This is part three in a four-part series on thinking theologically about racial tensions. I posted an introductory piece two weeks ago. Last week I wrote on the image of God. Prior to this series, I also did a post on race and American history.
This article has been difficult to write. Of all the themes in this short series, this is the one that has literally kept me up at night. Every time I thought I knew what to say, ten more ideas bombarded my brain. Every time I thought I knew how to say what I wanted to say, a dozen caveats crowded out my earlier thinking. Part of what makes this particular post so challenging is that the themes here are so personal and so pervasive. At the heart of every discussion about racism is the reality of sin and guilt. Even among secular people, though they may not use the words “sin” and “guilt,” the moral energy behind anti-racism protests and the insistence on corporate diversity programs assumes that racism is ethically repugnant and that those who are guilty of racism deserve correction and censure, if not swift retribution.
Within the church this topic is an urgent matter, not only because overt racism still exists among professing Christians, but because there is confusion about (1) what constitutes racism, (2) whether most (or all) white people are guilty of racism, and (3) how confident we can be that individuals can ever be free from racism. While almost every Christian in this country would affirm that racism is a sin, that conviction alone has not clarified other important aspects of our faith and practice.
With that in mind, here are five statements (plus one concluding thought) to help us think personally, corporately, and existentially about sin and guilt.
1. Racism is a sin.
The Bible never speaks of racism per se. That doesn’t mean we are wrong to talk about racism (our Bibles don’t contain the words “Trinity” or “missions” either). But it does mean we would do well to start with explicit biblical sins and see how they relate to the modern category of racism rather than moving in the opposite direction.
There are more than 20 vice lists in the New Testament (Matt. 15:19; Mark 7:21–22; Rom. 1:29–31; 13:13; 1 Cor. 5:10–11; 6:9–10; 2 Cor. 6:9–10; 12:20–21; Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 4:31; 5:3–5; Col. 3:5, 8; 1 Tim. 1:9–10; 2 Tim. 3:2–5; Titus 3:3; James 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:1; 4:3, 15; Rev. 9:21; 21:8; 22:15), which, when taken together, mention dozens of different sins. Here, for example, is Galatians 5:19–21, one of the most well-known and most comprehensive lists:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Obviously, racism is not in this list of sins nor in any of the other vice lists. But, just as obviously, we can see how racism could map on to these works of the flesh. Look at the social sins in the middle of the list. Could we not say that racism is enmity (based on race), strife (based on race), fits of anger (based on race), rivalries (based on race), dissensions (based on race), and divisions (based on race)? Hating others is wrong, and race—groups of people sharing physical characteristic like skin color—can be a reason people hate. Pride and selfish ambition are wrong, and race can be a reason for pride and selfish ambition. Partiality and showing favoritism based on external appearances are wrong (James 2:1), and race has been the reason for the sin of partiality in this country. In other words, while racism is not implied in these various sins, it can be seen as a subspecies of them. Racism is a sin not just because of what it does to others, but because it is an offense to God and a transgression of the law of God (1 John 3:4; cf. WSC 14).
Racism has become a notoriously difficult word to define. And yet, the biblical categories of enmity, pride, and partiality still work with a common-sense definition. If you Google “racism,” the first definition comes from Dictionary.com and reads: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed at a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.” I believe this is how most people use the word. Racism is another way of not loving your neighbor as yourself—a particularly heinous way because it denies that the other person is even a fully human neighbor in the first place.
2. Racism is the result of original sin, but not original sin.
As a historical event, original sin can refer to Adam’s first transgression in the Garden. Theologically, however, original sin refers to the guilt and corruption every human being has inherited from Adam. From original sin springs forth actual sins—not “actual” in the sense of real or “actual” as opposed to “internal,” but “actual” because they proceed from an act of the soul. Every sin, both original and actual, brings guilt upon the sinner (WCF 6.6). Racism, then, is a manifestation of our original corruption “whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil” (WCF 6.4).
