Earlier this week, Benjamin Watson made a post on Facebook about the mess down in Ferguson that’s gone a bit viral. Apparently he’s a football player, a tight end for the New Orleans Saints. And yes, I did have to look that up; if not for this post I wouldn’t know him from Adam. I try to stay away from blogging about this kind of thing because it’s usually not worth my time and effort when it will hit the news pass and quickly pass away. Talking about that kind of story is almost always reactive rather than proactive, and I try to rise above that temptation.
But Mr. Watson talked about sin. He put this in distinctly religious terms, saying the solution to things like Ferguson is redemption through the Gospel and that’s where he takes his hope from. And honestly? That kind of conversation is where I live.
Let’s start with Mr. Watson’s own words. He started off by talking about all the emotions and reactions he had to the grand jury’s failure to indict, and while I disagreed with a lot of how he characterized the event, if that had been the end of it I wouldn’t be writing this post. (As a white child of suburbia and a small predominantly-white college town, I’m a little uncomfortable telling a black man that his experience of the realities of racism in this country are wrong, even if his sports career and high earnings means he’s probably experiencing parts of it differently than Michael Brown did. It’s the last paragraph I want to talk about. He wrote:
I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.
On one point, I agree with Mr. Watson: incidents like this, like so much wrong in the world are a sin problem. The problem is that Mr. Watson seems to have a grossly insufficient idea of what it means to be sinful. He connects it to bad individual choices we all make, either to antagonize authority or to abuse it, and thinks it will be resolved because “god has provided a solution for sin through his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind.” Repent, he tells us. Follow the gospel and your mind and heart will be transformed.
Salvation, looking at this from the perspective of the human, is really quite easy. You don’t need to do anything. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Eph 2:8-9, NKJV) But there’s really no magical transformation that comes in that moment. It is the first step on a journey toward that transformation of mind and heart Mr. Watson talks about. Spend some time in a pew if you think that everyone who claims to be a Christian – I’d even say everyone who is a Christian – is suddenly a nice, moral person. What you are at that point is on the inside of a covenant relationship. You are reclaimed as a child of God, and you are convicted of your sin.
This is a wonderful, glorious thing. I’m not going to go all tent-revival on you here, but Mr. Watson is absolutely right: it does give us hope. And it puts us on a path, but it’s really just the first step along that path. Actually, it’s not even that: it’s the starter’s gun going off saying now is the time to run and to climb toward that goal you see just beyond your reach. It is the time to work and through the grace of God that process will bring you closer to the transformed hearts and minds that will see past our distinction. Transmutation might be the better term, and transubstantiation as a sort of analogy would not be reaching too far.
Even this process of becoming a better person isn’t something that we can really take credit for or boast in. Just being made aware that we need to change is a sort of miracle, it is something we cannot see on our own, let alone hope to initiate. We have no righto boast in it because it’s no less than someone fit to worship God would work for, and because it’s not the kind of thing we could ever hope to accomplish on our own. But even if it’s miraculous, it’s so, so far from being instantaneous. The Word of God for the People of God, as we say in my church, does give us hope that we can move past the effects of our Sin. But it’s bound to be a long hard slough.
Just calling yourself a Christian doesn’t cut it.
Just actually being a Christian, doesn’t cut it either.
Just going up to the altar at the end of a service, or just saying a certain prayer: these are good things. Maybe even necessary. But they are not in the language of philosophers sufficient – they are not enough to give you the new heart and the new mind that lets you see past the differences and distinctions that sin creates in our lives.
I want to quote another black man who had some thoughts worth thinking through on the issue of racial injustice and racial reconciliation. Not because he’s black but because he is wise and universally recognized as an authority on these matters and has been praised by voices as diverse as Cornel West and Glenn Beck. I could write for quite a lot longer than I can afford these days, so I’ll limit myself to a single passage, albeit a fairly long one:
A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws are democratically elected?
In case you don’t recognize them, these words are taken from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage it. It’s freely available at many places online, for instance here. I’ve added emphasis but otherwise the words are his.
I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Watson that what happened in Ferguson and around the country, along with so many of our reactions to it, is at its heart a sin problem. Sin, as Dr. King recognized, is separation. It is about Eve in the garden hearing the serpent in the garden say “Surely you shall not die,” and believing it. It is being told that this is the rule that applies to everyone but thinking in your heart of hearts, Come on – surely they didn’t mean me there. It is seeing ourselves as the exception to the rule that applies universally, excepting ourselves from the consequences.
And it’s also about seeing a gap between ourselves and our neighbors, not recognizing the commonalities we all share. Mr. Watson mentioned Tamir Rice alongside Trayvon, Michael, and Eric Garner. If you haven’t heard the story, here’s a link to a BBC video describing his killing. (Be warned, it’s video that starts playing automatically.) He was twelve years old, but the cops who shot him, on the tape they describe him as twenty. And that’s not wholly surprising: there’s psychological evidence that many cops perceive black teenagers as older than they actually are. Or going back to Michael Brown, Jamelle Bouie over at Slate does a good job reporting on how many white people (Darren Wilson included, if his grand jury testimony is any indication) seem to see black people as especially vicious and dangerous. Wilson described Brown as a demon and a Hulk, a superhero unable to control himself in his rage. Being redeemed from our sins means being made aware of these blind spots, of really seeing black people and minorities of all stripes not as more violent than they really are, as more brutish or more rage-filled than they truly are. This is being trapped in difference, in sin. And we can (must, should) do better. Redemption involves being made aware of the full effects of our sin, which involves both a lot of work on our part and a lot of insight from those who have a different perspective than ours. If I am truly stuck in my difference, I will not be able to see – on my own – that I am blinded. This seems to be the way sin works, and why we need salvation from our blindness in the first place. We cannot see the damage and the harm we are doing to ourselves.
Now I want to be absolutely clear on what I don’t mean when I say sin is separateness and segregation. A lot of people, particularly in America, talk about being “color-blind,” of not seeing someone’s race as if that makes them not racist, but that’s only just and good if the situation actually isn’t colorblind. That’s why I included the second part of Dr. King’s quote. There are a great number of people in this country, most of them with more melanin in their skin than me, who are hassled by police on a regular basis, or who are charged some pretty high fines for fairly minor crimes like traffic violations and end up in prison or deeply in debt to companies the government “sells” their cases to. This is especially true in poorer areas where you have lower tax revenues and city governments are trying to make up the difference through criminal fees. It is sinful to treat people differently because of the color of their skin – but it is equally sinful to imagine white and black, poor and rich, receive the same treatment from the law.
That’s why I included the second paragraph from Dr. King above: because when we say that I am not harassed by the law, that I am not forced to hide from the law because I have fines I can never hope to pay so any run-in at all with the law may land me in jail, and so no one has any reason to fear or resent the police if they’re not doing anything wrong – when I say that because I have reason to think the police protect me and assume this is true for everyone without asking whether this actually is everyone’s experience? That is “a numerical or power majority group compel[ling] a minority group to obey” what we would never accept being applied to ourselves. It is “difference made legal,” and difference – separation, segregation – is sin.
The other thing I think Mr. Watson is forgetting here is that sin is not just about individuals. Maybe this is the effect of the six years I’ve spent studying among Jesuits; Catholics, and Jesuits in particular, seem to get this aspect of sin better than most Protestants. I don’t want to make assumptions here but I did look up Mr. Watson’s background, and in another interview he said of his faith, “At 5 or 6 years old, my father and I knelt down by my bed and I repented of my sins, and put my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior to forgive me of my sin debt that I couldn’t pay. I got saved at a very young age and I knew what I was doing, and the Holy Spirit came in and I’ve been a Christian ever since.” If he was a white Christian I’d say that maps quite neatly onto the conversion stories I’ve heard coming out of Southern Baptist churches in particular. The whole idea that you deal with sin by having a conversion moment, a point of salvation, and then by repenting of the specific sins.
But sin is so much more complicated than that, it gets into our institutions and if repenting just means turning away from our own individual past actions. It’s not just about repairing the world, but it definitely includes that. Repentance means recognizing the points where we sin, where we impose separation, and not doing that, and actively seeking out help to avoid our blind spots. But it also means recognizing the history and the social constructs and the institutions that separate us and that keep us from being able to see that blindness. When the police in Cleveland describe Tamir Rice as a twenty-year-old when they would never have overestimated a white child’s age, this is sin (not necessarily the officer’s sin, but the effects of sin nonetheless). And when Darren Wilson thinks of Michael Brown as a man so overtaken with his rage he is out of control, and to a demon – first in his thoughts and then in his words – that is sinful too. But it’s also sinful when Rudy Giuliani says blacks are more likely to be killed by other blacks, as if black-on-black crime is a phenomenon unique to that ethnicity, or when minorities don’t talk to the cops because they don’t think those people will give members of their community a fair shake.
It may not be those peoples‘ sins; I mean it’s the effect of the institutions that both drive us apart into groups so we see the other person as the enemy, and equally blind us to the ways we actually are different, making us think our own experience is universal. This is the institutional effect of sin, and it runs deep. Trying to do your best on an individual level just isn’t going to cut it. Being forgiven is a good first step, it’s wonderful and so necessary, and forgiving our fellow man is wonderful and important as well, but it’s still just the first step.
At the end of the day, I think people like Benjamin Watson have it exactly right. I just wish they saw how right they were, and what exactly this being a sin problem really has to mean.