America’s Original Sin(s)

It’s been said that racism is America’s original sin. Whether it be Native Americans, Africans, or the Japanese, America has a long and ugly history of singling out certain ethnic and racial groups for special attention, detention and abuse. Slavery, perhaps is the darkest chapter of that history and we are still dealing with the aftermath.

The evangelical church used to be as equally concerned with social ills as with personal salvation. Key players in the abolitionist movement were people of faith who risked their lives and fortunes eradicating what they saw as a sin against God and humanity. The Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th century brought not only personal salvation but social reform. The Presbyterian Minister Jonathan Blanchard decried the evils of slavery based on his interpretation of the Bible and, in particular, what he considered the oneness of all humanity. He stated that: “I rest my opposition to slavery upon the one-bloodism of the New Testament. All men are equal, because they are of one equal blood.”

You have heard me say essentially the same things from the pulpit and that “we all stand on equal ground at the foot of the cross.” We share not only in the blood of Christ but in each other’s blood by way of our common humanity and connection to the Source. It’s shocking to me that the 80% of evangelicals, who happened to vote for our current president, have not made racial reconciliation a defining issue. Many in the church have made a Faustian bargain with the political establishment and have been willing to overlook the continuing injustices related to law enforcement, the criminal justice system and economic inequality.

There certainly needs to be room in any faith community for discussion and disagreement about the political solutions needed to address the social ills and sins which still plague us. But if there’s any evangelical blood left in my body it yearns for the great tradition of spiritual and social reform embodied in people like Blanchard, Lyman Beecher and even C.G. Finney.

If the evangelical church is to save its soul and if our great United States of America is to save its democracy it needs to get back to “basics.” A recent Atlantic magazine article nails down what this means for me: “Democracy is not merely a set of procedures. It has a moral structure. The values we celebrate or stigmatize eventually influence the character of our people and polity. Democracy does not insist on perfect virtue from its leaders. But there is a set of values that lends authority to power: empathy, honesty, integrity and self-restraint. And the legitimization of cruelty, prejudice, falsehood, and corruption is the kind of thing, one would think, that religious people were born to oppose, not bless.”

The Jewish high holy days have just been completed. A part of that great tradition is the cry of repentance and the search for atonement. In that vein I am reminded of a Hebrew Scripture popular with evangelicals: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will heal their land.” II Chronicles 7:14