Jim Wallis is a white, evangelical Christian who believes this: that racism is America’s original sin. He wrote a book by that title.
I agree with Jim Wallis. I believe racism is American’s original sin. And more than that, I believe that racism is a calamity, a catastrophe. With respect to this country and this soil, racism has visited untold horror upon American Indians and enslaved Africans and their descendants … to the nth generation.
I believe racism is a sin for two reasons: biblical and personal. First, the personal.
Personally, I believe racism is a sin because my heart and my head (informed by personal relationships and by theological and moral reflection) tell me so. Two brief, illustrative stories.
Decades ago while studying for the ministry in New Haven, Connecticut, I had a part-time job: interviewing detainees in the bowels of the New Haven Court building. It was a dark, dank, subterranean chamber with cells. It smelled of urine and stale sweat.
One Friday night, through cold steel bars, I interviewed a man who had arrested that afternoon for “breaking and entering” a car … a parked car … a car parked on Yale University campus. Turns out, that the car the man was arrested and jailed for breaking and entering was his own.
I remember him clearly to this day: A forty-five year old man, wrapped in brown skin, his wife waiting for him at home. He had been interviewing for a janitorial position at the University, but when the Yale Police saw him they didn’t think he belonged there. They didn’t bother to ask enough questions or listen to his answers. He spent the weekend in jail. Racism.
Second story. Today, if you go visit Yale Divinity School you will quickly notice that almost all of the students of color, almost every day, wear t-shirts, or shirts, or hoodies with Yale emblazoned on them. They wear Yale paraphernalia, not because of their pride in the school, but in hopes that what happened to that man I interviewed 35 years ago won’t happen to them today. In hopes that the four letter world Y-A-L-E will prevent them from being similarly profiled: arrested, searched, detained, dismissed, mistreated, or looked upon with suspicion for being black.
I believe racism is a sin because the Bible tells me so. Let me cite just three examples:
First and foremost, racism violates the first and greatest commandment: to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Second, it was racism that enabled slavery and the Bible is crystal clear on this: that God abhors slavery. We invoked the Exodus story in the Call to Worship. Ours is a God who loves and liberates slaves.
Third, St Paul writes that in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free … that in Christ Jesus we are made equal and any differences among and between us are dissolved in the equalizing love of God.
Such that the balances of power and the imbalances of power that are alive among us—right here in this sanctuary: imbalances of money and education, skin color and gender, nationality and familiarity with the King’s English, and whether you own a car or ride the bus, own a home or sleep outside—these differences and differentials of power, as real as they are here, now, among us, are dissolved before God.
Racism is a sin. And racism is a catastrophe and a calamity.
Racism fills jails and prisons disproportionately with people of color. Racism tears families asunder. Racism plants and cultivates seeds of privilege over here and disadvantage over there; seeds of false-pride over there and self-loathing over here; seeds of arrogance in some and of shame in others. Racism cultivates gated communities in some locales and urban wastelands in others. Such are the fruits and such the rotten produce of racism.
About this time every year, the second week of May, Old South Church celebrates a saint of this church … a saint whose life work it was to open human eyes and human hearts to the rotten produce of racism.
There is an insert in your bulletin that provides a brief timeline of Phillis Wheatley’s life. Born in Africa she was ripped from home and family at the tender age of 7 (or so) and sold into slavery. She somehow endures the wretched Middle Passage, arrives in Boston and is purchased by the Wheatley’s who, God help them, name the child after the slaver that delivered her to Boston, The Phillis.
She learns English, as a second language, and is encouraged to read and write. At the age of 14 this enslaved girl has published her first poem.
In 1771, in an act of independence from the Wheatley family, she chooses to join this church, not the Wheatley’s church. She is baptized in and becomes a member of Old South Church … whose ministers welcome more enslaved persons and more persons of African descent than any other ministers in Boston.
In 1773 Wheatley’s book of poem is published. In a stunningly cruel twist of fate her book, published in London, arrives in Boston Harbor aboard The Dartmouth, one of the three ships held up in the Boston Tea Party, delaying the off-loading of her book.
We often celebrate Phillis Wheatley—and so we should—but, if we are honest, there is much to atone for as well. Her church, this church, has much to atone for and forgiveness to ask.
In 1771 at the age of 18 Phillis Wheatley chose to be baptized in this church and to join as a member. Which means, she is family. You have heard me say that for Christians the waters of baptism are thicker than blood.
So, I find myself haunted by this question: How did it come about that Phillis Wheatley, who died at the age of 31, died in dire poverty and humiliation?
How is it that her grave is unknown and unmarked? How is it that this church (her Christian family, our forebears) didn’t pool resources to purchase her a plot, order a headstone, and hold a service to celebrate the life of the most famous African of her time?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But before God and this church I confess that we failed this saint, this member of our church family.
These matters are in the past. They cannot be fixed. They can be confessed. They can be repented of. They can be atoned for.
What we can do, and what we are doing—but have so much more to do—we are reading about racism … collecting resources and sharing them.
Some of the books we have been reading: Jim Wallis: America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America; William Barbers: The Third Reconstruction; Painters: The History of White People; The Ferguson Report; Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; Debby Irving’s Waking up White; Coate’s Between the World and Me … to name only a few …
And, we are talking about race and racism here at Old South and out there in the world. We are listening to and learning from each other. We held a racial justice training day a week ago Saturday. We have researched and named aloud before God all of the enslaved members of this church and honored them. And, today, in memory and honor of Phillis Wheatley, we honor a contemporary leader … a woman who stands in the line of Phillis Wheatley … on the shoulders of Phillis Wheatley. Today we honor broadcast journalist Callie Crossley with the Open Door award. The Rev June Cooper will present it in a moment as Ms. Crossley employs the media of this day—as Phillis Wheatley employed the media of her day— to push, prod, pry, talk, or sweet talk, or kick open any doors still closed to women and people of color.
We are committed to this. We owe this to each other. We owe this to Phillis Wheatley. We owe this to God because racism is not only a moral failure … not only is it a calamity, a catastrophe that visits untold horror upon too many … in the end, racism is a sin against both our fellow human beings and against God.