We often hear from politicians that slavery is “America’s original sin.” This phrase has become a cliché, thoughtlessly intoned mostly by Democrats, though occasionally also deployed by Republicans in a bid to look like they are taking racism seriously. It seems to be a way of pointing out the unique gravity and inequalities of racism. Nevertheless, if we take this bromide at its word — that grappling with racial oppression is not just a social or political problem, but also downright Theological — it reveals the inherent deadlocks in liberal anti-racism.
The Historical Roots of “Original Sin”
In Christian theology, “original sin” has two basic meanings. On one level, it refers to Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden — the first or “original” sin committed by the “founding” members of the human race. It also denotes the consequences for subsequent generations of human beings of that original sin. According to a theological tradition that stretches from St. Augustine to Martin Luther to John Calvin and beyond, Adam and Eve did more than just commit one offense when they disobeyed God. They ruined their will and their ability to make moral decisions. Where Adam and Eve had previously been in harmony with God’s righteousness, they were now out of tune in a way that they could never fix. Even worse, their moral incapacity was passed on to their children who passed it to theirs. Thus, according to this view, we are afflicted with the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin from birth, our individual “origin.”
The apparently trivial decision to eat a certain piece of fruit against God’s orders thus carried unimaginably tragic consequences. Every single human being was now morally damaged from birth, incapable of fulfilling God’s moral standards. The good news is that God made it possible for us to be saved through his incarnation as a human being. Christ made a perfect example of humanity by freely giving his life and sacrificing himself for others. This infinite store of righteousness is available through the sacraments of the Church. But although the rite of baptism allows us to be “forgiven” for our inborn state of moral incapacity, the underlying problem is unfixable in this life. Every human being must deal with the temptation to do the wrong thing in this fallen world. This tendency will eventually triumph over our good intentions at the least part of the time. Only death and resurrection can bring true healing and allow us to conform fully to God’s moral demands.
This theological story may be incongruous and complicated in many ways, but it is common. It is the teaching of almost every mainstream Christian denomination in the U.S. most politicians are still practicing Christians, we have to assume that those lamenting “America’s Original sin” are familiar with, as it were, the originalOriginal sin. This is the obvious connection: The U.S., at its founding moment accepted a horrible compromise on slavery that infected all subsequent white Americans with the stains of racism. This stain is so permanent that it may never be completely removed.
The Liberal Anti-Racism’s Empty Ritual
Surely that minimal parallel is what most politicians have in mind when they deplore “America’s original sin.” But I believe we can push further. Even if original sin can never be cured — in the sense of allowing us to consistently do the right thing — it can be ForgivenVicarious sacrifice and ritual action. Abraham Lincoln may not have considered the deaths of Union soldiers and Confederation soldiers necessary sacrifices in his. second inaugural addressIt is often the sacrifice of Black people for true American ideals that is being viewed. This is why we hear so often that Martin Luther King Jr. “gave his life” for justice, when in reality he was assassinated and had no say in the matter. Similarly obscene was when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared her gratitude to George Floyd, who supposedly “gave his life” in service of the quest for greater racial justice in the U.S. In both cases their lives were taken, and not given. Nevertheless, their ostensible “sacrifice” creates a fund of righteousness that somehow makes up for white America’s intractable racism.
Ritual actions are a way for liberal America to exploit Black suffering. This is the famous shot of congressional Democrats kneeling to commemorate George Floyd. They were dressed in Kente cloth. This ritual reenactment of Floyd’s death, in ceremonial garb connected to African culture, bears obvious parallels to Christian rites that seek to reenact and identify with Christ’s sacrifice. The majority of the responses to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 have been symbolic: more television programming about Black themes, greater attention to Black History Month and the declaring of Juneteenth a federal holiday. Meanwhile, police funding has actually gone up, and another high-profile police murder happened literally at the same time as the guilty verdict against Floyd’s killer was being announced.
In short, the notion of racism as “America’s original sin” underwrites a cycle of performative guilt and ritual repentance among white liberals, as a substitute for any concrete action. Who could possibly solve a problem of this theological magnitude? It is becoming clearer that this theological approach to race is not acceptable, even if it is only for those who are kneeling in Kente cloth. On the left, there has been a groundswell of radical and yet clear and practical demands that aim to concretely dismantle the institutions — above all the police — that forcibly preserve the racial hierarchy.
While trying to reverse the gains made during the Civil Rights era, the right has been attempting to attack even the smallest symbolic anti-racist gestures. The crusade against critical race theory is above all an attempt to push back against the idea of racism as “America’s original sin.” The bills specify that any instruction presupposing that white people are “inherently racist” should be disallowed. They also target the first senses of original sin by denouncing that the founding of America was based on any sin. Instead of liberal guilt textbooks in conservative states — as well as in private religious schools elsewhere — often elide the history of slavery and racism and sometimes openly valorize it, claiming that slaves were well-treated and even implying slavery was a voluntary condition.
Overcoming Racism Requires Breaking With the Frame of “Original Sin”
Although the conservative backlash has been dangerous and cynical it is also a moment of truth when they object to liberal antiracism. Conservatives implicitly ask: If racism cannot be avoided and is unfixable, why should it make us feel guilty? The same question could be asked about the Christian doctrines of original sin. What sense does it make to God to expect the impossible from us?
The obvious solution is to get rid of the theological framework. Yet I believe the Christian tradition does offer us some resources for rethinking the problem of “America’s original sin.” Even though Augustine’s view has largely prevailed in the Western world, it is far from the only interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden and its implications for us. Many of Augustine’s predecessors held that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and instead followed the devil’s misleading advice, they were tricked into accepting the devil as their ruler. The consequences of their actions were passed down to their descendants, not biologically, but in the same way that citizenship and slavery are passed down. In becoming a member of the human race, God was trying to overthrow the devil’s social contract from within, allowing humanity to imagine a new form of life together.
To draw a parallel with this alternative theological view, the founding of the U.S. did not irreversibly infect all white people with the ineradicable stain of racism — it trapped us in a bad social contract. We must withdraw from that social contract if we want to escape its negative consequences and join a better one. Instead of focusing on individual guilt, we could get a structural analysis to understand the mechanisms of racial oppression. Instead of blaming individual actions for racist outcomes, we would notice that the institutional structures created to allow race-based chattel slavery for all life continue to produce racist results, giving racists control over powerful and influential veto points. One solution is to draft and ratify a constitution not written by slavers.
In other words — and here both theological views agree — the U.S. must die and be resurrected as something new and better. It must be reborn.