Original American Sin

When I was preparing for this Sunday’s service, I had some concerns. This is the first Sunday in Black History Month, and here I am, a white man trying to honor that in a way that’s authentic to my constellation of identities. My colleagues of color have asked that white ministers take this time to not exceptionalize an African American icon, to not lift up one black person as special just because it’s February. I should celebrate diversity every Sunday, they told me. Instead, this month, I was asked to say something meaningful about race to people that look like me.

Another time, we can tell the stories of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, and Freddie Gray. Some of those stories, we have told. There are so many stories to tell.

What I want to do today, instead, is to talk about a thread that ties many of these stories together. Ties them to you, and me, and all of us that identify as “American”, past, present and future. This Sunday, I want to talk about something Unitarian Universalists don’t normally talk about — but given the month and the year and the times we’re living in, maybe it’s time. Maybe it will be useful.

This morning, I want to talk about sin.

This is not my favorite topic. It’s an uncomfortable idea and one that doesn’t seem to fit our modern Unitarian Universalist sensibilities. As for me, I worry that I’m going to get it wrong, that I’m going upset someone, or make a mistake. Maybe I should avoid it. Because, as I was told, sin is something that those other traditions do. UU’s don’t “do” sin. UU’s can’t sin.

And that’s an odd thing to say, all by itself, isn’t it?

But I wondered if sin might not be a way to understand where we are today, and what it is we, as people of a religious tradition, might be called to do about it.

According to Google Dictionary, “sin” is what happens when we break a divine law. What happens then depends on the divinity in question, and the sin in question, but there is usually something we’re supposed to do to fix it, to earn forgiveness, to patch up our now-broken relationship with the Divine.

Murder, disobeying your parents, not saying your prayers, gambling – all of these are all sins in one tradition or another.

But as some of you will remember from the Christian tradition, there is one sin that’s special. One that was unforgivable. The sin of Adam and Eve.

The Book of Genesis tells the story of those two First People and how they disobeyed God. That sin was a big deal — as punishment, God cast them out of the paradise. Saint Augustine later said that evil entered the world through this “Original Sin” of Adam and Eve. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, a particularly colorful description of our predicament came from American revivalist Jonathan Edwards, who said that we humans were sinners in the hands of an angry God, forever dangling by a thread over the fiery pit of eternal punishment.

We can pause today and appreciate the … imagery … but to say that this is a profoundly unhealthy way to understand and celebrate inherent human worth is an understatement. For those of you playing theological bingo, this is exactly where the Universalist part of Unitarian Universalism comes in. As the preacher Hosea Ballou and others in that long line of Universalists taught back in the 18thand 19thcenturies, eternal punishment was an idea that makes no sense if God is all-good and all-loving. Humanity was created in the image of God, the imago Dei, and as such, every individual has infinite inherent worth. That means that there can be no eternal punishment and no Original Sin. That’s Universalism.

But that doesn’t mean Unitarian Universalists cannot sin.

It’s not really fashionable these days to think of our Seven Principles as divine law. In fact, I’m pretty sure it never was – most of the Seven Principles came to us from Humanism, not Christianity or Judaism, and calling them ‘divine’ would make most Humanists at least cringe. But the first of those Principles, the one that says there is inherent worth and dignity in every human being, that’s about as close as we get to holy writ. And for UU’s, being a big-tent inclusive theology, it doesn’t matter so much how we individually justify that claim – whether it’s imago Dei or the spark of Gnosis or an un-alien-able human right – Unitarian Universalists will not — and should not — let that First Principle go.

And when we do, that’s bad. One might be tempted to even call it a sin.

America's Original SinFor Christian Evangelist Jim Wallis, sin is political. He writes that slavery, and the racism that made it not only possible but sustainable and profitable, is “America’s Original Sin”, one woven through the history of the American project. Our sin, very specifically, is in rejecting the imago Dei, in refusing to see the face of God in the bodies of our African siblings or in their descendants. Wallis says that this sin is our great shame. And, like the Christian idea of Original Sin, America’s Original Sin is unavoidable. All Americans, living today, are all the fruit of the same poisonous tree. We all carry that wound in our hearts, it reflects back at us from our culture, and it shows up in the collective and continuing discomfort we white people have talking about race.

My 9thgrade history teacher, Phineas Wilson, had a giant sign on the back wall of his class that read: “Those who do not learn it are destined to repeat it.” We were pretty sure he meant that if we didn’t pay attention, we were going to fail his class and see him again next year. [pause]

But the larger lesson wasn’t lost: history repeats itself. Especially when we’re not doing the work to avoid it.

Which brings me to the anniversary.

400 years ago this year, the first Africans arrived in the English colonies. Historians think that a Spanish slaving ship, fully loaded and bound for Mexico, was robbed by Dutch privateers somewhere off the coast of Jamaica. The privateers managed to bring 20 enslaved men to Point Comfort, Virginia, about 3 hours southeast of here, where they were sold into indentured servitude. Slavery, at least as we now know it today, didn’t exist here yet. It was only 50 years later that Virginia legally institutionalized enslavement as we’re now familiar with it. And Virginia was the first colony to do this.

This fact is particularly hard to reconcile with the words of an American founder, who happened to be a self-described Unitarian. This Virginian, who – 200 years after the arrival of those first Africans, 150 years after slavery was institutionalized — founded the University of Virginia, just two hours to the southwest. He wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain un-alienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In a report detailing the impact of slavery on the institution, former UVa President Teresa Sullivan wrote that founder “[Thomas Jefferson] believed that a southern institution was necessary to protect the sons of the South from abolitionist teachings in the North.”