Racism (or slavery) is often said to be our country’s “original sin,” meaning that racism has infected American society from its inception, producing centuries of pain and suffering, the legacy of which we have not yet moved past. While we can affirm “original sin” in this context as a historical euphemism, we must be careful lest we construe racism as if it were literally original sin. In Christian doctrine, original sin is imputed to us by virtue of our union with Adam, our federal head. It is unclear by what mechanism the sins of white ancestors are automatically imputed to white people today, especially when “white” can now include Hispanics, Jews, the Irish, Southern Europeans, Eastern Europeans, recent immigrants, and others groups who do not stand in direct lineage with earlier white racists and were often discriminated against by those same whites.
Think of the way racism functions like original sin in some secular ideologies: every white person inherits the original guilt and corruption of racism, everything white people do is tainted by racism, and every white person must be awakened to the reality of racism in his life. This is anti-racism as religion. Furthermore, the life of anti-racism requires constant repentance and discipleship and demands a zeal to convert those whose eyes have not been opened and to condemn those who “don’t get it.”
To be clear, the problem is not in calling people to repent of racism and considering how it may infiltrate various aspects of their lives. We should do that! The problem is in parroting the Christian story as many secular voices do—often unwittingly borrowing Christianity’s religious purpose and fervor, while preaching a new doctrine of original sin that applies only to some, and in a way that fails to present the free offer of the gospel to any.
3. Racism is an insidious sin, but not the unforgivable sin.
Think again about the passage from Galatians 5. On the one hand, there is a war within each Christian between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. There are things we want to do in the flesh that the Spirit will keep us from doing (v. 17). On the other hand, Paul expects the Christian to be free from the works of the flesh as a habitual way of life. If we do such things—more precisely if we make a practice of doing such things—we will not inherit the kingdom of God (v. 21).
So as a desire of the flesh, any enmity based on race or pride based on race is something Christians should war against and confess regularly. But as a work of the flesh, racism will not define us, any more than any other sin should define a Christian. Paul understood that Christians might fight fleshly desires for sexual sin (v. 17), but he didn’t expect them to say in false humility, “Yeah, we are orgy Christians and will be the rest of our lives.”
Once we remember that racism is a sin in the Christian story, and not, by itself, the Christian story, elements of racism can be demystified. Like any other sin, racism, as part of the indwelling corruption of our nature, may remain in those who are regenerated (WCF 6.5). And like any other sin, racism can be forgiven, mortified, and sanctified in Christ.
For the Christian, sin is still pervasive but less powerful. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, if we find racism still rooted in our hearts, nor should we deem it impossible that racism can be rooted out of our hearts. Christians who quickly dismiss any consideration that they may have racist tendencies may need to be reminded about the continuing allure and deceitfulness of sin. On the other hand, Christians who quickly dismiss any consideration that they, or others, can ever be not racist, may need to be reminded of the forgiving and transforming power of the gospel. As born-again Christians, we can be obedient to God and do that which is truly good, even if not perfectly good (WCF 16.2, 6).
4. Racism is a serious sin, but not the only way to sin.
The church must make clear to its members—often fixated on justifying oneself before sympathizing with others—that racism is a serious sin. The church must also make clear to the world—often fixated on a handful of preferred transgressions—that there are many ways to sin, and all of them deserve the just wrath of God. If racism is one way to breach the sixth commandment, there are dozens of ways we can break that commandment, and nine other commandments besides. To reduce Christianity to anti-racism is no better than reducing Christianity to being anti-fornication or anti-abortion. Truth be told, most of us focus on the sins that those in our social circle already know to be sins. Being “prophetic” usually means denouncing the sins we don’t see in ourselves but do see in others. It’s an easy way to look good, feel good, and convince ourselves we are good.
Being ‘prophetic’ usually means denouncing the sins we don’t see in ourselves but do see in others.
But this point about “not the only way to sin” cuts in both directions. Sin is more varied than we think, and the law of love is more encompassing than we imagine. We might find more common ground on the topic of racism if we expanded our moral categories just a bit. The world knows only a few sins, and racism is one of them. So it’s not surprising that a hundred different errors—some of them sins of commission, some of them sins of omission, and some of them not sins at all—get pushed into this one category called racism. As a result, the world wants to say there is nothing worse than racism, and at the same time, the majority of people should confess to being racists. It’s a recipe for confusion, self-righteousness, and constant disagreement.
