The preface to America’s Original Sin opens with a description of the shooting and Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Just a few days before that I read that section, I watched the documentary Emmanuel that also recounted that shooting. Wallis hoped that in the aftermath of the shooting there would be a change in the way that we talk about race and racism within the church and country as a result. But four years after the shooting, there has not been a fundamental shift in the conversation. The Confederate Flag was removed from the South Carolina Capital grounds, the SBC condemned the flying of the Confederate Flag at its annual meeting that next year. But it is hard to point to any other fundamental changes in the conversation.
That lack of change is not particularly surprising given the history of Christianity in the US, but I do think that as we read books like America’s Original Sin, it is important that we pay attention not just to the theological affirmations of what we as Christians should be doing, but also the history of what we have done. The Emmanuel AME Church shooting should have been a wake up call to the church, but it wasn’t. There are hundreds of other points history, including the church kneel in rallies in the 1950s and 60s that should have been significant wake up calls, but they haven’t been.
I probably would not have picked America’s Original sin up if a group in my church had not been reading it, but I wanted to participate in the discussion, so I read it. I respect Jim Wallis and I thought the book was worth reading. In general, I try to primarily read minority voices when I am reading about racism. There are other books that also have introductions to Christianity and Racism that are similarly good. Every book has its own orientation and focus. And Wallis does have a real history working for racial justice within the church.
But at the same time I do not agree with how all of that shakes out in every point. I think that many that are resistant to discussing racism within the church or even acknowledging racism as a real problem either in or outside of the church are going to be turned off by Wallis’ politics. It is not that I disagree with all of Wallis’ politics or that I disagree with how this Christianity influences his politics, but like it or not, Jim Wallis is identified primarily with the Evangelical political left. So I think that limits who will pick up this book and how those that do, will respond. There is certainly need for the political left to deal with its own racism. And if Wallis had more directly targeted the racism of the political left (as Robin DiAngelo particularly focused her book, White Fragility, toward liberal Whites, I think this could have been a more helpful book.
If I have a complaint, it is that Wallis makes himself too much of a character in America’s Original Sin. I understand that he is personalizing and giving illustration to why racism matters. But I also think that it ends up centering his experience more than is helpful.
Again, I agree with many of the conclusions and steps along the way. This quote I think rightly focuses racism on the systemic:
Sociologist Allen Johnson, whom I cited earlier on the history of white supremacy, also discusses the implicit nature of our biases from that history. He says: Most of the choices we make are unconscious, it being in the nature of paths of least resistance to appear to us as the logical, normal thing to do without our having to think about it. This means, of course, that we can participate in systems in ways we’re not aware of and help produce consequences without knowing it and be involved in other people’s lives, both historically and in the present, without any intention to do so. . . . I could say this history has nothing personally to do with me, that it was all a long time ago and done by someone else, that my ancestors were all good, moral, and decent people who never killed or enslaved anyone or drove anyone from their land. Even if that were true (I’ll never know for sure), the only way to let it go at that is to ignore the fact that if someone was willing to take the time to follow the money, they would find that some portion of the house and land that we now call home can be traced directly back through my family history to the laws and practices that whites have collectively imposed through their government and other institutions. Back to the industrial capitalist revolution and the exploitation of people of color that made it possible. And back to the conquest, forced expulsion, and genocide through which the land that is now the United States was first acquired by Europeans. In other words, some portion of this house is our share of the benefits of white privilege passed on and accumulated from one generation to the next.
But I think that those that object to his understanding of systemic racism are going to be relatively unconvinced by America’s Original Sin.