AJ equivocates between racism as a sin in particular and the root cause, the hereditary principle that yields corrupt, disordered inclinations of sin generally. The first sin of our parents—whether properly defined as pride, as Catholics would have it, or unbelief, as Protestants see it—infects all their descendants but manifests in diverse ways. However, in AJ’s mind, original sin necessitates that sinners commit the sin of racism. AJ then reiterates his basic claim:
Institutional racism is the world we live in; it is our Original Sin. You and I may not personally believe black individuals are, by nature, inferior to white individuals. But we nonetheless live within, and benefit from, a system built and maintained by people who did. Because of this, every white Christian should now consider not if, but rather how we are racist.
But, following this logic, what is to stop us from doing this with any other sin? Indeed, scholars of critical race theory would say that white supremacy (which has been redefined) is marked not only by racist policies and institutions but a history of genocide, rape, and plunder. Is rape or plunder or murder original sin?
As an aside, it would be more consistent with AJ’s line of reasoning to say that white supremacy is the original sin. White supremacy, of course, is now synonymous with the domination of whites via hegemonic power. To say that America was founded on white supremacy is to say that it was built by white men, for white men, to privilege white men over and against non-whites. Racism is simply the natural outgrowth of this design. The racialized society we live in today is merely the result of the dominant class seeking to preserve their dominance by “othering” everyone else. This “othering” is then implanted in societal institutions, structures, and culture. At least that’s what the “experts” say.
But if we follow this progression, the concept of “original sin” would lose all meaning, becoming mere shorthand for whatever sin is in focus. Even “white supremacy,” assuming adoption of the updated definition, doesn’t take us far enough back. The theological work done by “original sin” would be eroded.
Further, the pervasiveness of sin in all humans does not—at least no theologian of note would hold—require that every sin is, in fact, committed by every sinner. And the doctrinal of total depravity is caricatured when it stands for complete depravity. Rather, total depravity’s reference is to scope, not depth.
And although our nature is fallen, our faculties diluted, and our desires disordered, moral cognizance and the basic natural endowments of the intellectual faculties remain. Otherwise, moral culpability would be eroded. Further, not every intention or resultant action is depraved, nor is every demonstrably depraved action as depraved as it could be.
The Christian belief in original sin and total depravity are theological doctrines drawn from divine revelation. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and his moral law promulgated through the prophets and the writings of Scripture. Christian fealty to Scripture as the norma normata requires that they accept such an explicit presupposition about humanity.
AJ’s claim that racism should also be categorized as original sin (at least in a modern Western context) leans heavily on a particular understanding of socialization, that is to say, not on biblical revelation. This distinction does not summarily defeat AJ’s claim, but merely situates it upon unsure footing, at least from a Christian perspective. Doctrines drawn from Scripture, systematized, integrated, and enshrined in tradition cannot be frequently contextualized, as they say, without risking constant instability.
AJ seems to suggest that the sin of racism is inescapable because whites have been conditioned by a white supremacist, racialized society. Even if, as individuals, we do not harbor racist bias, AJ contends that, as beneficiaries of a society constructed by whites, for whites, we are necessarily racist. These conclusions are in line with much of the ideology, drawn from critical race theory (CRT), that grips our national discourse on racism; indeed, they are impossible to hold without the assumptions and commitments of CRT.
Theorists like Robin DiAngelo, for instance, define racism in terms of systemic complicity, that is, the failure or refusal to buck the system, so to speak (the system being inherently and irreconcilably racist). One is racist if they benefit from the system. Even those who have embarked on the perpetual journey of divesting themselves from whiteness remain, per DiAngelo’s own admission, decidedly racist. She calls herself racist—in her words, just as racist as Donald Trump. Though she positions herself on her imaginary racist spectrum on the pole of divestment from whiteness, she holds that she will never fully arrive, as it were. Like Ibram X. Kendi, for DiAngelo, there is no such thing as non-racist; there is only racist and antiracist, and the latter does not entail, for a white person, total relinquishment of racism (they are merely actively combating racism, which is to say, themselves).
In any case, for critical race theorists (DiAngelo’s discipline is critical whiteness studies), racism is defined almost totally in systemic terms. That is why the question of not if but how one is racist exists—it is the inevitable result, they think, of existing in a racialized society constructed by white Europeans. As AJ said, “Institutional racism is the world we live in.” It is, as Nikole Hannah-Jones would have it, the essence and distinguishing mark of American society on every level.