Thankfully, the church can be more nuanced. What if, instead of perpetuating the binary logic that makes every moral discussion a question of racist or not-racist, we talked about all the ways we are called to love one another and all the ways we can fail in that calling? This doesn’t mean we don’t use the word racist or we don’t treat the sin seriously. It means we concentrate less on that one label and focus more on the dozens of related ways we ought to live as Christians.
Take the Heidelberg Catechism for example. It tells me “I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor—not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds.” It also says, “I am not to be party to this in others” and that “I am to put away all desire for revenge” (HC 105). Furthermore, it is not enough that I refrain from hating or killing my neighbor. No, positively, “God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies” (HC 107). In all things I should do “whatever I can for my neighbor’s good” and “treat others as I would like them to treat me” (HC 111).
The Heidelberg Catechism summarizes how all of us should treat everyone, and it is more involved than being racist or not racist. When our moral reasoning boils down to this binary logic, we are often too hard and too soft at the same time—too hard in labeling those with the scarlet letter “R” for something far less than racism and too soft in not calling each other to all the obligations that the law demands of God’s people. The Westminster Larger Catechism, for example, lists more than 30 duties required in the sixth commandment—obligations like charitable thoughts, courteous behavior, readiness to be reconciled, forgiving of injuries, comforting the distressed, and protecting the innocent—and more than 20 sins forbidden in the sixth commandment. We do not have to settle for our culture’s stunted list of forbidden words and thoughts, when we have the church’s much richer moral vocabulary and moral imagination at our disposal.
5. Racism has been a great sin of white people in this country, but that doesn’t make all white people today guilty of those historical sins.
While enmity, pride, and partiality are sins that everyone commits, we have to acknowledge that the racist expression of these sins has been most notoriously and most destructively a sin of white people in this country. What’s more, we have reason to believe these sins have been especially egregious in God’s eyes. Contrary to popular evangelical notions of moral equivalency, some sins are worse than others. The Westminster Larger Catechism explains that sins are made more heinous (1) from the persons offending, (2) from the persons offended, (3) from the nature and quality of the offense, and (4) from circumstances of time and place (WLC 151). On all accounts, racism in American history has been a particularly heinous sin: it has often come from persons of “greater experience or grace” and from those “whose example is likely to be followed by others.” It has often been against fellow saints, against “the common good of all,” and has often entailed sinning “on the Lord’s Day.”
We could go on, using the catechism’s forceful language. The long history of slavery and Jim Crow were sins “against the express letter of the law,” “not only conceived in the hearts, but break[ing] forth in words and actions.” Sins were committed against the “light of nature” and “conviction of conscience.” They were done “deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately” and “with delight.” Racism looms large in our national consciousness because there has been no sin in our history that was perpetuated by as many people over as many years with as much destructive force.
So what does that mean for white people today who denounce all the sins listed above? Does a shared skin color make one culpable for the offenses of those who have gone before?
As I’ve said before, I believe the Bible has a category for corporate responsibility, but there are important limits to the use of this category.
The book of Acts is an illuminating case study in this respect. On the one hand, God may hold people responsible for sins they may not have directly carried out. In Acts 2, Peter charges the “[m]en of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem” (v. 14) with crucifying Jesus (v. 23, 36). To be sure, they did this by the hands of lawless men (v. 23). But as Jews present in Jerusalem during Passion Week, they bore some responsibility for Jesus’s death. Likewise, Peter charged the men of Israel gathered at Solomon’s Portico with delivering Jesus over and denying him in the presence of Pilate (Acts 3:11–16). While we don’t know if every single person in the Acts 3 crowd had chosen Barabbas over Christ, Peter certainly felt comfortable in laying the crucifixion at their feet. Most, if not all of them, had played an active role in the events leading up to Jesus’s death. This was a sin in need of repentance (v. 19, 26). We see the same in Acts 4:10 and 5:30 where Peter and John charged the council (i.e., the Sanhedrin) with killing Jesus. In short, the Jews in Jerusalem during Jesus’s last days bore responsibility for his murder.
