On Sin and a Spiritual Discipline of Anti-racism
Three events in the last couple of weeks have been weighing heavy on my mind: the revelation of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by white men while he was jogging in a neighborhood not unlike ours; the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by four Minneapolis police officers while he was in custody; and a video of a woman who called the police and lied to them about being threatened by a black man, clearly using his race as a weapon against him because he asked her to leash her dog in a bird-watching park. There are many issues at stake in all three events, and many things to say. What follows here is a theological and biblical reflection, not a politically partisan one.
Sin is a liberating category. Sin itself is not liberating. Sin seeks to limit our freedom to be who God wants us to be. But, the category, being able to name things as sin, that is liberating. In a world where we don’t have the language of sin, we also don’t have the language (or the reality) of forgiveness. If we’re all “good” all the time, then we constantly have to hide the fact that we really aren’t from others and from ourselves, and that hiding is the definition of bondage. It’s an exhausting and perverse version of “keeping of with the Jones,” and it’s one of the ways sin works to divide and isolate people toward the purposes of fear and despair.
Racism is sin. In God’s kingdom there is no room for it (Galatians 3:27-28; Colossians 3:9-11), but all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). That’s what sin is, the Greek word harmatia, translated in English as sin, means “falling short”, as if you were aiming at a target and your dart sticks in the wall two feet below the bull’s eye. Sin is when our actions fall short of God’s vision of wholeness and reconciliation for the entire cosmos. Sin can be quite a bit more complex than just individual actions, however. There is a such a thing as systemic sins which are vast networks of individual choices, experiences, and histories that have built up for centuries, even millennia. This is what the New Testament calls the “powers and principalities” of this world that work against the will of God (Ephesians 6:12). As people who believe in the existence of God, we cannot logically rule out the existence of other spiritual forces. I believe that some of these vast networks we call systemic sin are more than the sum of their parts, and that behind them are malign spiritual forces bent on destruction and evil. What I am describing to you is racism: the cumulative effect of centuries of words, choices, actions, thoughts, economic systems, public policy, fearful hidden agendas, and more, all—I believe—being used and guided by the spiritual forces of evil with the intent to undo and make a mockery of everything that God wills and wishes for God’s creation. Who can rescue us from such a body of death? It overwhelms us and leaves us helpless in its wake. Indeed, who doesn’t feel helpless watching these events unfold? That’s the point. We are helpless. We aren’t going to win against systemic racism on our own. But, thanks be to God for our Lord Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of his glory as God and took upon himself both all sin and all the suffering that results from sin, and through his life, death, and resurrection conquered sin, death, hell, and the grave once and for all.
God’s kingdom that was inaugurated in Jesus Christ has not been fully consummated. When we watch the news we want to cry out with the Biblical prophet, “How long, O LORD, must I call for help?…“Violence is everywhere!” we cry (Habakkuk 1:2). But we cannot merely sit around and cry. As the vanguard of God’s kingdom and witnesses to a different world, we are called to act. What’s more, when we are baptized into the Body of Christ, we are freed from the power of all sin. Death no longer has dominion over us. The Church’s call to act against to the vast sin of systemic racism is threefold.
- A spiritual response. Racism will never be solved by pure political will, because it has a significant spiritual component. We must pray and fast for the destruction of racism’s domination over our society, which keeps both the oppressed and the oppressor in slavery to death.
- Physical acts to confront and dismantle systemic racism. Our prayers will invariably lead us toward concrete action. That’s what prayer tends to do.
- Physical acts to confront and dismantle personal racism. Before I can be effective against racism’s systemic aspect, however, prayer and reflection will confront me with my own sin, my own racism.
Remember, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I was born with the stain of original sin, which in this case means that I was born into a system, a culture, that has ingrained certain racist tendencies into me. I’d like to think I’m vastly morally superior to the person in the park who purposely used a black man’s race to threaten police violence, but spiritual realism informs we otherwise. Naming sin as a reality in myself helps to liberate me from it.
We are free from sin’s bondage by virtue of our baptism. But, living in this fallen world and being enculturated in certain ways, means we must work to ingrain ourselves with God’s ways of thinking and acting. The Church calls this the practice of spiritual disciplines. Here, we need to practice the spiritual disciplines of anti-racism. I will focus on just one spiritual discipline which is commended to us by the Apostle Paul in the second letter to the Corinthians:
“Indeed, we live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
This isn’t talking about arguments on social media. We are applying it to internal arguments and strongholds, turmoil and struggle within ourselves. Obstacles that keep us from knowing God fully. In short, we must learn to take every (racist) thought captive to obey Christ.
The hard part is identifying racist thoughts. We seldom examine our thoughts, either as we think them or later. But, developing the ability to examine thoughts is key, and it takes practice. Reading and listening to people who think differently than us helps. Listening to God—the ultimate Other—through prayer helps the most.
So, we identify a racist thought as it comes into our head. Then we renounce it in the name of Jesus Christ. Literally, we say to ourselves: “I renounce this racist thought in the name of Jesus.” The book of James explains why this works in spiritual terms, “Submit yourself to God. Resist the devil and he will flee” (James 5:7). In the words of Bob Dylan, “you’ve got to serve somebody. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Serving God means freedom from sin. Pretending you don’t serve anyone is the saddest kind of slavery. Submitting our sinful thoughts to Christ is act of spiritual realism and pure liberation. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
Almost two years ago, we put our daughter, Nora, in a local pre-school program. Before school started we went to meet Nora’s teachers and classmates. As we walked into the classroom, we discovered that both of Nora’s teachers and the majority of her assembled classmates were people of color. My immediate internal reaction was, “This isn’t safe. This isn’t what I was expecting. We can’t leave our daughter here.” Then I recognized those thoughts and reactions were racist, pure and simple. I renounced them in the name of Jesus, and immediately felt at peace. Nora has learned and grown as a student of that pre-school ever since (until the pandemic, actually).
Embracing my daughter’s pre-school was a very small and un-heroic action on my part. But, the thoughts and actions that have built up over centuries into systemic racism are, in most cases, equally quotidian. Our struggle against evil has to start somewhere. For most of us, our part in dismantling racism is comprised, at least in the first instance, in small acts of spiritual realism and submission to the Christ. It means struggling against our own sin out of the conviction that we are loved by God beyond our wildest imaginings—and so is everyone else.