The last few years have been a difficult time for race relations in the United States. Eight years ago, the general consensus was that the election of Barack Obama as president would prove once and for all that American had finally overcome the baggage of its “peculiar institution” of slavery. Two terms later, we are all struggling to understand the almost-daily news reports of race-based animosity and violence.
In the book America’s Original Sin, Jim Wallis, the editor of the progressive Christian magazine Sojourners, attempts to discover the root causes of our modern racial unrest. The whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” caution is something to consider in this case, with its catchy yet provocatively false title. Slavery—the racist “original sin” of which Wallis writes—is neither original with the United States, nor did the first Puritan migrants engage in the practice. As goes the cover, so goes the book, it turns out, with similarly catchy yet provocatively false statements peppering each of the book’s ten chapters.
Because Wallis is writing as a Christian, and with a message directed toward Christians, I tried to read the book as if it were an intentionally Christian book. Some of the book’s core points are fully secular in nature, but a big part of the author’s message is that Christians are both specifically to blame for America’s race woes, and uniquely tasked with correcting the problems.
Unfortunately, one of the main downfalls with the book is in its misapplication of the most basic tenants of the Christian faith, specifically those dealing with sin, guilt, and forgiveness. When looking at the book as a whole, I found two key areas of concern with Wallis’ message, the first secular, and the second religious.
The first of these concerns is with Wallis’ insistence that race touches everything. Wallis assumes that, because everyone has a race, everything can be tied to racism, or at least to the background that stems from one’s race. You could not, for instance, do this with the issues of homelessness or smoking, since not everyone has been homeless or has used tobacco. But everyone has a race, and for Wallis, this implies that there is always a tension between those of different races. Or to put it another way, he believes that when tensions do arise within a society, you can identify race as a key factor in that tension. In the context of America, this means that there is always a conflict between whites and blacks, and specifically, with the power that whites have over blacks.
Wallis makes this point by repeating the “racism is prejudice plus power” bromide. In a generic context, this expression could be taken at face value, that when one group uses its power to push racial prejudice, racism occurs. But for Wallis, simply being in the majority is itself proof of power, and more than that, proof of prejudice with power. Because I am white, and whites are (for now) the majority, I am therefore empowered over my black neighbor, and therefore am racist. Of course, this jumps over the “prejudice” aspect of the equation. But Wallis assumes that as well, since he believes that whites are, by nature, racist. He starts out the book by saying that, “We are not now, nor will we ever be, a ‘postracial’ society,” because whites have been, are still, and likely will always be racist.
For Wallis, much of the problem stems from “white privilege,” which is the leftover residue from the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. Wallis says that many whites are unaware of their privilege, but then he uses this concept of privilege as the basis for proving that whites are, even today, consciously and actively racist. In Chapter 3, he says, “Whites in America must admit the realities of racism and begin to operate on the assumption that ours is still a racist society…. White people in the [US] have benefited from structures of racism, whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is).” I underlined that last part to show that, for Wallis, it is practically impossible that whites could ever be non-racist. Of course, the irony is that this very idea is, itself, racist.
We are not now, nor will we ever be, a ‘postracial’ society.
— Jim Wallis
What shocked me most about Wallis’ line of reasoning concerning pervasive racism is how far it is from the Christian understanding of humanity. The problems humans have with each other, from a biblical perspective, are spiritual and based on the sinful nature. Racism is certainly a part of this nature, but only a part. Stealing is also a part of this nature, but we know from everyday experience that not everyone steals. Not everyone kills. And not everyone engages in racism. We are all sinners, and if you break one of God’s commandments, it is as if you are guilty of breaking them all. But Wallis does not discuss racism in this spiritual context, but rather in a secular, societal context, where theological concerns over the pervasiveness of sin are not supposed to be the source for laws. Sin touches everything, but racism does not, and as a Christian leader, Wallis should understand this.
My second concern with the book, and the one that grieves me the most due to its implications for the Church, is Wallis’ tacit belief that guilt can be corporate, and that the way to assuage such guilt is through ongoing retribution. And he appears to believe this in spite of having an entire chapter that is specifically about replacing “retributive justice” with “restorative justice.”
In Christianity, guilt is not corporate, but individual. I sin. I am guilty before God. I deserve condemnation. But when salvation through Christ comes, I am declared righteous by God, even if others around me do not (yet) share in that declaration. Romans 8, a section of the New Testament that some Christians consider to be the heart of the Gospel message, begins by stating emphatically that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Whatever sins I may have committed are no longer held against me, although temporal consequences may remain. This is the Good News of the Gospel, and the center of Christian theology.
While I am hesitant to put words in Wallis’ mouth, from his writing it is clear that he does not hold to this view of Christianity, at least where racism is concerned. In the book, all American (white) Christians are guilty of racism, not because they engage in racism, but because America’s legacy of racism rests on them corporately. (He even says that whites who recently came to the US are equally guilty, because they equally benefit from white privilege made possible by whites who have ties back to the era of slavery.) The guilt remains, and is not washed away for such petty reasons as salvation in Christ. Worse, because Wallis sees the guilt as corporate—that the Church as an entity bears the historic guilt for slavery—and since corporate entities can never sufficiently confess, or repent, or assuage their guilt, there will never come a time when the accusations of racism will end, since the guilt persists eternally. Such a belief is at odds with the heart of the Christian message, and yet Wallis, as a Christian leader, uses such a belief as the foundation for his book.
The book is not completely without merit, and some aspects were worthy of the publishing effort. I found much to ponder in Wallis’ concerns over the War on Drugs and the criminal justice system in general. I am not cynical enough to think that drug laws were created with racism in mind, as Wallis at least in part seems to think. But I can’t deny that African-Americans appear to have been impacted by such laws disproportionately. Even if those laws came about in an entirely bias-free manner without any desire for a racist outcome, the social history of blacks in America has linked them to these laws at higher rates than one would normally expect, given the nation’s demographics.
Of course, that disparity is not automatically a sign of racism. Wallis, as a political progressive, glosses over the role that left-leaning policies have played in the situation of both blacks and whites in America. Except for his concerns over the criminal justice system, he never really mentions government, academia, or other societal institutions, at least not in any causative sense. Instead, he directs his largest weapons toward the church, or toward a caricature of the church that serves the book’s purposes. Most churches in America are small, apolitical, and harmless as far as race is concerned. Martin Luther King, Jr’s, statement that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week (which Wallis quotes with glee) is more or less accurate. But Wallis confuses correlation with causation in identifying racism as the source of that segregation.
America’s Original Sin is a useful book in understanding the progressive mindset on issues of race. But it is lacking in any solutions, other than in asking whites to listen to the stories of blacks. As a leader within the Christian community, Wallis has a valuable position from which he could steer America’s national conversation on race. But instead, he uses his pulpit to apply old-time Puritan chastisements that veer Americans far away from the hopeful message of the Gospel.