Jim Wallis – America’s Original Sin

Feb. 2018

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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