The ‘original sin’ of America – and Australia

What happens when religious language reckons with racial injustice.

“The original sin of this country still stains our nation today,” said Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden in the wake of the police killing, in May, of George Floyd.

The phrase “America’s original sin is slavery” is so widely used in the United States that it is practically cliché. But what does it actually mean?

“When you call something sinful, you’re speaking to a transcendent moral norm. As a person of faith, I think that what America does isn’t simply wrong to other human beings. It offends God himself,” says Esau McCaulley, an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, and the author of the forthcoming Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we explore the crossover between the metaphor of ‘original sin’ in discussions of racial injustice and the Jewish and Christian idea of human brokenness found right at the beginning of the Bible. Not only does the metaphor invoke collective wrongdoing, but questions of justice and restitution.

We also invite Ray Minniecon, a descendant of the Karbi Karbi and Gurang Gurang peoples, an Aboriginal pastor and activist, to examine Australia’s complicity in a similar, but different, ‘original sin’: the dispossession of the indigenous people of Australia.

“We’ve been living these lies for far too long,” Ray said, citing the declaration, not overturned until 1992 with the Mabo Decision, that Australia was terra nullius or ‘empty land’.

“Until those lies are addressed, which are the sins of the nation, then how on earth can we start to work out a better future?”

Read Esau McCaulley’s New York Times opinion piece ‘What the Bible has to Say About Black Anger’

Buy Esau McCaulley’s forthcoming book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope

Follow Esau McCaulley on Twitter

Listen to Ray Minniecon discuss self-determination and sacrifice on Speaking Out at the ABC