What Does It Mean to Call Racism “America’s Original Sin”?

In America’s Original Sin, Jim Wallis challenges white Americans to consider their complicity and need for repentance in the face of America’s historically pervasive racial injustice. His central insight can be summed up simply and powerfully: racism is America’s original sin which continues to determine American life, requiring intense repentance. This provocative figure of speech points in two directions. First, racism marks an originary sin for America, and Wallis—who writes from an Evangelical perspective—focuses his attention here. Yet does a theological consideration of original sin add something, particularly from a Catholic perspective?

Source: http://www.standard.net/image/2017/03/10/800x_a16-9_b0_q80_p1_ca3,176,596,524/America-s-Original-Sin.JPG

At first, this may seem like a dead-end. A doctrine of original sin seems almost untenable today. Historical-critical Biblical scholarship and evolutionary biology make the original personally guilty act itself—traditionally attributed to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3—incredibly difficult to imagine. Here, I want to set aside questions about the original sin which consumes so much theological attention today. I will focus instead on the disastrous consequences of original sin in which we find ourselves enveloped. Using the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a magisterial basis,[1] I want to think about sin, the consequences of original sin, and racism as a historical inflection of original sin in America.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes a lengthy section to the doctrine of original sin (§§385-421). This aptly links the two doctrinal sections God the Creator and God the Incarnate Word. The doctrine of original sin safeguards God’s goodness as Creator. It also highlights the disaster from which God desires to save us in Jesus Christ.

The Catechism emphasizes that God and God’s creation is entirely good (§385). Evil and sin are not quasi-divine forces rivaling God, despite their power in our experience. If the Creator’s freedom is not responsible for this moral evil, created freedom must be its source. In its truest sense, sin is a personally willed reality. It is the freedom of creatures turned away from God and God’s designs toward self-destruction which issue in all kinds of destructive effects.

Ultimately, sin is a rejection of God as well as of God’s designs. If our roots are in the dark fire of God’s love which binds us one to another, as Andrew Prevot beautifully wrote, then sin is our choice to be uprooted, separated, withered. If God’s creation gives life and orders human beings to communion with each other in God’s own life, sin brings death and orders human beings to isolation, rivalry, and self-destruction (§§398-400).

Our created freedom is already shaped by a history of sin. Our soil always already directs our growth askew, thanks to the history of sin and evil we always already find ourselves in. This is not simply from others’ bad example. We do not simply imitate others in their evil and sin. Sin affects us in a nearly biological way (which might be one way of reading the Council of Trent’s discussion of original sin’s transmission “by propagation, not by imitation”: §419).

Since human beings have freely chosen to turn away from God, we are affected in two particular ways. Like our genetic inheritance (itself shaped by evolutionary history), the historical extent of sin’s effect is often hidden from us and affects our freedom in ways that are not fully under our control. Two of original sin’s most devastating effects are ignorance and sinful concupiscence. Not only does human freedom now have “a predisposition to evil, a bias toward it, which precedes and forms choice,”[2] it is also largely unaware of this. This is not our fault nor is it entirely irremediable, but it always already directs the choices we make. In the Catechism’s words, original sin is “‘contracted and not ‘committed’—a state,” one might say, our unnatural “default” state—“and not an act” (§404). It is sin only in an analogical sense, though it exerts real effects on our freedom.

Moreover, it might be helpful to re-imagine this state as dynamic. Original sin is not simply lust or hatred lurking a-historically in our hearts. Rather, it receives a concrete historical form in our historical circumstances. The Catechism connects original sin with “communal situations and social structures that are the fruit of” human sin: together, they constitute the Johannine “sin of the world” (§408). These further hide and entrench this ignorance and sinful concupiscence.

