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Sin, Racism, and Privilege

Total depravity
I am a worm, not human
All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags
I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor
That saved a wretch, like me

A Reformed notion of sin is pretty high proof. Strong stuff. Lots of people can’t drink it straight. Personally, I can’t say that I’ve ever been too traumatized by it.

But I know it has burdened a lot of people with shame and anger. It has kept therapists and pharmacists busy. Most of us in the Reformed orbit have tried to tone it down a bit, not to make it the main thing, not to mess with people too much.

But recent events have caused me to wonder if our world couldn’t use at least a part of our Reformed notion of sin.

In the discussions of racism and privilege, observers have noticed that those who deny white privilege and disbelieve the pervasive nature of racism have been able to frame the debate so that one must show personal and willful intention to be considered “racist.” In other words, broadly social attitudes, generational stains, institutional structures, and even unspoken, unintended, or careless acts “don’t really count.”

This shouldn’t be too surprising. The individual, choice, volition, and personal responsibility are sacred icons in our society. Likewise, we want to see ourselves as free from the hoary traditions and hidebound conventions. Every day I can start afresh. There is incredible dynamism and freedom in such dogmas. It is heady stuff.Tomorrow fresh

If sin is only individual, isolated, deliberate, and in the here and now, then it makes sense to say that since I wasn’t alive during slavery and neither were today’s African-Americans, then slavery must be irrelevant to today’s discussion of racism. Or in one of the most deliciously ironic comments, “How can I even be a racist? I don’t ever interact with African Americans.”

A deep, broad, and Reformed understanding of sin brings into the discussion such things as shared wrongs, sinning unknowingly, sinning through inactivity, indirectly benefiting from the oppression of others, being tainted by our ancestors’ actions, being caught up in broken systems that we cannot fully change or remove ourselves from. Sin not sins. A condition, not deeds. These, however, are concepts difficult to introduce in a world formed by can-do American individualism.

I hear some willingness to own a sense of responsibility for future generations—bequeathing them our national debt, conferring a very hot and toxic planet to our grandchildren, for example. But I hear very little acknowledgement of the messes, ruts, and tragedies we inherited from prior generations. I can’t explain this asymmetry. We, along with the prophet Jeremiah, want to disavow the proverb, “The parents have eaten sour grapes and children’s teeth are set on edge.”

Incomplete understandings of sin might also be at play in other modern-day controversies. I’ve seen it suggested that American gun-lovers have an almost Manichean mindset. For them there is cosmic struggle between good and evil. The divide between the two is deep and distinct. The forces of goodness must be courageous—and well-armed—to hold evil at bay. Sin is “out there,” but not very much within. This mythos suggests that I will use my gun to protect my house, my freedom, my family from the evil intruder. A blurrier, more pervasive Reformed view of sin would remind us that my weapon is more likely to harm my loved one or me. And accidents do happen, despite all good intentions.

The abortion debate might be a place where we have seen the gradual acceptance of more robust and complex notion of sin. Focusing solely on an individual’s “poor decision” or “disobedience,” and seeking to criminalize it hasn’t accomplished much. Foes of abortion, at least some of them, have begun to see that the mother is only one piece in a complex puzzle. That puzzle includes everything from the father to diapers, job opportunities to birth control. No doubt some are concerned that broadening the focus “lets the individual off the hook” too easily. A Reformed understanding of sin doesn’t deny the importance of individual decisions and responsibilities. It does, however, help us remember that “good decisions” aren’t mainly the product of willpower, fear of punishment, or even better information. We make better decisions when we are in healthy communities and have a hopeful future.

If the discussion around abortion has become more complex—dare I say more “Reformed”?—is there reason to hope that discussions around racism and privilege can also move beyond including only individual volition and personal actions? I’ll admit I feel pretty stymied and befuddled about how to make that happen. I can think about how not to do it—finger-pointing, provoking defensiveness, “liberal guilt.”

We Reformed folk have been admonished for our gloomy, despairing understanding of sin. But maybe we still have something to add to conversations, on racism and more. Am I being naïve to hope that Reformed congregations, their worship, preaching, and teaching, can help bring this about?

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Excellent, excellent, excellent. I think wearing a shirt that says “Black Live Matter” on the front can say, “Stand Up for Total Depravity” on the back.

  • I agree with you. I come to understand my responsibility for systemic injustice or other broadly “human” blunders and tragedies precisely through “original sin.” It helps me shoulder more than my own individual failings, to find the willingness to admit “I’m part of all of this mess.” I’m part of the problem and, in Christ, part of the redemption. It grounds me in “community” as well as in “communion of the saints.” Thanks for this post.

  • Jill C. Fenske says:

    I LOVE begin Reformed… although there are many who don’t get it. Nice work on a tough subject(s)…

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    It isn’t the Reformed understanding of sin that is negative and depressing, it is how we chose to present it all for centuries. We can do better.

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