Once the action leaves Jerusalem, however, the charges start to sound different. In speaking to Cornelius (a Gentile), his relatives, and close friends, Peter relays that they (the Jews in Jerusalem) put Jesus to death (10:39). Even more specifically, Paul tells the crowd in Pisidian Antioch that “those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers” condemned Jesus (Acts 13:27). This speech is especially important because Paul is talking to Jews. He does not blame the Jews in Pisidian Antioch with the crimes of the Jews in Jerusalem.
This is a consistent pattern. Paul doesn’t charge the Jews in Thessalonica or Berea with killing Jesus (Acts 17), nor the Jews in Corinth (Acts 18) or in Ephesus (Acts 19). In fact, when Paul returns to Jerusalem years after the crucifixion, he does not accuse the Jews there of killing Jesus; he does not even charge the council with that crime (Acts 23). He doesn’t blame Felix (Acts 24) or Festus (Acts 25) or Agrippa (Acts 26) for Jesus’s death, even though they are all men in authority connected in some way with the governing apparatus that killed Christ. The apostles considered the Jews in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion uniquely responsible for Jesus’s death, but this culpability did not extend to every high-ranking official, to every Jew, or to everyone who would live in Jerusalem thereafter. The rest of the Jews and Gentiles in the book of Acts still had to repent of their wickedness, but they were not charged with killing the Messiah.
Does this mean there is never any place for corporate culpability across time and space? No. In Matthew 23:35, Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees with murdering Zechariah the son of Barachiah. Although there is disagreement about who this Zechariah is, most scholars agree he is a figure from the past who was not killed in their lifetimes. The fact that the scribes and Pharisees were treating Jesus with contempt put them in the same category as their ancestors who had also treated God’s prophets with contempt (cf. Acts 7:51–53). It could rightly be said that they murdered Zechariah between the sanctuary and the altar because they shared in the same spirit of hate as the murderers in Zechariah’s day.
Similarly, there are several examples of corporate confession in the Old Testament. As God’s covenant people, the Israelites were commanded to confess their sins and turn from their wicked ways so as to come out from under the divinely sanctioned covenant curses (2 Chron. 6:12–42; 7:13–18). This is why we see the likes of Ezra (Ezra 9–10), Nehemiah (Neh. 1:4–11), and Daniel (Dan. 9:3–19) leading in corporate confession. The Jews were not lumped together because of race, ethnicity, geography, education level, or socio-economic status. The Israelites had freely entered into a covenant relationship with each other and with their God. In all three examples above, the leader entered into corporate confession because (1) he was praying for the covenant people, (2) the people were as a whole marked by unfaithfulness, and (3) the leader himself bore some responsibility for the actions of the people, either by having been blind to the sin (Ezra 9:3) or by participating directly in the sin (Neh. 9:6; Dan. 9:20).
Christians do not deny that the sins of one person can be reckoned to another. How else do we explain the imputation of Adam’s sin to us or the imputation of our sin to Christ? We can be considered guilty for sins we did not commit in ourselves. But on what grounds? Francis Turretin explains, “No imputation of another’s sin can be granted, except on the supposition of some peculiar connection of the one with the other” (Elenctic Theology, IX.ix.11). He goes on to argue this union may be threefold: (1) natural, as between a father and his children, (2) moral and political, as between a king and his subjects, and (3) voluntary, as between the guilty person and a substitute who consents to be punished for the sake of another. These distinctions make sense of the imputation of Adam’s sin to us (natural and moral), the imputation of our sin to Christ (moral and voluntary), and the other examples of corporate responsibility and punishment in the Bible—which usually focus on nations (a moral and political union) or on families (a natural union).
To sum up: the Bible has a category for corporate responsibility. Culpability for sins committed can extend to a large group if virtually everyone in the group was active in the sin or if we bear the same spiritual resemblance to the perpetrators of the past. Furthermore, the sins of others can be imputed to us if there is a natural, moral/political, or voluntary union.