In an incredibly insightful recent article, Dan Finn helpfully describes how sinful social structures propagate the “sin of the world.”[3] Prior to any free choice, human beings are always-already born into structures of relationship (e.g., parent-child, leader-citizen, professor-student). These relationships are not abstract influences on our freedom, but realities which incentivize some choices and make others incredibly difficult. Of course, this historical and structural tendency which structures human choice is not itself due to the actor’s human responsibility, at least until she acts in these structures. Yet it exerts a certain gravitational force on human choice, allowing freedom to slide so easily into destructive consequences it almost appears inevitable.

I want to suggest that racism is a determinative historical shaping of original sin as the “sin of the world” for white Americans.[4] Original sin is not simply an abstract “resistance” to God hiding within us. It is much more like a virus: adaptable, mutating, debilitating. It adapts to the previous history of American racial injustice, giving rise to a contemporary social situation structured by “white privilege.” This signifies those structural incentives—often built upon their own hiddenness—which incline freedom to specific choices. They do not entail personal guilt in and of themselves, since they are the historical effects and structures of prior sinful personal decisions. But they do incentivize personally sinful decisions. We may not find racist thoughts, words, or deeds in ourselves, but our history incentivizes them. And they require a lifelong “battle” to overcome, just like original sin (§409).

This is indeed overwhelming. How can a reality be overcome which depends on its own hiddenness, for which we are not personally responsible, which seems to render us guilty by contact? Like Paul in Romans 7:24, we might cry out, “Who will deliver me from this?” With Paul, we must put our hope alone in “God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” As the Catechism notes, original sin is “the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News that Jesus is the Saviour of all” (§389). One can avoid dualistic pessimism and Pelagian optimism here through experiencing Christ’s salvation, offered to us as sinful–indeed, lastingly embroiled in sinful structures and situations–but called. Our ignorance of our sinful incentives can be remedied when we see Christ’s salvation. Our concupiscence can be healed—even if very gradually, over the course of a lifetime—by participation in Christ. For the grace of God is reaching us, moving us to reconciliation through awareness of our situation and the healing invitation to reconciliation.

Two things seem most urgent in this scenario. First, repentance means relinquishing an illusion of innocence. Our freedom does not float in the Garden of Eden above human and American history, even if we are not aware of personal racism. When Christ calls us, he calls us as sinners, as caught up in a history of sin, and it is our honest and continuing acknowledgement of this situation which grounds our transformation by grace. But we also need concrete signs of hope and reconciliation, not to absolve ourselves by appeal to others or salve our conscience (as John helpfully pointed out), but to give us strength to find where God’s grace calls us. We need these from the Church, but we also need to beg God to lead us to find them in our own lives and our own locations. For God is calling us, here and now, to be “one in Christ Jesus,” to be signs of grace, repentance, and reconciliation. We are called to rediscover our roots in God’s dark love and to grow together toward that blessed peace in the true Promised Land, where our life is unimaginable except with all of our sisters and brothers.

Michael Rubbelke is a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame. His doctoral dissertation traces the genealogy of Karl Rahner’s mystical theology, situating its affinities with Ignatius Loyola, Bonaventure, and 14th century Rheno-Flemish mystical authors. He received his Master of Theological Studies degree from Notre Dame (2010) as well as a B.A. in English and Theology from St. John’s University (2008). He previously taught at St. Mary’s Central High School in Bismarck, ND.

[1] I focus on the Catechism mainly for the sake of clarity and length in this post. The doctrine’s theological history involves significant nuance and development from theologian to theologian, and the contemporary discussions of original sin are a little fraught and disputed. For excellent overviews of both, see Stephen J. Duffy’s important article, referenced in the next footnote.

[2] Stephen J. Duffy, “Our Hearts of Darkness: Original Sin Revisited,” Theological Studies 49 (1988): 602.

[3] Daniel K. Finn, “What Is a Sinful Social Structure?” Theological Studies, 77.1 (2016): 136-164, esp.151-162.

[4] Of course, racism is not the only historical determination of original sin. One could point to any number of social phenomena increasingly marking and shaping our contemporary situation. Two examples could be an abiding disregard for the unborn as well as the sexual exploitation and violence marking the behavior of a Harvey Weinstein and internet pornography in America.