Book Review: America’s Original Sin

Wallis-Original-Sin

America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. 272 pages

During the past several years, Evangelical Christians have been criticized for their lack of involvement in the fight against racial injustice. It’s said that Christians willingly and consistently engage in Pro-Life issues (and issues concerning the proper role of marriage and sexuality), but are glaringly absent when it comes to the issue and consequences of racial injustice.

In reacting to these criticisms, Evangelicals have attempted to increase their visibility and participation in the ongoing, national conversation on the topic of racial injustice. Recently, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship — an Evangelical campus ministry — held its Urbana 15 Student Missions Conference that had as a keynote speaker a social justice advocate and self-identified supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last week, Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics hosted three members of the Ferguson Commission on a panel entitled Change, Healing and Reconciliation: A Conversation with The Ferguson Commission to discuss the findings of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, in addition to the Church’s response to what many perceive to be blatant and persistent forms of racial inequality.

This week Jim Wallis — author, political activist, and founder of Sojourners magazine offers his contribution to the Evangelical discussion of this culturally sensitive issue in America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.

According to Wallis, this book serves as a “primer on the underlying racism that still exists in America,” and seeks to “talk honestly” about America’s original sin of racial discrimination and how it continues to impact various areas of American life. Wallis argues that white America is obligated to begin the act of contrition — repentance for participating in, and contributing to, racial discrimination against blacks and other minorities. In addition to repentance, Wallis argues that white Americans (which he conflates with white Christians throughout the book) should listen to their “black and brown brothers and sisters” when they tell their stories of racial injustice rather than disregarding these pain-filled experiences as unimportant. For Wallis, these are the necessary first steps toward racial justice and reconciliation.

The book explains that racism is a manifestation of sin — clearly using biblical and theological language to convey the moral evil of racial discrimination. Wallis rightly notes that sin is a theological problem that goes deeper than politics. The book also effectively explains the linguistic and theological contours of repentance. It stresses that repentance is much more than merely adopting an apologetic tone for wrongs committed. Repentance, which follows forgiveness, entails the sincere and complete change of direction of one’s mind (renewal), evidenced by one’s actions (restitution, loving one’s neighbor, etc.). Discussing racism in biblical (moral) terms rather than political terms is a refreshing necessity that should be adopted by Christians and non-Christians alike.

In addition, Wallis laments churches that have “baptized us into our racial divisions” rather than teaching and modeling that our baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, unites us in a way that transcends all earthly limitations. Wallis is spot-on here, and he would have done a great service by expanding the implications of this idea a bit more than the passing glance he gave it.

The book describes the underlying tensions contributing to the current state of race relations in the United States using Ferguson and Baltimore as parabolic examples of the consequences of racial tension. It also discusses in some detail the socio-economic disparities that exist between blacks and whites — including the lower quality of black life in the ghettos, “mass incarceration” and the disproportionate numbers of blacks represented in the penal system, the substandard public school system among other issues, arguing these realities are the result of white privilege and white supremacy. Wallis argues that the root of these disparities is unquestionably found in racial injustice that, because of the shifting racial demographic of the country, not only affect blacks but also other minorities.

That said, having read Wallis’ other work and knowing his political sensibilities direct his religious beliefs, the overall framework and content of America’s Original Sin was rather predictable.

For starters, Wallis says that white racism is an extension of white privilege, but he never explicitly defines “white privilege.” He repeatedly condemns white privilege as if what constitutes white privilege is self-evident. It isn’t. The term “white privilege” is just as intentionally ambiguous as the phrase “Hope and Change.” That is to say it can mean whatever the person invoking it wants it to mean, at any given time, risking contradiction from invocation to invocation. The closest Wallis comes to defining white privilege was to link it to white supremacy. But he didn’t explain how white supremacy — a thoroughly dated but deliberately provocative term — is defined in our contemporary setting.

Likewise, aside from not defining it — but confidently stating that blacks continue to suffer because of it — Wallis never explains how Asian, African, Indian and other immigrants to America without white skin, seem to avoid falling prey to the intentions and negative effects of white privilege. It’s as if they don’t exist so as to preserve the myth.

Throughout the book, Wallis repeatedly suggests that Christians should “talk honestly” about racial injustice, and should engage in “telling the truth about race.” But sadly Wallis doesn’t come close to living up to his own suggestion. As I read the book, I wondered if this truth was objective, or if it was in fact based on how he and others, who share his position on racial matters, (re)define it.

