Like other white Americans, the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson shocked and angered me. It then reminded me of past injustices, left me feeling and acting defensively, and finally left me broken.
- I was shocked that an unarmed man was shot and killed.
- I was angered that such injustice and violence continue to happen against people of color.
- I was reminded that this type of violence and oppression is a devastating reality of U.S. history.
- I became defensive—how could I be responsible for sins of the past? Why are people of color angry at me and others who are only trying to help?
- I was left broken, feeling cursed with the "sins of the fathers, visited upon the third and fourth generation." Intentional or not, I participate in this oppression in ways I’m only now beginning to understand.
This morning, my brother-in-law and I were discussing the concept of "sin." He mentioned how sin in the Bible is almost always characterized by a path--a path to destruction--rather than specific actions. Jesus, in contrast, is described as the path of Life, or simply The Way. Repentance from sin is a turning away from that path of destruction to The Way of Life.
Framing sin and repentance in this way, the concept of sin becomes so much more apparent and real. Somehow, white-centered Western Christianity became obsessed with individual "sins" and behavior modification. The fight against sin has been waged against flesh and blood, rather than what Paul describes in Galatians 6:12 as "principalities and powers."
When it comes to racial inequality, it makes sense when the Bible talks about the inevitability of sin ("for all have sinned")--both sinners and the sinned against. This helplessness against sin also makes sense when we realize that we live with the consequences, namely the "principalities and powers" that were constructed before we were born. But, as the Bible teaches, it doesn't make us any less guilty. Thus: sin truly is a curse.
The concept of sin being passed down is also illuminated in the Genesis creation myth. The writer of Genesis provides a metaphor for a sin committed in the past, dooming not only the ones who commit the sin, but also all of their descendants. The theological tradition that I absorbed was one of sin being passed down individual to individual, almost like a genetic trait. However, I now view sin as inherited oppressive societal structures, which are solidified by each generation that continues to ignore it.
At this realization, how can we not help but feel powerless? How can we not help but feel crushed by the weight of the sin of past generations, not to mention the sin that is perpetuated daily by its denial? How can we not feel crushed by our own intentional and unintentional participation? No wonder the origin of sin in the Bible is said to be a serpent—a wily creature that confounds and deceives.
I share these personal epiphanies about sin with you, not because I am the first person to come up with these ideas. (Far from it!) I share this with you because it is where I find myself: broken and unable to fix the problem. For me, it is the time for mourning, sackcloth and ashes, and lament. It’s this utter helplessness that brings me back to the concepts and teachings of Jesus, and the hope of the goodness and wisdom of what the Bible calls the Holy Spirit. Finally, I am driven to listen closely to the prophets of this and past generations, who have lead and continue to lead us to fight the principalities and powers that violently and heartlessly tread on the least of these, and eventually curse us all.
Listed below are a few articles from modern-day prophets that I've read recently. Required reading for those of you who want to know more!
- The Other Lie by Lisa Sharon Harper
- Beyond a White Privilege Model by Drew G. I. Hart
- The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehesi Coates
- Every post in Christena Cleveland's blog