Due to cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe, and tragedies like last year’s massacre of nine black Christians by a white supremacist in a South Carolina church, conversations about race are once again in the national spotlight.
As a pastor whose church has moved to broaden its ethnic diversity, and as a Hispanic man whose heart breaks over systemic injustice, I’m pleased to see so much attention devoted to healing some of our country’s deepest wounds. Thus, I was excited to learn that Jim Wallis, the founding editor of Sojourners magazine, has weighed in with America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Brazos).
For many reasons, the book offers a welcome contribution. First, it’s an excellent resource for getting “up to speed” on contemporary race relations in the United States. Wallis provides a solid overview of troubling social realities like mass incarceration, the “school-to-prison” pipeline, racialized policing, immigration, and America’s shifting demographic makeup.
Second, it highlights systemic injustice, connecting the dots between historical legacies and present-day realities. There are powerful, indicting statistics on dysfunctions in our criminal justice system, public schools, immigration policies, and other influential spheres. Wallis rightly wants us to see such injustices not as mere “political problems” but as rooted in sin—implying the need for deeper repentance and change.
Third, Wallis walks the talk. He has been on the front lines for decades, listening to and pleading on behalf of minority voices, living in rough neighborhoods, and working for grassroots change. Whatever you think of his progressive political leanings, you can’t help being moved by the flesh-and-blood encounters that have shaped his perspective.
That said, I also have three significant concerns. First, for a book so heavily indebted to the concept of “original sin,” God doesn’t figure prominently in either Wallis’s analysis of the problem or his proposed solution. It’s one thing to employ “original sin” chiefly as a rhetorical device, as a provocative way of saying, in effect, “Racism is an important sin in American history that has massive implications for today.” But Wallis seems to see it as the foundational sin.
Original sin involves wanting to rule the earth without God. At bottom, it’s a form of rebellion. Of course, that rebellion has poisoned not only our relationship with God but also our relationships with each other—and racism is among its bitterest fruits. But Wallis invokes “original sin” primarily with the horizontal dimension in mind, giving minimal attention to the God-ward dimension.
This highlights a broader problem: Wallis makes constant use of terms like “conversion,” “belief,” and “repentance,” but with a social emphasis that flattens out their theological shape. So for white people, Wallis says, believing black experiences will lead first to a conversion of perspective, followed by repentance manifested in commitment to political change. While I sympathize with the sentiment, it’s not specifically Christian just because it retains recognizably Christian language.
I imagine Wallis wants to expand these biblical words by showing how they apply to urgent, real-world injustices. I fear, however, that he ends up shrinking words that, contemplated in their biblical wholeness, emphatically do oppose racism—but always within the larger, God-centered biblical drama of sin and redemption. Wallis recognizes in passing that racism is a sin against both neighbor and God, and he treats the cultural construct of “whiteness” as a form of idolatry. But the horizontal is given such primacy that God seems like an afterthought, with rich biblical language shrunken down like a wool sweater run through the dryer once too often.
A second concern is that, in Wallis’s telling, the nation seems to displace the church as the dynamic center of God’s redemptive activity. The book implicitly treats America—rather than the body of Christ in union with its Lord—as God’s blessed community and the prime witness to the diversity of his kingdom.
God’s people can, of course, contribute to a nation’s common good through community organizing and activism. But one wonders about the role of essentials like preaching the Word and taking Communion in Wallis’s vision of the church. Perhaps they’re just assumed. But except for a chapter on the prophetic potential of multiethnic congregations, the church’s legitimacy seems to pivot not on its identity as the body of Christ but on its external contributions to American progress. In a telling moment, Wallis points to Baltimore, offering the nonviolent presence of churches on the streets as a prime example of how the church can be the church (rather than as the fruit of its underlying allegiance to Christ).
Finally, Wallis tends to approach biblical themes in a way that displaces the centrality of Jesus. For example, two of his major themes are that all are children of God, and that Matthew 25 (“whatever you did for one of the least of these . . .”) commands us to care for the needy. All fine and good, as far as it goes. God is indeed the “father” of Adam, and thus implicitly the father of all (Gen. 5:1–2; Acts 17:26). And Matthew 25 has long spurred believers to exercise hospitality and charity toward people who are otherwise forgotten.
But one wonders whether Wallis can account for New Testament themes like adoption—that we become children of God through faith (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5–6). And don’t forget that the subject of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 is “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (v. 40, emphasis added). The stress is on his followers. There are certainly implications for embracing “the least of these” on a broader, universal scope, but in a way that goes through rather than around the particularity of God’s people.
In a revealing moment, Wallis cites Jesus’ statement that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32) as a way “to become better Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people of other faiths, or people of conscience with no religion—all better because of the truth.” But what does “truth” mean here? Is it the God-directed, Christ-centered, Spirit-saturated truth that the gospel reveals? Or has “truth” been lifted from its biblical moorings and re-envisioned as an abstract force guiding our secular campaigns for justice? Jesus comes off looking more like a cheerleader on the sidelines than the head of a new humanity, reconciling us to God and to one another.
‘Where Do I Start?’
To sum up my ambivalence about this book, an analogy may prove helpful. I don’t often listen to contemporary Christian music, because it tends to sound like an imitation of mainstream music with some Christian jargon thrown in. By and large, I’d rather just listen to the superior original product.
America’s Original Sin can feel like the literary equivalent of “Christian music.” It offers a fine overview of racism and white privilege in America, but its distinctly “Christian” contributions are more superficial than one might hope. I’d encourage readers to turn instead to mainstream accounts—preferably from minority authors—that pack a bigger punch, go deeper in particular areas, and are currently shaping our national conversation. Good examples include Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and Joy DeGruy’s Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. These are the works that Christian minorities in my city recommend when people ask, “Where do I start?”
I’m grateful for Wallis’s tireless on-the-ground efforts to awaken consciences and agitate for change. His faith-driven activism is nothing short of inspiring. But I found myself longing for a more robust theological vision. A message is truly prophetic only when God is at its center.
Joshua Ryan Butler is pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Skeletons in God’s Closet (Thomas Nelson) and a forthcoming book, The Pursuing God (Thomas Nelson).
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