If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, the One who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:8-9
Sin! We never talk about sin!
In general, we mainline church types tend to shy away from using the word “sin.” Even though most Presbyterian churches still have a Confession of Sin in our worship services, we would prefer to see ourselves as struggling and imperfect people in need of healing—which, of course, is not mutually exclusive, but we just don’t like being called “sinner.” For myself, I had an especially hard time with the concept of “original sin” and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. How can we believe that the most innocent of beings, newborn babies, are conceived and born in sin?
My understanding of this concept came as I reflected on the insidious nature of racism in the United States. Like with the word “sinner,” White Americans react to the word “racist” with a virulence I cannot understand. Even Amy Cooper, the woman who called 911 to claim that an “African-American man is threatening me” because he dared to ask her to obey Central Park rules and put her dog on a leash, said “I am not a racist.” (The fact that the Harvard-educated, comic book editing bird-watcher she attempted to sic the police on is named Christian Cooper is proof that God has a deep sense of irony.)
But, like original sin and humanity, systemic racism is so embedded in the fabric of American history and society that every human born and raised in this country is infected by it—and new immigrants learn quickly how to survive within it. Racism hits us and infects us before we are aware enough to resist it. Studies have shown that children as young as 3 or 4 years old already apply differing perceptions of people of different races, and racist messages are so pervasive that even people of color absorb them against our own kind.
So I came to understand that one example of our broken state of sinfulness is our broken state of racism. Just as there are individual examples of sinful acts, there is also the mortal, imperfect state of human sinfulness that we all share. And while there is the KKK and other individual hateful individuals, we live in a state of racism. When Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, part of the outrage was elicited from his nonchalant way of killing the man, AND the ways that three other police officers stood by and allowed him to do it. They did not plan to kill him, but something in them somehow perceived this as normal, or acceptable, behavior. The fact that one of the officers is Asian sickens me all the more, but shows that none of us is immune.
Last week I mentioned to some pastors that while I have always likened racism to a virus that infects us as infants, before we can be innoculated against it, perhaps what’s happening now is a cancer diagnosis. We didn’t know the cancer was present until this violent pain aroused us out of the denial. And, like many cancer patients I know, once confronted with the diagnosis, we are given the choice to continue the denial, or take multiple steps to treat it. What I didn’t say is how scary the diagnosis is, and how the treatment can sometimes feel as destructive as the disease, because killing the cancer usually requires killing some of our own cells. Only with awareness, courage, faith, and the will to be healed can we proceed with the treatment to eradicate the cancer.
I am aware that this can be horrible, but like the cancer diagnosis, we are likely not to be healed if we ignore it or wait for the news cycle to move on to other things. But there is hope.
I have shared with some of you the most dramatic example of physical healing I have witnessed, from when I was a pastor in Waipahu. Leanne is a young woman I met in an apartment complex designed for people with disabilities. As the only survivor of a hereditary defect that killed her father and brothers at a young age, Leanne had an indomitable spirit, even taking an hour-long bus ride into town to work.
Paralyzed from the shoulders down, she had been in a wheelchair for 12 years. However, one day on the bus, she started to feel stabbing pains in her feet, so sharp that she cried in pain. After a couple of days of that, she went to her doctor, scared and confused because she had felt nothing below her shoulders, let alone sharp stabbing pain.
Well, the doctor did some tests, and gave her the diagnosis: it turns out that the pain was a signal that her nerves were regenerating. Within a few weeks of physical therapy, she managed to get back on her feet, walking with a walker . . . for the first time in 12 years!
As individuals, but even moreso as a community, God calls us back to life, and sometimes the signs of life may be painful and surprising. But God willing, it can be pretty miraculous too. My hope is that this time of painful awakening will be met with a brave and faithful commitment to face the collective sinfulness of racism, and with courage, faith, and the will to be healed, this broken and imperfect country that we love will be a place of hope and freedom for all. My hope is that we can have some conversations about this, as we walk together into God’s light.
Witness to the healing power of Jesus Christ,