President Jefferson. UU hero. American icon. Virginian. Slave owner. Sinner?

This truth about Jefferson has been known for a long time, but apparently has only been popular to teach in the last few decades. I like to think that if the generation before me had held on to that truth, the Thomas Jefferson Ball might not have happened.

Have you heard this story? The 1993 UU General Assembly was held in the Thomas Jefferson district, which is North Carolina. The organizers thought that it would be a great idea, given their district’s name, to hold a ball inspired by Thomas Jefferson. With period dress.

Black UU attendees reportedly asked the organizers what their preferred costume should be: rags or chains?

Darkening DoorwaysTragic and avoidable as that incident was, it wasn’t the UUA’s first or last struggle with racism. Back in the 1960’s, UU’s were swept up in the Civil Rights Movement. 500 UU’s joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in the march from Selma to Montgomery. King gave the Ware Lecture at the 1966 UU General Assembly. And when the country was in the midst of race riots in 1967, the General Assembly voted to give a historic sum to develop and enrich the traditions and practices of black UUs. Over the next two years, with considerable acrimony, that money was withdrawn, and as a result, many of our best and most passionate black members left our denomination. If you’re interested in reading more about the event, which came to be called the Empowerment Controversy, I recommend the book Darkening the Doorways by Professor Mark Morrison-Reed. But it this event that many in our faith point to as our UU Original Sin, and no, we have not “gotten over it”.

If we had learned from the Empowerment Controversy, UUA President Peter Morales might not have resigned in 2016 amid charges that UUA hiring practices reflected white supremacy. The UU moderator would not have quit. The Executive Director of the UU Minister’s Association would not have had to step down.

50 years after King’s General Assembly address to the Unitarian Universalist Association, it’s clear that we are still struggling with how to talk about race.

Why is this so hard? And what can we do about it?

I’d like to suggest that one of the problems we have with talking about race is that we have the wrong paradigm for it. Social critic and New York City DJ, Jay Smooth, said in a TED Talk that racism seems to be an all-or-nothing binary. Any time an even possibly racist behavior is identified, much less called out, we white people tend to respond as if our character is under indictment. Smooth says that this is our American perfectionism rearing up, saying, “What I said isn’t racist because I am not racist – I have black friends!”

Perfectionism – that we have to be right all the time or we are not good people. If that feels funny to say out loud, it’s because it is. We are not perfect. We cannot be perfect. In fact, as the Rev. Carl Gregg is fond of saying, “We are all saved from perfection”. Of course we are going to get it wrong! As Smooth says, one of the things we’re getting wrong is thinking of racism like it’s tonsils. “You either have tonsils or you don’t. And if you’ve had your racism removed, you never have to think about it again. Me? No, I can’t be racist – my racism was removed in 2005.”

Obviously, that’s not how these things work, Smooth says. We are all have wiring that make us react in ways we’re not aware of. When we go through our day to day, we have lots of experiences, and these experiences interact with our wiring in ways that cause us to collect biases, like plaque on our teeth.

“What we need to do is move from a tonsils paradigm for racism toward a dental hygiene paradigm.”

But this means work. It means remembering the lessons of history. Which means paying attention to what we say. It means learning to put aside our perfectionism. It means recognizing that even enlightened, passionate, life-long UU’s are not free of it. And, in the spirit of this Black History Month, hopefully, it means something more.

The Christian tradition of sin is helpful here, at least as an analogy. It will not erase centuries of harm, but it might provide a way of understanding not only the burdens we carry but how we could cope with them. When we sin, for example, we’re not done when we say, “oops”. A violation of our highest ideals requires more of us, even if it is a very hard thing to do.

So. How to do it.

For lack of a better word, we can call that first step “confession”. Instead of defending our character, we can try owning our actions and naming our faults. Having faults and making mistakes, even around race, doesn’t mean we’re bad people. Because everyone needs to brush and floss – and yes, that means every day. [pause]

Following Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, we can call the next step “repentance”. The word, ‘repent’, comes from a Latin word, paene, which means “missing, lacking”. We could say that to re-pent is to get rid of something we’ve picked up, to then “become empty again”. In this case, by repenting our sin, we make room for change. This can be as simple as saying “I’m sorry.” Or, something as brave as, “I was wrong — thank you for helping me.”

Now that we’ve made space, the last step is the change itself. In the Christian tradition, this is atonement, which means “to become reconciled”. This is where we white people, we of the UU tradition, both the faithful and the visitors, we commit to doing something. To change. Not because we caused white supremacy, or racism, or slavery, but because our faith requires change of us.

Our first principle says we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. If we are being generous, we might say that our success on that has been mixed. The point of our covenant isn’t to judge or condemn, though, but to state our aspirations and provide a framework for reconciliation. So that we can always aim at doing better. Even when we fail. And when we fail, when we forget, our principles point the way forward, again.

On the table up front, I’ve put some colored paper and markers. In a moment, I’m going to invite you to come forward and write an intention on a paper. Doesn’t have to be a long one. Could be one word or a simple sketch. It could be a plan. But it should be something that you’re going to do. Read a book, join a book club, or start a discussion group. Take a seminar. Go on a march. Lead Beloved Conversations here at UUCR this fall. It’s your choice. We’re going to hang these sheets from some string, our string of commitments, our gesture this Black History Month, to a future that we aspire to.

On this day, 400 years after our original American sin, it is time to do more than just think about it. We UU’s like to talk about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, but we all know that it isn’t going to bend itself. It has always been up to us to build that beloved community, one that is worthy of our faith, one that is full of the inherent worth and dignity for each and every person.

Let’s get to work.

So may it be. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.