No one likes to be called “a racist.” No one appreciates being told, “you are a racist.” In the face of such accusations, we protest our innocence. We defend ourselves. We justify ourselves. “I’m not a racist.” “I’ve treated black people fairly, decently.” “I never use the N word.” “I have black friends and neighbors.”
And yet we are being told that racism is “systemic” in American society. And as such, inescapably, “we are all racists.” Still, we protest. We are very much attached to the idea of our own virtue, our own innocence, our own goodness.
Can both be true? Can it be true that, “I am not a racist,” in the sense of using racial slurs or treating people as less than ourselves because of the color of the their skin? And yet that I am a racist because racism is demonic power that pervades American society (and not just American society).
Yes, both can be true. And a better, biblical, understanding of sin can help.
By and large, people think of sin as discreet acts of an individual. Telling a lie, cheating on our taxes, getting drunk and obnoxious, being unfaithful to our spouse, or failing to object when something we know to be wrong is being planned in the office where we work or the neighborhood where we live. Sins of commission, acts we do, and omission, things we fail to do.
This understanding of sin is one accurate understanding of sin. It is what we do and fail to do as individuals. Because we tend, in western society and in America, to individualize things, this is the predominant way we think of sin.
But this is only part of the story, and really the smaller part of it. In the Bible sin is not only discreet actions of an individual. It is a power. It is “Sin” with a capital “S.” It is pervasive. We are all caught in it. Jesus came preaching, healing and casting out demons because he was engaged in a mortal conflict with the alien powers of Sin and Death.
Here’s the great preacher Fleming Rutledge quoting Dorothy Sayers. “Sin is not the sum total of a bunch of individual transgressions. Sin is the fundamental condition of man, the disease we have all got, ‘a deep interior dislocation in the very center of the human personality.’ (Sayers). Rutledge continues,
“The human race is enmeshed in the consequences of a vast primordial catastrophe, as John Cardinal Newman put it. The world has been thrown violently off course by an alien power hostile to God, and, paradoxically, each of us is responsible for his own part in the resulting mess. According to Paul, Sin is both ‘an enslaving power external to man, and ‘man’s own culpable act.’”
When I was a young teen I was returning from a youth group weekend and helping our minister, John Wightman, put equipment away. John was a kind of Mister Rogers figure for me, extending to me unconditional love. He had also gotten me and other young people of Rock Spring Congregational Church in Arlington, Virginia involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
That day, we were both tired. Something happened, I can’t recall what, and I said something that at first made me terribly ashamed and then deeply perplexed. Speaking to John, I used a phrase that was common there in Virginia among white people, at least young white men and boys. I said, “That’s white of you, John,” meaning something like “that’s good of you,” although said sarcastically. Immediately I felt as if a giant, stinking turd had plopped out of my mouth. I was mortified. And then, later, I was perplexed. Although this was an expression I had heard often enough, it was not one I ever used. It was not one that was used in our home, and if it had been, it would have garnered a reprimand.
But there it was in all it’s ugliness. And I had said it. I was responsible for it. But as to where it had come from? It was in the air of 1950’s Northern Virginia. If I had been a fish, it was the water I swam in. It was racism not simply as an individual act or failing, but as a pervasive and insidious power. A terrible power in which we were all enmeshed. We were caught in it, white and black alike.
I think that’s how racism is, and that’s why it can be true that while we may as individuals be largely innocent of racist words or actions, we are still caught in it, still “racists,” because it is one manifestation of Sin as the fundamental disfiguring and distorting power that pervades human life. This demonic power has pervaded our nation from its earliest origins. Again, not the whole story, but a very important part of it. And one we’ve had a hard time facing.
So, to own our guilt for being caught in racism is not to say we are awful people, but that we find ourselves as I did as a 13-year-old who perhaps wanted to seem cool, enmeshed in something both bewildering and terrible.
Such demonic power is overcome only by grace. By the intrusion from outside us, of a severe mercy. I got a hint of it that day with John in this way. Hearing what I said, he said nothing. Not, I think, because he didn’t hear me. But because he heard and and saw my own shame. He chose not to add to it. But he did let me live with what I’d done.