Racism, Slavery, and Original Sin

Anxious Bench | 3/22/2019 | Staff
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However strange this may sound, I am ever more struck by the central and continuing role of religious rhetoric in contemporary US politics, and especially from liberals and progressives. But surely, you say, a modern political leader might use conventional religious language, especially at times of catastrophe – sending thoughts and prayers – but when does modern day political debate explicitly draw on complex or demanding theology?

Well, it may not sound religious, in the sense of invoking Christ or Allah, but in the case of one very live current issue, then religious and theological it assuredly is. As an example, look at the language currently being used about racism and the legacy of slavery, which has repeatedly been called “America’s Original Sin.” See for instance Jim Wallis’s book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (2015) or Annette Gordon-Reed, “America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy,” in Foreign Affairs (2018). So is that a religious assertion? Why no, we retort, it is a metaphor. The fact of slavery was an ancient fact that distorted the proper development of the society, and it has left a potent and pervasive inheritance that affects people today. Just a metaphor!

Think - Argument - Catastrophe - Generations - Generations

Or is it? Think of the argument: this was a long ago catastrophe that has irretrievably blighted later generations – perhaps all later generations – unless and until they rid themselves of that curse. And how do they do that? As long as you are under the command of that original sin of slavery and its heritage, you can’t break free of the burden of racism. The only solution is to acknowledge and confess that fact, that you and your whole society are part of that structure of sin, and then you redirect your life into...
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