In the many discussions we’ve been having about the persistent protests since George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, there’s been a great deal of discussion about systemic racism. Some of my White friends have recoiled from that phrase with the response, “I’m not a racist.” They don’t seem to understand that systemic racism is not an accusation against them, but against the system. For a good description of how systemic racism affects every one of us in our society, check out this excellent video (here). You didn’t create that systemic problem, and you don’t have much power, by yourself, to correct it. Before you try to deal with your guilt, make sure you’re feeling guilty about the right thing.
There is an important concept in Christian theology that may help us understand this. It’s the doctrine of Original Sin. We just have to look around us or watch TV news to recognize that there’s something basically wrong with human beings. With all their intelligence and creativity and ability to control the world around them, they inevitably mess things up. Constant conflicts and wars and abuses and cruelty — that’s the story of human history. Every culture and every religion has wrestled with this. The Christian answer, based on God’s revelation to his people in the Bible, is that humanity experienced a great Fall from its creation in God’s image, which left the entire race in a position of separation from God, with the result that every single person, from then on, has been born in a state of Original Sin. The symbolic description of the Fall is seen in the Genesis 3 account of the “forbidden fruit” on the tree in the Garden of Eden, but the spiritual implications for Christian faith are seen most clearly in Paul’s writings, especially in Romans 1:18-24, 3:9-12, 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22.
If you want to confess your sins and get right with God, you should understand what you’re confessing. Yes, you’re part of the systemic problem, that all of humanity is alienated from God because of Original Sin, wherever it came from and however it got here. But you have also personally and willfully rebelled against God, and that’s where your confession should start. Don’t blame the system for your behavior; fess up to the bad choices you yourself have made. That’s where salvation starts.
Well, what about the systemic problem of Original Sin? That’s too big for you to attack alone, or even for all of us who are part of the believing Church to resolve. That’s why Jesus had to come into the world and to die on the cross:
The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So, you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:10-11)
I take verse 11 as an affirmation that I, as a believer, forgiven of my Original Sin, as well as my personal sins, through Christ’s death on the cross, am also asked to participate in the revolutionary work of radically changing the sinful system that dominates this world. As the Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” expresses it:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
Applying this to racism in America in AD 2020, we need to confront and confess the ways in which we’ve personally participated in racism, by word or deed or attitude. We also need to commit ourselves to diagnosing, confronting, and reversing systemic racism in our society, stemming from America’s great moral Fall in its two hundred fifty years of slavery. We need to root out the residual racism “far as the curse is found.”
– Pastor George Van Alstine