Friday, June 28, 2019

Original Sin

When I learned that the Bible college in which I had enrolled taught against the doctrine of original sin, I was shocked. That, together with the teaching that salvation takes place at the moment of baptism by immersion, convinced me that these people were terrible heretics who were opposed to the core teachings of orthodox, apostolic Christianity. Within two years I agreed with them on both points, and continued to do so, for the most part, for nearly two decades. When my faith ended and turn to reason began, I jettisoned concerns about eternal salvation and maintained my conviction that no one is born guilty of their ancestors sins. I fit right in among Unitarian Universalists. And yet, I'm hearing complaints now of a doctrine of original sin slipping into this liberal religious tradition.

Before anything else, for those unfamiliar with the concept, here's how Encyclopaedia Britannica describes original sin:

Original sin, in Christian doctrine, the condition or state of sin into which each human being is born; also, the origin (i.e., the cause, or source) of this state. Traditionally, the origin has been ascribed to the sin of the first man, Adam, who disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit (of knowledge of good and evil) and, in consequence, transmitted his sin and guilt by heredity to his descendants.
The Stone-Campbell Movement, of which I was a part for many years, rejected the doctrine of hereditary original sin on the grounds of both justice and what the Bible itself says. It seems terribly unfair for an infant to be held responsible for the misdeeds of its parents, and this is acknowledged by one of the Hebrew prophets:

"The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own." (Ezekiel 18:20 NRSV)

When I was an evangelical it annoyed me that progressive religious people only seemed to talk about systemic sin. It seemed obvious to me that other, individual acts, also need to be condemned as sinful. Adultery, murder, and so forth are clearly sinful, and yet I only ever heard about religious liberals speaking out against systemic sin. I felt as though there was no accountability being advocated. Now, as a Unitarian Universalist, it baffles me that so many white progressives can't understand white supremacy as a systemic sin, and instead interpret it as an accusation of personal sin.

It turns out that progressive religious people are able to identify individual sin. The instigators of genocide, for example, bear more responsibility than those who carried it out (although both are guilty). The difference is that among religious liberals there is an ideal of reconciliation and restoration, acknowledging that situations are often complex, mental health issues can be involved, and there are often extenuating circumstances. Whenever possible we prefer to have such private matters resolved in court or on the therapist's couch, and if necessary through a right relationships process within the fellowship.

The problem is that when we talk about dismantling white supremacy in Unitarian Universalism, white people perceive it as a personal attack. White people who have marched for civil rights don't like being told that they are part of a system that is oppressive towards people unlike themselves, because they feel as though they've paid their dues and prove themselves as good 'allies.' Some have suffered at the hands of other white people for standing up for their black and brown siblings, and so to have the people they defended suggesting that they haven't done enough is profoundly offensive.

Except, for the most part, that isn't really what's going on. Exploitation based on race might be the original sin of the United States of America, but that does not mean that every white baby is born bearing the guilt of that sin. White supremacy isn't so much like original sin as it is the water we swim in and the air we breathe. All of us, whatever our race or ethnicity. Because of privilege, white people may bear greater responsibility for supporting anti-racism efforts, but they are not guilty of the sins of their slave-owning forebearers.

Troublingly, many white progressives can't see the problem. They consider their dominant culture to be 'standard,' what is shared by all, and all else is 'subculture.' It's difficult for whites think about it and ask themselves what is 'white culture' apart from what they see as the common culture we all share. It's easier to picture a black or hispanic subculture, to be sure. That's because, as I've said, the dominant culture is white culture, and by requiring ltbtq+ and people of color to participate in the life of Unitarian Universalism on the terms of 'common culture,' they are in fact being compelled to participate on the terms of white culture.

Further, white progressives tend to think that the only proper response to the reality of racism and white supremacy is guilt. Folks, hand-wringing white guilt won't help anyone. The guilt itself is useless, unless it leads to action for positive change. Again, this isn't about guilt, but rather about responsibility derived from privilege. It also isn't a call to action for white people to take the lead. Rather, it's about the collective struggle for liberation, one that most properly is led by those most hurt by oppression.

Unitarian Universalism does not accept original sin, and white supremacy is not the new original sin. We are all responsible to one another in the pursuit of liberation, and those with greatest responsibility own the greatest support to those most harmed.


Original Sin
The Britannica -

Unpacking Whiteness
Elaine McArdle -