Reclaiming Original Sin in the Face of White Supremacy
NASCAR’s recent decision to ban the confederate flag from their events, coupled with an increased willingness amongst policymakers to remove confederate monuments from the public square, has ignited much debate regarding what is, and is not, racist.
The debate presents a question: Can honoring a socially relative symbol of family history and geographical heritage be objectively racist?
Many say yes.
Others say no.
Indeed, members of my own family can be counted amongst those proclaiming, “Heritage; not hate!”
But might I suggest—to both my family and others who look like me—the time for debate, if it ever existed, is over. Indeed, now 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 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.
The doctrine of Original Sin has much to offer here; not in its popular form, of course—frequently utilized as a theodicy—but rather as a psychosocial framework for understanding our relationship with racism.
In the Reformed tradition, Original Sin is considered to be the lived consequences of humankind’s willful departure from Love. Augustine’s doctrine was also a precursor to Total Depravity, a teaching R.C. Sproul calls “radical corruption…that permeates to the core of a thing” requiring, “…not simply some small adjustments or behavioral modifications, but nothing less than renovation from the inside.” In this sense, humankind’s first transgression, as depicted in the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, created a foundation of sin upon which all human experience is built. Original Sin is the world we inhabit, and—absent outside intervention—escape is impossible. Sin is therefore intertwined with the human experience of life to the degree that eliminating sin would likely require eliminating life itself, at least as we currently know it. Indeed, “…the former shall not be remembered, nor come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)
Original Sin and Total Depravity feature prominently within the Church writ large. Indeed, many 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?
Our history suggests this reality is not only possible but probable.
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, which will require “…nothing less than renovation from the inside.”
Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray.