I remember the first time I heard slavery identified as America’s original sin. I was sitting in Rufus Burrow’s Christianity and Social Justice class in seminary. The person listening to those words in 1988 was a much different person than I am today. I was a conservative evangelical Christian raised in a rural white community in Southern Illinois. As such, I remember my shock at both that assertion and its use of a theological concept I still thought sacred. I wish I could say it jolted me out of my apathy toward racial injustice and into an exploration of racial history, but that would take an encounter with a three year old black girl in 2010.
This week, I stumbled upon an article about the recent death of James Cone, the most famous black liberation theologian in American history. Honestly, until I read the article, I’d completely forgotten Cone and his once shocking accusations. Cone wrote, “White supremacy is America’s original sin and liberation is the Bible’s central message. Any theology in America that fails to engage white supremacy and God’s liberation of black people from that evil is not Christian theology, but a theology of Antichrist.” Rereading those words thirty years after first hearing them, all I could say was, “Amen.”
Though I’m no longer religious and long ago concluded the Biblical idea of original sin was rather ridiculous, I think Cone’s use of the analogy is powerfully provocative. Indeed, the idea of slavery as an original sin whose fruits and consequences have been passed on from generation to generation – in both white and black communities – seems more reasonable and defensible than the idea of evil originating in a man and woman disobeying God and eating an apple.
Ironically, in my discussions with my white peers about our racial history, I often hear the same language and arguments that eventually led me to abandon the idea of original sin. Where is the justice in holding people guilty for the sins of their ancestors? Shouldn’t each person be judged solely on their own behavior? Isn’t it obvious that children are not born sinful, but are rather socialized into evil? Shouldn’t our focus be in working for goodness and justice now, rather than on some mythological explanation of past evil?
There are two ironies here. First, many of those arguing against any white culpability for racial injustice and inequity are also firm believers in the idea of original sin. They, rather than I, should be arguing that white people can’t escape the taint of past sin, that we pass those sins and their consequences on from parent to child and that redemption and liberation can only come with repentance and reparation. James Cone is correct. When it comes to racial issues in America, if you are a theologically consistent white Christian, you should be a champion for white responsibility and reparations.
The second irony is more personal. Though I long ago abandoned the idea of original sin as a good explanation for human evil, I find the idea of slavery as America’s original sin far more compelling. I do so not from a theological perspective, but from a sociological one. While children have to be taught to be racist, this indoctrination is passed on from generation to generation in systemic and unconscious ways. These rationalizations originated in the need for white Americans to justify the obvious horrors of slavery. In this sense, white people pass on the taint of defending slavery. We also pass on the economic and social benefits – money and power – that originated in slavery.
I know how much white people want – when it comes to slavery – for the past be the past, to focus on working for goodness and justice now, rather than on acknowledgments of past racial injustice. We want all that happened to black people to be forgiven and forgotten. We want to be freed from the burden of past transgressions. To use another religious concept, we want redemption.
James Cone suggested such redemption cannot come easily. He wrote, “I believe that until Americans, especially Christians and theologians, can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with ‘recrucified’ black bodies hanging from lynching trees, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”
According to Cone, the lynching tree offers us a singular opportunity for both black and white people to understand their past. In those trees, white people are forced to confront their past and present accommodations with racist evil and black people are reminded of their courage in the face of that racist oppression. Like with the Christian cross, something horrible becomes a symbol of responsibility, reconciliation and redemption. I suspect Cone was pleased with the recently opened National Memorial to those who were lynched.
However, having said all of this, I’m conflicted. In my opinion, white American Christianity is unlikely to play a significant role in bringing racial reconciliation. As an institution, it has been far more complicit in perpetuating and defending racism than challenging it. If I had thought most Christians were serious about the liberation of the oppressed, I might still be one. Like the prophets of old, I think James Cone was largely preaching to the wind, only remembered and honored after his death.
On the other hand, Cone’s reclaiming of commonly accepted Christian imagery reminds me of what the famous philosopher, Joseph Campbell, concluded. He wrote, “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.” Our myths, religious and otherwise, tell far more about our societal psyche than our history. They are the ways in which we communicate and interpret our lives together.
Something evil happened on the day the first black person was brought to America in chains. That moment forever altered American history. We cannot change that history, but we can choose the mythology we use to understand our shared past. Will it be Confederate flags or memorials to those who were lynched? Will it be “Gone With The Wind” or “Twelve Years A Slave?” Will it be the Puritan work ethic or recognition of the labor of millions of enslaved black men and women? Will it be the colorblind society or the multicultural nation? Obviously, I think one set of myths more helpful than the other.
Understanding slavery as America’s original sin could help both whites and blacks put into words something we have so much trouble talking about. It uses images and ideas we all understand. It acknowledges a terrible past and explains our present difficulties. It reminds us that racial oppression twists both the oppressor and the oppressed, damaging all of our children. It offers us a culturally honored solution – acknowledgment of injury, repentance and even forgiveness.
Since 1865, seven generations of white Americans have failed to adequately address the evils of racial subjection and discrimination, adding insult to injury, perpetuating rather than repairing damage, increasing the debt owed to people of color. We’ve passed this legacy on to our children and grandchildren, postponing the day of reckoning, hoping all will be forgotten. If Cone is right, until we see racial hostility and indifference as an ugly inheritance, we will pass it onto the next generation. If America’s original sin was slavery, it is long past time to liberate both white and black people from our shared curse.
We need to be free, free at last.