CNN and Sesame Street joined together for a Town Hall on racism, featuring Elmo and his Dad, Louie. In the hour-long CNN collaboration with the children’s show Louie, explained to the inquiring Elmo that protesters “want to end racism.”
“They are sad and upset, and they have every right to be, Elmo. People are upset because racism is a huge problem in our country,” Louie said. “Racism is when people treat other people unfairly because of the way they look or the color of their skin.”
Last night, in response to that objectionable, incendiary, over-the-top, Animal Farm-like rhetoric, Fox News host Tucker Carlson lit into the offending puppet.
“Got that, Bobby?” Carlson summarized Sesame Street’s message, “America is a very bad place and it’s your fault, so no matter what happens, no matter what they do to you when you grow up, you have no right to complain.”
On several occasions, Carlson has described white supremacy and systemic racism as a “hoax.”
He’s not alone. Since George Floyd’s murder provoked a wave of global protests, I’ve heard a number of people push against the notion of systemic racism— especially against the possibility of their own complicity in it. “Individuals can be racist but not whole institutions,” I’ve been told. “Racism is a matter of a person’s heart not public systems.” I cannot help but notice the irony that most of the people making these individualistic arguments against systemic racism profess to be Christians, which is odd considering the Church has been using such language since the African Church Father, Augustine of Hippo.
We call it original sin.
As Flannery O’ Connor explained the doctrine, by virtue of being born into this Old Age, “Sin is something we’re all in.”
Unlike Tucker Carlson and others who now want to insist on the inherent, unfettered goodness of most people besides a few “bad apples.” Christians—especially Protestant Christians— do not have an optimistic assessment of human nature or romanticized visions of our societal institutions such that we could be shocked or surprised by news stories of police brutality, institutional corruption, and racial animas. As the folks at Mockingbird Ministries point out, Christian anthropology boils down to “People are bad. Christians are people. Christians are bad.” This leads to a correlative, “Sinful individuals create sinful institutions.” As the Apostle Paul says repeatedly in his Letter to the Romans, the Power of Sin in our world is such that it can bend even God’s holy, right, and good Law to its own purpose. The Power of Sin and Death (i.e., Satan) rules the whole of human life, Paul says in Romans 7.
So why would anyone claiming to be Christian insist that a nation like America or an institution like law enforcement are somehow immune to Sin’s contagion?
During World War II, the Catholic worker Dorothy Day based her advocacy for Christian nonviolence not on utopian delusions about the Church or upon Christians’ distinction apart from the common lot of sinners but on a deep penitential awareness of Christians’ solidarity with all other human beings in sin. Day believed nonviolence was the mandate upon Christian practice not because Christians are fundamentally peaceful creatures but because we’re not at all. We’re sinners; that is, Day preached Christian nonviolence not because we’re a people who know peace is the better way in the world but because we’re a people who know we cannot be trusted with violence.
Rather than asking “What’s happening to America?” (Because, of course, the correct answer is that nothing new is happening to America, it’s just being videoed with greater frequency today), Christians should be pointing out— confessing—that it’s not just that we’re all individual sinners. We’re sinful creatures who create sinful, sin-prone institutions. Of course police departments and justice departments can be corrupt and racist. Of course America continues to reap what it sowed during a Jim Crow era that “ended” not at all long ago.
A friend, who’s obviously a skilled writer in addition to being a gardener, put it this way to me:
“Gardeners understand original sin because the weed seeds are already in the soil – they’ve been there for years. In fact, the work you do to break up the soil, to prepare it for something good, brings weed seeds up to the surface.
All the compost and aeration you put in the soil makes it prime real estate for weeds as well as for your plants.”
Christians have a language to describe what video and social media expose with alarming regularity these days. The language of Sin. We’re all captive, as St. Paul says, to the Principalities and Powers, and we’re all from time to time, unwittingly even, in service to them, aiding and abetting, despite our best intentions, whom Paul calls the “prince of this world.”
It’s a language I hear almost no one speaking, possibly because you cannot speak it without also simultaneously confessing your own complicity. Even I, for example, perpetuate a racism that my own boys, who are not white, will inevitably be effected by one day. Sin is the reason why appeals to unity (“We’re all Americans”) ring false and hollow.
As the theologian William Cavanaugh argues:
“Our mysticism of nationalism tends to occlude our class divisions such that those who point out the class divisions in American get accused of waging class warfare, which is analogous to arsonists complaining that the fire department keeps reporting to the blazes they’ve set.”
You can replace “class divisions” with “racial divisions” and Cavanaugh’s point still holds. Christians should be those people who are not surprised at all that with George Floyd’s murder another fire has come ablaze, for only through such an unsurprised people will others hear the news that we cannot, even in America, save, redeem, heal, or even better ourselves.
Gardening and fire-fighting are apt metaphors for the work Christians call confession, for Christians know that we’re seldom in a position to know the truth about our sin until we have made our lives available to others in a way that we might be shown the truth about ourselves, especially in matters where the wrong cannot easily be made right, which is the character of most matters that matter. In other words, making confession– and thus realizing reconciliation– is not possible apart from making the relationships necessary to expose the extent of our sinfulness.
Black lives matter for, without them, white Christians cannot know ourselves sufficiently to confess our sin.