Recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have let to a great deal of comment, some full of insight, some not so much. Among the best was the statement of Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, one of the leading ecclesiastics in the United States, who said this: “Racism is a poison of the soul. It’s the ugly, original sin of our country, an illness that has never fully healed.”
The Archbishop’s words have a political import, but they are also theological.
To talk about the original sin of the United States makes perfect sense. Not far from Charlottesville is Monticello, the lovely estate of one of the founding fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. He is the one who declared that all men are born equal, and enunciated a doctrine of human rights, but who owned slaves, one of whom was the mother of his children, who were also slaves. That he mistreated not only numerous black people, but his own flesh and blood too, represents the most breathtaking hypocrisy. This is perhaps the original sin of which the Archbishop speaks: a Constitution that speaks of liberty for all, but which denies it to some on grounds of race.
Charlottesville, like so many other places in the United States, is named after Queen Charlotte, the consort of George III. She has been subject to some interesting historical revisionism and been acclaimed by some as our first black Queen, which is irony indeed.
When the Archbishop speaks of original sin, he refers not just to the sin at the beginning, but the sin that endures. America today, despite the promise contained in the Constitution, is not a land of equality and great social mobility, despite having had a black President. The races live separate lives, a fact that is quite shocking to the British visitor, and which represents a marked contrast to life in the United Kingdom. The Black Lives Matter campaign surely reflects the anger that this is so. Their positions on various social questions should not obscure this fact: that many Americans are second class citizens in their own land.
Archbishop Chaput, of course, is of Native American stock on his mother’s side, and so perhaps has a special insight into questions of race. We should not forget that the land of America existed before Europeans “discovered” it, and that their settlement of the land was anything but peaceful.
The current troubles of the United States, of which Charlottesville represents but the tip of the iceberg, must make anyone sad, but the question remains, what is to be done? The Archbishop rightly points out: “We need more than pious public statements.” He goes on to say: “If our anger today is just another mental virus displaced tomorrow by the next distraction or outrage we find in the media, nothing will change. Charlottesville matters. It’s a snapshot of our public unravelling into real hatreds brutally expressed; a collapse of restraint and mutual respect now taking place across the country. We need to keep the images of Charlottesville alive in our memories. If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.”
The Original Sin led to dissension between the first two human beings. The reconciliation that heals such dissension comes from Jesus Christ. He is the one who undoes the damage wreaked by Adam. Moreover, He is the great sign of unity, as He died and rose for all, black, white, Native American. The Redemption wrought by Jesus is the foundation of human dignity as it shows that He thought we were all worth dying for. So the Archbishop is right to call for conversion of heart, something, which was at the heart of the campaign to abolish slavery, as summed up in the famous question “Am I not a man and a brother?”
America is a deeply religious nation. A reflection on the foundations of its faith would be a good place to start to address the injustices of racism.