America’s Original Sin, Jim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.
Summary: Explores our nation’s deeply ingrained history of racism and particularly the challenges facing white Christians in bridging these racial divides.
“The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”
The author of this book contends that this sentence, in a 1987 issue of Sojourners, was the most controversial sentence he ever wrote. The controversy behind that statement supports the thesis of this book, that racism is America’s “original sin,” a part of our beginnings as a nation that we have wrestled with throughout our national existence, but never truly repented of.
Wallis begins with his own story of growing up in Detroit and working with Butch, a black man who opened his eyes to two very different Detroits and two different realities–for example “the talk” that all black parents have with their children when they learn to drive that white parents do not have with theirs. This concerns how to act if stopped by the police, where to put one’s hands and so forth. He considers Ferguson, and Baltimore, two cities riven with turmoil after police-involved shootings of black men as parables revealing the racial fault lines in the American story. He then reviews our past history and current demographics and events to show that our attitudes around race are indeed our national “original sin” that only profound repentance can heal.
The next chapters explore the nature of true, rather than superficial, repentance, and that this means for the white community to which he writes a “dying” to our whiteness as we recognize the “white privilege” we have enjoyed. I suspect that for many this may be some of the most controversial material. I find this language uncomfortable. I grew up in a working class neighborhood and didn’t feel terribly “privileged” compared to more affluent people in the suburbs ringing my city. It was not until later years that I understood blacks had been red-lined out of our area of the city and I had the benefit of attending one of the best city schools with over 95 percent of the students being white. I began to realize the privilege that I had enjoyed in a racialized society. It also separated me from blacks in my city, made them an “other” who were treated differently in retail establishments, by the police and more. Real repentance means, even though I didn’t choose this “privilege,” to acknowledge that I have benefited from a sinful division of people, to not hold onto or idolize “whiteness” and to begin to intentionally seek a very different future.
The place, Wallis contends, where we begin, is the church, still a highly segregated entity. It means listening to different ethnic voices, and submitting to leadership from ethnicity other than one’s own. Another important place to begin is in the policing of our communities, where police move from being warriors to guardians and where police become integral part of the communities they protect and serve so that both they and their communities affirm both that black lives matter and that blue lives matter. It begins with advocating for restorative justice rather than a new form of Jim Crow justice with differential incarceration rates for the same crimes depending on one’s race.
Dealing with the sin of race extends to our immigration policies. Until our recent election cycle, there was a growing conversation in the evangelical community supporting immigration reform. Reading this post-election seemed like reading from a different world. Even the chapter title, “Welcoming the Stranger” seems foreign. Wallis then concludes the book talking about “crossing the bridge to a new America.” One of the most compelling passages for me was the interaction Wallis had with a group of fifth graders in a Washington, DC public school, who asked Wallis why Congress seemed afraid to change the immigration system. He writes:
“I paused to consider their honest question and looked around the room–the classroom of a public school fifth-grade class in Washington DC. I looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and European American children. Then it hit me.
‘They are afraid of you,’ I replied
‘Why would they be afraid of us?’ the shocked students asked, totally perplexed. I had to tell them.
‘They are afraid you are the future of America. They’re afraid their country will someday look like this class–that you represent what our nation is becoming.'”
Re-reading this passage, I think of a Sunday School song I grew up with, admittedly one that indulged in some stereotypes about skin color for which I apologize, and yet that represented the underlying gospel values of my white evangelical congregation:
“Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
Wallis’s quote challenged me with the reality of whether we will love all the children of the world that God is gathering in our country, or fear them. Will we see that fifth-grade classroom as the realization of our deep gospel values, and strive for churches that reflect this in our love and our life. Or will we remain racially separate, hiding behind walls of fear, saying that it is OK for Jesus to love these children as long as they are somewhere else in the world.
Wallis contends we stand at the approach to a bridge between the racist America of the past and a different America that values “all the children of the world” in our midst. His book is an invitation for white evangelical America to walk the way of repentance and cross that bridge rather than walk away from it. I’m reminded that God does not forbear forever. If we miss this chance, dare we presume there will be another?