And yet, the category of corporate responsibility can easily be stretched too far. The Jews of the diaspora were not guilty of killing Jesus just because they were Jews. Neither were later Jews in Jerusalem charged with that crime just because they lived in the place where the crucifixion took place. And we must differentiate between other-designated identity blocs and freely chosen covenantal communities. Moral complicity is not strictly individualistic, but it has its limits. All white people today are not automatically guilty of the racist sins of other white people.
As I bring this already too-long article to an end, I’m reminded of something I read in Shelby Steele’s remarkable book The Content of Our Character: “I think the racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence” (5). According to Steele, one of America’s most honest and trenchant voices on these matters, both races understand that to lose innocence is to lose power, and given the way the racial debate has been fostered in this country, one’s innocence depends on the other’s guilt. Consequently, racial difference has become the currency of power. To maintain their innocence, “blacks sting whites with guilt, remind them of their racial past, accuse them of new and more subtle forms of racism.” And in return whites try to retrieve their innocence by discrediting blacks and denying their difficulties, “for in this denial is the denial of their own guilt” (145).
For whites, it can feel like redemption is always out of reach. If you don’t have animus in your heart, you have implicit bias that you can’t see. If you haven’t personally done anything against black people, other whites have, and you bear their shame. If you speak out, you should have listened. If you stay quiet, your silence is violence. If you do nothing tangible to counter injustice, that’s sinful indifference. Try to take the lead in fixing things, you may want to check your privilege. Your institution shouldn’t be all white, but it shouldn’t engage in tokenism. You should celebrate diversity, but without cultural appropriation. And any disagreement with the fundamental contours of this one-way conversation is just another manifestation of white fragility.
In other words: guilty, guilty, guilty.
And for blacks, it must feel like even the barest recognition of the ongoing effects of racism is a bridge too far for most whites. Because whites are often preoccupied with their search for innocence, they fail to muster even meager sympathy or understanding for black pain. If you want to talk about policing in America, we will bring up black homicide rates in Chicago. If you want to talk about criminal justice reform, we will mention the black abortion rate. And if that doesn’t adequately move the guilt from our shoulders to yours, we can always talk about our black friends, insist that we are color blind, or weaponize pull quotes from Thomas Sowell.
In other words: guilty, guilty, guilty.
There will be no moving forward in these matters if every step forward for one side means a step backward for the other. We have a common ancestor in Adam, and, if believers, we have a common Savior in Christ. Our way forward must be a common morality that appeals not to racial difference, but to the best in what we can be by the Spirit working through the word. Our identity, our strength, our power must come from our character, and ultimately from Christ.
If our racial tensions are everywhere about sin and guilt, then it stands to reason that one of the most essential things we can do as Christians is to rest in Christ and encourage others to do the same.
If I am truly free and forgiven in Christ, I can be honest with my indwelling sin.
If I’m genuinely secure in my adoption as God’s precious child, I can choose to love others—undeterred by their misunderstandings of me—rather than using them for my own sense of superiority, righteousness, or absolution.
If I know how much God has forgiven me, I can eagerly give to others what they don’t rightly deserve from me.
To be clear, there is no comparing the aggregate sins of white people against black people versus the sins of black people against white people. This is not a Pollyannaish plea for all of us to just forgive and forget. But it is a plea for the gospel to occupy the center of any Christian conversation about race. Not just the gospel for others—yes, that of course. But the gospel for ourselves too—the gospel that searches, the gospel that saves, the gospel that sanctifies. How might your participation (and mine) in our racial tensions be different if we didn’t instinctively prepare, in every racial encounter, for some combination of recrimination for guilt and reestablishment of righteousness? What if we encountered others not as a means to securing our identity—be that as victim, as innocent, or as absolved—but as an opportunity to meet a whole person with our whole person? What if the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection—while not the only thing we need to talk about—is the one thing that can make all the rest of our conversations meaningful, honest, and hopeful?
If sin and guilt got us into this mess, perhaps justification by faith alone through grace can get us out.