Jim Wallis has spent his life focused on race centered issues. Join us as he shares his journey and
understanding of the issue with us. He has dedicated his life to this and hopefully he has some ideas
that can move us on our way to reconciliation in these racially tense times.
EOF: Let’s start off on this sensitive discussion by building a bridge and maybe you
could just share some of what you feel are the main issues of today and what we might
need to address or what the book tries to address.
WALLIS: I think it’s important to begin theologically, biblically, not just politically. I do say in this
book, and fundamentally believe, that racism is a sin. A black Catholic professor at Fordham, a colleague
of mine, once told me that he asked his white students in his classes if they have ever heard
racism named as a sin in the pulpits of their white churches and they almost always say no. That’s a
problem from the start. Racism is a sin. Right from Genesis, chapter one it says that God created us in
God’s image and likeness to be stewards together for the rest of God’s creation. In this country,
our slavery was quite unique and it was shaped by us Christians, sadly, British and American.
Other systems of slavery existed before ours and were still slavery, but weren’t necessarily based
on notions of racial superiority. The Greeks were slaves to the Romans, but they tutored elite
Roman children and no one ever said that Greeks were inferior to Romans or destroyed Greek families.
We as Christians, and I am a Christian, realize that you can’t do to indigenous people, or to kidnapped
Africans, what we were doing to them in this country through British and American slavery.
You couldn’t do that to people made in the image of God. You couldn’t do that. You had to
say they weren’t made in the image of God, so we literally threw away Imago Dei. Threw away the Image
of God and said there is racial difference here. Racial superiority and inferiority. That was
our original sin; more than slavery, deeper than slavery, was to say that some of God’s children are
inferior to others of God’s children. So that, our original sin as Americans, still lingers on.
Brian Stevenson, the great Christian leader of the mass incarceration battle (and founder of
the Equal Justice Initiative) said, “Slavery never ended. It just evolved.” In our systems — economically,
educationally, mass incarceration, policing — we have let that original sin of racism continue.
As you know, what we do with sin in our tradition is repent of it. Repentance. Repentance, though,
doesn’t mean feeling guilty or sorry. In Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, it means turning
around and going in a whole new direction. Repentance for that sin of racism is what is ahead
of us now; the turning around in our systems. It isn’t just our language and words and behavior. It
is our structures, our systems. It is systematized, institutionalized and we have to now admit,
repent of, and turn around.
To bring that same concept home, I don’t remember where I read it (I’ve been reading
a lot on the subject recently) but it was talking in that same vein that how people
have always had bigotry among people but actual racism, as you pointed out, was
developed to rationalize slavery. At one point, people might have thought less of
the Irish than most other Europeans, but it was just where you were from, per se,
not necessarily based on the color of your skin, that was something that was developed
The idea of race is really a social construct. There is no biblical or biological basis for it. It is a social
construct we created to justify our greed. In that sense, it really is sin; sin against God’s children
who are all made in the image of God, with no exception. I think that unless we view this theologically,
we get into all of our political conflicts and partisan battles about other things. It is a
theological question that must be dealt with as people of faith.
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