For example Wallis unquestionably claims that all of the socio-economic ills experienced by blacks and other minorities are sourced in the preservation of white supremacy and white privilege. He says this as if the fact that these discrepancies exist are in-and-of themselves, hard evidences of racism. How can Wallis be assured of this? Based on what proof? He gives a number of dizzying statistics that demonstrate the quality-of-life discrepancies between blacks and whites, but he doesn’t give any evidence that validates his claim that these statistics are singularly the result of racism. He does say that “black[s] and [other minorities] are disproportionately consigned to the lowest economic tier is a continuing proof of racism.” He also says that the “systemic and perverse character of racism” in addition to the “cold hard savagery of racism,” is responsible for the declining quality of life among many blacks. The academic and economic experiences of many blacks might contribute a lesser quality of life than their white counterparts — and I believe that in many cases to be true. But, if we’re being honest as Wallis suggests we should be, there are very clear reasons why blacks are academically and economically disadvantaged, and one can argue that racism is but one result. However racism as an explanation in totality, without clear evidence to support such a claim is irresponsible, especially by someone of Wallis’ stature.

(As a side note, the strongest area in which racism can be argued to be actively influential is in the area of education. The substandard education delivered to poor minority children in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and other ghettos across the country is the result of teachers’ unions placing the priority of employing teachers over educating students. That doesn’t absolve black parents from their responsibility of emphasizing academic success by any means. But what’s allowed to happen to poor ghetto children when it comes to education is a national sin.)

Additionally, Wallis argues that blacks suffer these socio-economic maladies because they’re black (because that’s how racism works). No other contributing factors like values, attitudes, behavior and morality are given as reasons or predictors of black suffering. At the same time, whites are successful because they benefit from white privilege. Again, just like the lack of other variables that might explain black suffering, no other reasons are given as reasons or predictors of “white” success. For Wallis, minorities, especially blacks, are never-ending victims of external circumstances, not autonomous beings that are capable of forming ideas, attitudes and behaviors to reduce socio-economic disparities. Thus when Wallis blames all social and economic ills on white racism and ignores black involvement, he engages in the sort of condescending, racial paternalism that re-victimizes blacks, making them powerless when it comes to relying on self-determination to influence and change their own fate. Aside from handicapping blacks, having to constantly beg and depend on external help to solve their problems, he indicts all whites as racists, obligating them (through guilt) to engage in redemptive acts of black charity. That directly contradicts his earlier appeal to the biblical and theological understanding of forgiveness and repentance, which does more to nourish white resentment than it does to cultivate racial reconciliation. And it’s not very Christian.

By reducing the black role in racial reconciliation to the role of a disabled and victimized bystander, the book minimizes the black obligation of forgiveness and repentance. Blacks are not simply in a position to forgive white people for participating and sustaining white racism (where it exists); they’re also in a position to ask whites for forgiveness. Despite the book’s false claim that blacks can’t be racist because they lack the power to implement their discrimination (50), which minimizes black moral responsibility — if racial reconciliation is to become a reality in the church — blacks must be required to ask forgiveness from whites for assuming and projecting racism onto whites where it doesn’t exist. All church-based strategies that seek racial reconciliation and restoration will crash and burn if they don’t include blacks as equals in moral agency, as a result of being created in God’s image in addition to being children of God, and as brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 8:15-15, Galatians. 4:5–6.)

Repeating the overused cliche’ and untrue narrative that blacks are permanent victims of white racism doesn’t make it any more true simply because it’s accompanied with Christian veneer.

America’s Original Sin argues that racism is a sin that’s deeper than politics, yet the remedy offered appears to be almost entirely political. Though effective change can happen through social and economic policy, the reality is our morality dictates our politics. The more Christian morality influences politics, the more impartial legislation can become. Regardless, Christians shouldn’t wait until politicians pass policies they approve of. Christians have to be epistles that emanate the gospel of Christ in our own communities, living as as ambassadors of redemption and in this case, racial reconciliation. In other words, Christians (regardless of color) should be disciples of cruciformity — conforming to the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Christ in pursuit of redeeming and restoring relationships that have been strained and broken along racial lines.

Ultimately, America’s Original Sin, in effect, attempts to Christianize recycled racial narratives without critically or courageously examining why racial, moral and cultural disparities exist between black and white Americans. Simply laying fault to a white racial boogeyman isn’t productive, nor is it particularly Christian. I can’t imagine too many Christians arguing that racism doesn’t exist. I also can’t imagine too many Christians who don’t want to reduce racial inequality or who’re against racial reconciliation. But attempting to provoke them into action through blame, guilt, bad politics and a watered down gospel isn’t a plan for lasting success because it trivializes both the problem and the solution.

In the age of Black Lives Matter and the social expectation to support its agenda or be slandered as racist, Christian contributions to racial reconciliation should approach this issue carefully. Racial inequality deserves the attention and engagement of Evangelicals but not through a superficial and self-righteous agenda that does more damage than good. It’s simply not enough for Christians to look busy while doing nothing in a self-congratulatory manner like Black lives Matter.

America’s Original Sin left a lot on the table, but should be read more for what it isn’t than for what it is.

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