Systems of domination, and social location therein, is all. Not only does the dominant class (the white, heteronormative, cisgender, patriarchy) benefit materially and otherwise from the power dynamics wrapped up in the system, but their norms, beliefs, and even aesthetic tastes are determined by the cultural or ideological hegemony. They think racist thoughts because they exist in a racist system, and said “racist” thoughts are, more or less, any thoughts that affirm the status quo as objective, normal, or inevitable. Because the status quo suits the members of the dominant class, said members willingly or otherwise ignore the systems of domination they inhabit and from which they benefit. They are not critically conscious, they are not “woke” to reality.
Recognition and repudiation of the status quo is the only path towards divestment of whiteness—whiteness being that which garners social capital in an allegedly white supremacist system—and leveraging their white privilege to pursue “equity” for the oppressed. But even then, so long as one benefits from the status quo, they are still racist. The sin of racism is the existence of systemic racism. The sin is imputed to individuals according to their relationship to the system, pervasive and, in a sense, alive.
The question Christians should be asking themselves is whether such a standard of culpability, i.e. guilt by social location within Western society, conforms to reason, experience, and revelation. First, a preliminary question and analogy is needed to illustrate the reality of structural or systemic sin.
Abortion is a perfect example of systemic manifestation of sin, one that no conservative evangelical would deny. Our laws and healthcare system codify and support abortion regularly (as we saw in the stare decisis gymnastics of the Chief Justice, who feebly appealed to Edmund Burke as justification, in June Medical). The prospect of Roe being overturned becomes less likely by the day. The sin of abortion increasingly pervades societal norms—teens TikTok their trips to abortion clinics for giggles and ‘likes’—and expectations. Institutions like the media, entertainment industry, and education system uphold and perpetuate said “norms” intentionally and consistently.
And yet, it is acknowledged that though the sin of abortion is enabled and supported structurally and socially, individual actors are obviously required for the particular sin to be committed. The precedent of Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey and their progeny may be unjust in principle, and therefore sinful, but they are not the sin itself; they are not abortion. The relevant precedent merely affirms and enables the sin performed—indeed, abortion and especially support of its practice is increasingly becoming performative, a sort of celebrated public ritual— by individuals.
Doubtless, law (given its pedagogical and normative role), and certainly entertainment and education, affect public consciousness. But, again, they are not themselves the sin (even if celebration and affirmation of sin are themselves sinful, such secondary sin must still be attributed to persons, not inanimate, unmanned systems). Rather, abortion is the act of murdering unborn (or, maybe, born) infant persons.
The action requires individuals, and specifically individual volition for it to be performed, for the sin to exist at all. Culpability is diminished as soon as 1) a person’s volition is diminished, or 2) a person’s agency is diluted.
All the precedent in the world would not matter if everyone simply refused to act in accordance therewith. One of the common liberal arguments in favor of abortion is that even if it is not legalized people would still do it. Best to make it “safe and rare.” Like marijuana, best to regulate it. These arguments implicitly acknowledge the necessity of individual actors to give life to abortion (no pun intended). The entire premise of the Roe et al. is the privacy and agency of women; reserving their right over their own bodies—”pro-choice.” Self-determination of mothers is the rallying cry.
Right or wrong, abortion policy is in service of protecting human choice [except that of the unborn human] to the utmost. It is the manifestation of radical autonomy built into the sociopolitical theory of liberalism. By its own logic, abortion as policy could not have not happened. The cruel irony of abortion doctrine (a confused and confusing thing, by all accounts) is that to fully realize radical self-determination over and against all natural (or otherwise) constraints, the self-determination, agency, and humanity of others must be subverted, viz., not only that of fathers, but of the most vulnerable members of our society, children.
But I digress. Abortion doctrine is a battle for supreme autonomy played out in the courts, one in which the living have run roughshod over the not yet born, contra the convictions of the dead (however shortsightedly the court might try to frame “history” and “tradition”). Arguably, the brand of originalism championed by Bork and Scalia does not permit Roe. But in a better, more robust originalism now slowly coming into vogue, there is no question of its invalidity. Abortion violates the natural law in the first instance, was literally unprecedented until 1973, and further frustrates the chief interest of the state, the common good (of the whole person and whole society).
Returning to the point at hand, abortion is an act that, despite all the institutional precedent and propaganda justifying and enabling said act, requires volitional individuals. There can be no abortion without abortionists. There are systemic reverberations of the thing, but they are not the thing itself. No one would agree that any woman that lives in a society wherein abortion is systemically propped up is, by potentially or actually benefitting therefrom, complicit in the system and therefore guilty of abortion herself until every last abortion clinic is closed and any reference to Roe scratched from the record books.
Neither do conservative Christians—those who detest the legalization of abortion—believe the whole system of law, healthcare, entertainment, and education is defunct simply because it has a history of permitting the murder of unborn, defenseless children. Abortion doctrine is a bug, not a feature, of constitutional jurisprudence.
