“Original sins” and racial justice: What’s on the other side?

Justine Toh explores what religious language like "original sin" adds to discussions of racial injustice.

The phrase “original sin” usually stops, not starts, conversations. Yet in these days of racial reckoning, it’s become powerful shorthand for the deep injustice suffered by people of colour at the hands of the white establishment.

“The original sin of slavery stains our country today,” said Democratic Presidential hopeful Joe Biden after the death of George Floyd. Even across the partisan divide, Republican and US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agrees. This kind of language, at least in the United States, approaches the status of cliché.

Here in Australia, far more secular, we rarely tolerate such religious speak in public life. Yet the ripple effects of Black Lives Matter here — like protests over Aboriginal deaths in police custody and our own statue wars — show that even if Australians shy away from the language of “sin,” they still believe in it.

Writing in the Sydney Morning HeraldChris Uhlmann, Nine news political editor and former seminarian, declared, “Aboriginal dispossession is the Original Sin of Australia’s settlement.” He meant that stolen land, language, and identity had robbed generations of Aboriginal people of dignity, wealth, and a fair go. For Uhlmann, Indigenous disadvantage today traces back to the founding of Australia.

Or rather, “these lands now called Australia,” as Brooke Prentis often says. She’s a Wakka Wakka woman, Aboriginal Christian leader, and CEO of Common Grace, which campaigns for Aboriginal rights, refugees, the environment, and against family violence. Brooke is also the first Indigenous CEO of a Christian organisation in Australia.

For her, “original sin” language has its limits. “‘Original sin” focuses on first or foundational sin,” she said, “but we need to address many of the injustices: stolen land, stolen wages, stolen lives, the failure to close the gap, overrepresentation in prison systems, Aboriginal children in Northern Territory detention centres, the destruction of sacred sites.”

But if pressed to name one overarching offense? “The sin of this nation is the theft of the land, and that’s something that hasn’t been dealt with.”

To speak of sin, or wrongdoing, in national terms makes for a vivid, if imperfect, metaphor, according to Esau McCaulley, an African American assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts university in Illinois. In America, slavery is the usual culprit. “But our First Nations people might say the original sin of America was the taking [of the land] and the disruption of our native peoples,” McCaulley said.

Then there’s the way the metaphor makes use of, not entirely faithfully, the Christian idea of “original sin”: the idea that all of us are broken in ways we can’t fix. Since that goes for individuals as much as for nations, there’s nothing all that original, so to speak, about America’s or Australia’s original sins.

But one thing the metaphor gets right, McCaulley says, is the pervasive nature of sin. It doesn’t just describe personal failure, but the disordering of all human relationships. Structural injustice that disadvantages particular people groups is part of that picture.

“In the same way that sin in the Christian context impacts every aspect of the human experience, the racism that undergirded slavery still impacts America,” he said, citing, for instance, housing discrimination and educational inequality disproportionately experienced by African Americans. “This brokenness about our country stalks us from decade to decade, century to century. Unless this sin problem is dealt with in an intentional way, it’s going to continue to plague us.”

No doubt this is a gloomy picture. But it need not be hopeless.

Christianity has, perversely, been used to justify the enslavement of African Americans, to baptise the removal of Aboriginal people from their lands and sometimes Aboriginal children from the care of their families — all “for their own good.” But it has also given victims of historic and present injustice the language to contest their own oppression. They’ve appealed to God for justice: the same God they supposedly share with the slave-master, settler, and other white Christians.

“When you call something sinful, you’re speaking to a transcendent moral norm. This is something that is clearly outrageous, it’s not simply because it upsets us. It is wrong on a fundamental level. It offends God himself. Calling it sinful is what it is,” McCaulley said.

Protestors marching on the streets against racism or calling for the removal of colonial statues may not typically label what they’re protesting against as “sinful.” But their instincts are easily translatable into religious concepts. Their rage channels what the Bible calls righteous anger. They want an honest accounting of our failures as a nation and as a people, followed by the desire to change and put things right. Christianity has typically called this “repentance” and “restitution.”

Brooke Prentis hopes that all people can live into the reality of what she calls reconciliation with repentance.

But what may be lacking, McCaulley says, is a vision of what comes after the rage, and even the prospect of forgiveness and friendship. Clearly, it’s too soon to have that conversation. The reckoning and hard work of repair — and, in the United States, reparations — has barely begun.

But Brooke Prentis hopes that all people can live into the reality of what she calls reconciliation with repentance. “Aboriginal peoples know the results of the sin of this nation and we grieve for that, but we stand up for justice and still call all non-indigenous people into relationship even after all the hurt,” she said.

For McCaulley, God’s guarantee of ultimate justice allows him to imagine peace with his antagonists. “If there is no God, if there is no transcendent moral norm, then let’s just get revenge. Why not? Why not burn everything to the ground?” he said. “But if there is this sense in which there is this moral order to the universe, then maybe there can be this brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity on the other side of what we’re experiencing now.”

Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, host of the occasional “Spiritual Lifehack” series on ABC RN’s Soul Search and, very occasionally, guest host of ABC RN’s God Forbid.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.