The author, activist, and preacher Jim Wallis has called racism America’s original sin. Racism is, indeed, an ancient and ugly sin. It is a sin that is even more heinous when it occurs in the Church of Jesus Christ in whom there “is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”
Yet I think Wallis is wrong to identify racism as America’s original sin. There is an even older one. It was here before our “more perfect” – though never perfected – union was formed. There is greed.
When I was in elementary school (and, later, junior high and high school), I liked history classes. History texts and history teachers told stories, interesting stories that affirmed my place in the world as an American. Before I left elementary school, I understood that our forefathers and foremothers heroically left their homes and journeyed here to gain their religious freedom.
While this is true it is not the entire truth. Whatever the reason our particular forefathers and foremothers came here, many of them were able to come because their presence in the new world proved economically advantageous to the Crown and to the leading business interests of England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Mercantilism, the reigning economic policy in the western world for three centuries, proposed that wealth (and therefore security) depended on increasing exports and decreasing imports. A nation could only achieve economic security by discovering and claiming new lands and developing their resources.
It was also necessary to people these new lands. Resources were of no advantage if they remained in the ground. Trees must be cut, precious minerals mined, coffees and teas and, later, tobaccos, harvested. This required workers. Lots of workers.
The English colonies in America were founded with land grants made by James I to the London and Plymouth Companies. These were developed as business entities, owned by shareholders, and managed for financial profit. The new land held out the promise of staggering profits to a tiny group of investors.
Georgia, the last of the thirteen British colonies to be chartered, proved to be the exception. Its founder envisioned it as a place where debtors and the “worthy poor” could flourish. Historians, however, suggest that the Crown was more interested in Georgia’s value as a buffer between Spanish-held territory to the south and the income-producing colonies to the north.
The slave trade, and the despicable injustices that went along with it, occurred in the context of international business interests pursuing profits with the support of governments that were maneuvering for economic advantage. Knowing this, one might think that America’s original sin was greed.
However, greed itself is not an original sin. It feeds off insecurity and fear. The seventeenth century’s frenzied struggle for national supremacy was based, at least in part, on fear: fear the Catholics would win – or the Protestants. Fear the French would take the Rhineland, the Spanish would dominate the seas, and the English would wrest control of Africa’s west coast from the Dutch. When fear reigns, people are treated as tools of acquisition and enough is never enough.
Even after descending through the strata of racism, greed, and fear, we have not yet reached the bedrock of our sin. Fear, which has plagued humanity through all its generations, was born of people’s alienation from each other and, more fundamentally, from God. The original sin was not racism or greed but humanity’s rejection of its creator.
St. Paul wrote about this in his magnum opus, the Letter to the Romans. “For although they knew God,” he wrote, “they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile…” This was not only a step away from God but away from each other. What follows in Paul’s letter are the ways humans degraded each other and dishonored themselves.
America is now paying attention to racism. Good. May healing come out of it. But pulling down statues and defacing images will not bring the God-dishonoring, human-devaluing sin of racism to an end. Only reconciliation with the reconciling God, which leads to love and respect for one another, can accomplish that.
First published by Gatehouse Media.