As presented by critical race theorists, racism conceptually differs. It requires no racists (in the traditional sense) but will inevitably produce them. It is rather an invisible, toxic, oppressive force that stalks the land and is baked into every facet of the system—American institutions are “stamped from the beginning”—the “beginning” being 1619, not 1776.
Law, a “Eurocentric enterprise,” in particular is a leading proliferator of racism. It is indeterminate, inherently political, and a tool of oppression. Along these lines, Jack Balkin characterizes law—not a particular law, but generally—as an apology for, or legitimizer of, power. In the Gramscian conception of law, championed by Kimberlé Crenshaw and others, it is a key element of the hegemony, one which blinds people to their oppression via a veneer of procedural consistency and fairness, thereby stifling their utopian imaginations and preserving the control of the dominant class.
All of this regarding abortion is at odds with the characterization of systemic racism today. Per theorists of critical social justice, there needn’t be racists for there to be racism because racism has been almost totally identified with structural inequity (equity being, more or less, equality of outcome, controlling for historic injustices).
The evidence for structural racism is disparities which are taken (on faith) to be per se evidence of racism. Any unfavorable outcome is racist regardless of intent, motive, or purpose of the policy charged as the culprit. As is often said, impact is more important than intent. A policy with a justifiable impetus could nevertheless be deemed racist if disparities along racial lines in any way result (the original purpose or intent behind the policy is then backfilled as racist).
Racism would exist without any individual actors harboring racist prejudice (although that is assumed, too). The system has a life of its own for critical race theorists. The sin of racism, insofar as it is considered on an individual level, is marked by mere (perceived) complicity in the system—i.e. not being actively against it, not problematizing and deconstructing it, not leveraging all available resources to combat it.
We can recognize the potentiality of sin’s representation or manifestation at the systemic level, but we can never dismiss the necessity of individual sinners to make the system tick. As I have said, if the conviction that abortion is monstrous, by some act of special Providence, swept the nation, Roe would become irrelevant. The structural outgrowths of the practice would not, on their own, continue to perform abortions.
That is to say, and as others have said, the reality of systemic sin should be heartily affirmed by Christians, but not without qualification. What should be affirmed is that sinners produce individual sinful actions and, given that humans construct institutions, norms, and other civil mechanisms, it should be expected that the ramifications of individual sin will be apparent at a structural level. What should not be affirmed is systemic sin in the sense that it is peddled by the proponents of critical social justice, a conception that removes individual accountability and inserts ubiquitous, collective, inescapable guilt from which no repentance can be made, apart from revolutionary measures.
Most importantly, as Albert Mohler recently pointed out at Public Discourse, solutions to systemic manifestations of sin of any kind must be tailored to the true cause of the same. The importation of sin into human structures (or anything else constructed by creatures) is incontrovertible. However, it is individuals that are sinful, not structures as such.
This means that no structural overhaul, no revolution, no eradication of biblical Christianity will secure lasting justice and peace…We are called to do everything within our power to expunge sin from the structures of our society…At the same time, we cannot accept that the structural manifestations of sin are the heart of the problem. No, the heart of the problem is found in the sinfulness of the individual human heart.
No doubt the “just preach the Gospel” crowd borders on hyperbole and, without desiring to be too heavy-handed, hypocrisy. The manifestation of sin at a high, societal level should be combatted because we know that, left unchecked, it will perpetuate, excuse, and exacerbate individual sin. This is especially true in law. Licentious laws are no laws at all (which is not to suggest that all matters of morality should be legislated or litigated).
This long excursus on systemic sin returns us to AJ’s claims about culpability via systemic racism. Whether systemic racism exists, and to what extent, is a matter for real, considered debate (not one clouded by pseudo-Marxist gobbledygook). And there’s real evidence that systemic problems do exist. In addition to the abortion example given above, pornography—which is not only legally permitted but props up other evils like human trafficking and abuse—would be another systemic manifestation of sin. The point of this article is also not to deny the presence of sexist and racist prejudices in powerful people, nor that said prejudices do not affect civil institutions. Most of all, it is not to deny the history of real, brutal, systemically-expressed racism throughout human history.
However, what must be asserted at the outset of any such discussion is that individual culpability unto racism cannot be defined by one’s social location vis a vis the hegemony, and neither is the existence of systemic racism the analog to the doctrine of original sin, a doctrine which differs from racism as to scope and particularity. Lastly, my contention is that sociopolitical structures may perpetuate or exacerbate a problem but they cannot independently create or animate the problem.
As I said last month, regarding David Justice’s recent writing, I genuinely appreciate the discussion starters from other CP’ers, and welcome further conversation on the difficult and pressing topic of race dynamics in American society.