Growing up Protestant, I heard lots of sermons in my life about being ‘born in sin.’ How we, descendants of Adam’s sin, are born with a sin nature (Psalm 51), and “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) We’re all individually wired for evil, and we’re all pretty good at it. Most notably myself.
But maybe that doesn’t just mean what we think it means. For the most part, this is put in strictly individualist terms. But what if it means more? What if there are racial and societal sins I’m born into, too? What if I’m not just responsible for my own sins, but those I benefit from or that oppress others? Is there another side to being born into sin that we miss?
(Disclaimer: This is a post about race. In writing about race, especially as a white person, I know I will get things wrong. But I would rather humbly try, and keep learning as I go, than stay silent and risk complicity. Staying silent on this is not an option – but neither is pretending I’ve got it all figured out.)
I’m a middle-class white American woman. I was born into the sin of white privilege – in a place and into a system that favors my skin color. (What white privilege is not: White privilege does not mean that white people do not work hard. It does not mean that white people don’t face challenging obstacles too. It does not mean that there are not poor white people who face systemic oppression in the form of poverty, or other injustices. A great definition of the term can be found here, and a great article elaborating on what that means, here.)
This was not a nice realization for me. I quickly wanted to qualify it, and that’s what being ‘born in sin’ can do — cause us to make excuses. The long history of racism in this country is not my fault necessarily. I’m not responsible for the sins of my fathers, but I am guilty if I am still benefitting from the way they structured our society and oppressed others, especially in ways that still have an impact today. It’s a sinful system I am born into, and need to be ‘born again’ out of.
Our country was founded by men who looked at black people and Native Americans as less than human beings. The, now never sung, third verse of the star-spangled banner literally celebrates the death of slaves. We have, thank God, moved away from formal, legal slavery in this country. And the results of the Civil Rights Movement were good, but that work is by no means complete. Racism is not in the past. Not when African Americans have lost untold acres of land over the last century. Not when there are massive efforts to still disenfranchise people of their votes. Not when black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people. Not when school segregation is still widespread, and minority students are punished more frequently and more harshly than their white counterparts. Not when Native Americans are marginalized to the point of invisibility. Not when innocent people, even children, are shot and killed by the order-keepers of our society.
We’re lying if we say racism isn’t a part of our present. And whether you were holding a tiki torch in Charlottesville or not, as white people, our whiteness still benefits us. I benefit from the historic legacy of white supremacy – better access to credit, more possibilities for housing, more positive assumptions from teachers about my behavior which affect what schools and career choices available to me. I have had interactions with the police that could have gone very differently if my skin color was darker. I assume these certain entitlements simply because I am white, because our society is marked by the assumed legitimacy of white people.
Last weekend when everything was going on in Charlottesville, I wanted to switch of my phone, not read the news, and not even think about it. The fact that I can switch off if I want and choose to not think about racism, is a privilege. I’m still learning to see it, and there is still so much more I need to do better.
Martin Luther King said about the Supreme Court Justices in 1857 who ruled that African Americans could not be American citizens, “[They] were not wicked men. But they were victims of spiritual an intellectual blindness. They knew not what they did. The whole system of slavery was largely perpetuated by sincere though spiritually ignorant people.”
Sincere, but blind.
Naming white privilege isn’t about making white people feel bad. I’m not demonizing my race for the sake of it, or because of a guilt complex. I must, however, come to terms with the historic reality of systemic oppression committed by my ancestors, the effects of which have distorted the possibility of true equality today. Many of us are simply blind to the reality of the sin we are born into.
Salvation in the gospels is so often equated with the blind regaining sight. So must we have our blindness healed – and see afresh the reality we are born into and complicit in. This requires that we listen, truly listen, to people of color, then repent, and change.
Gena Thomas points out in her excellent book, A Smoldering Wick:
“Christ called both oppressors (tax collectors) and the oppressed (fishermen) to become his disciples. He ate with the rich and fed the poor…Restoring humanity involves both individual redemptive justice and systematic redemptive justice…Redemption is needed not only in individual lives, but also in systems, cycles, infrastructures and societal norms.”
Jesus prayed that God would forgive his oppressors for “they know not what they do.” Not all of us who oppress know that we are oppressors. But we have been born into that sin all the same, and need to repent all the same too. We don’t accept, “I didn’t know” as an excuse to keep on individual sinning – nor should we for our systemic, cyclic, and societal sins.
Maybe we don’t hear about this in our faith communities because it’s uncomfortable. Often, it’s easier ‘stay in our lane’, focus on saving souls, and leaves the “real world” up to others, in part in the name of keeping the peace.
I am for peace, too, but quietness in the face of white supremacy is the opposite of peace. For there can be no peace, no shalom, when people lord over others. Right now is a great time to act on your conscience if you ever wondered what you would have done during the Civil Rights Movement. We must pray against white supremacy, and then we must act.
May we keep trying to align ourselves with a savior who aligned himself with the oppressed, yet ate with sinners, both rich and poor. Oppressed and oppressor. He offered redemption to all. There is hope for me, a white woman, yet. Hallelujah.
♦A great video that illustrates what privilege looks like. (No, this does not define a person, but it is a helpful, enlightening exercise.)
♦An excellent graphic of overt and covert white supremacy. This has been really helpful for me.