America’s “Original Sin”
Mr Schraub talks race. Before I get to the claim that slavery is America’s “Original Sin” I’d note that Mr Schraub says that the toxicity of being labeled racist makes “true dialog” about what constitutes racism impossible. ‘Cept that’s not really true. Racism is pretty a pretty simple thing to define. Racism is when one makes decisions or assessments based on race, e.g., voting for Mr Obama on account of his racial makeup. And yes, that makes most “race” activists racist themselves, which on reflection is quite obvious. Those who are conscious and likely to notice race are those more likely to make decisions based purely on that. Racism is felt quite universally to be a bad thing, yet given its prevalence, especially amongst those most vocal about the evils of racism and the neutrality of the definition given, perhaps what Mr Schraub is hinting at is that we need a better discussion of why racism is wrong. If one were to assume that the progressive/left is more racially conscious than the right … and therefore more racist is born up by the data linked last week that highlighted the finding that Black elected officials when elected from a mixed race district were more likely to be Republican than Democrat and those who were Democrat were more often from majority Black districts. In past conversations, Mr Schraub noted that race theorists indeed are aware that their work might serve to heighten and strengthen malign race consciousness that they hope to combat. Yes, but the personal imperatives of personal employment in their chosen field seems to defeat that idea quite handily.
However, the primary point of this essay is to examine original sin in the context of American history.
St. Augustine of Hippo is perhaps the primary theologian influencing thought regarding Original Sin in the Western strand of Christian theological thought. There are a lot of parallels between that theology and strands of thought about slavery and race in America. Both notions suffer however, from the same sort of mistake. St. Augustine, in summary, taught that Adam’s primordial sin in the garden passes on to all of us. Adam as proto-human committed the sin of disobedience. All men, from birth, share in that guilt. From this viewpoint then, the importance of Penal Substitution and Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross becomes a linchpin of Western soteriology.
This is however, a quite unnatural way to view justice. If my father steals, I and my children do not share in his guilt. The weight and import (the guilt if you will) of his crime, legal or moral, do not pass to his children. We don’t even consider that in sexual crimes, if a child results, that the child of that act is legally or morally impugned or tainted by that act (well, we don’t justifiably view the child in that way). This is the crux of Augustine’s error.
A better way of viewing Original Sin, which is the prevailing view in the Eastern/non-Augustinian strands of Christian theology, was that we do not inherit guilt or sin from Adam. What we inherit is his exile. Adam, by not being repentant, was cast from the Garden and God’s presence. The consequences of that are estrangement from God and death entering the world. He was exiled. We, as his descendants, share his exile (and to the point, not his guilt). To look at the example from a criminal point of view as was done above, if my parents were exiled as a result of my father’s crime, then I grow up in that place of exile. I inherit the consequence, that is my residence, not the guilt or blame. I and my children are not accountable for this act. From a theological perspective this means in the East, it is the Resurrection which is the dominant soteriological event, not the crucifixion.
Take this back to the notions about American, race, and slavery. Guilt is, contra-Augustine, not heritable. The social conditions and ethnic consequences do exist. However, nobody living today is accountable for the actions begun in the 16th century by Bartolomé de las Casas and the social mechanisms that unfolded from those social/economic innovations. Perhaps it is the prevalence of St. Augustine’s error found so prevalently that allows those who consider slavery America’s “Original Sin” implies that guilt and things like reparations logically follow. They, alas, don’t.
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