On Racism: Sin Is Not Only Personal, But Corporate

By Jared Kirk

Why has the church been less than effective in addressing the racialized society of America? Because if you start with the wrong diagnosis, you'll end up with the wrong treatment. The evangelical church has rightly addressed the cause of racism as original sin, but it has downplayed the extent to which sin affects not just individuals but also groups. In fact, I believe the white evangelical church in America has held a theology of sin, which is correct but incomplete.

White evangelicals correctly diagnose that sin causes personal harm and separation of individuals from God, but we neglect the biblical teaching that sin cripples families, clans, and ethnic groups in ways that transcend the cumulative effect of sinful individuals. We have downplayed the systemic evil inherent in concepts like "the world," and we have outright ignored the biblical teaching that evil powers and principalities exercise their demonic influence through political powers and principalities. This over-individualization of sin has led to a shallow and ineffective response to our racialized society. To return to the medical metaphor, we have found a patient with lung cancer and misdiagnosed him with a cough. We keep feeding him cough syrup, wondering why nothing changes, then blaming the patient for getting sick!

To make progress toward true racial reconciliation and an abatement of our racialized society we must look afresh at the true nature of sin.

Let's Look at The Fall Again

Trick Question. Where can you find The Fall in the Bible? 

If you are like most Christians you answered Genesis 3. In fact, my ESV Bible does the work for you as Genesis 3 is titled "The Fall." And this is no surprise. You have the serpent tempting Eve. You have Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, followed by the feeling of shame. You have hiding and separation from God. You have the blame game, and thus, the introduction of marital strife. You have God’s curse on Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, and their expulsion from the garden. Sure looks like The Fall. Sure feels like The Fall. But the truth is, Chapter 3 is not just “The Fall.” The answer is that Genesis 3 is the beginning of The Fall. Look closely between Genesis 3 and Genesis 11 and you'll see sin ripple outward affecting not just individuals, but families, clans, and ethnic groups. The narrative of The Fall takes nine chapters to unfold until, in Genesis 12, God finally intervenes to turn the tide of this tidal wave of sin. This is foundational enough that it is worth tracing the outline of the spread of sin.

The Spread of Sin

Right after Genesis 3 ends you move on to Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. This is not a new story, which is intended to teach us a moral lesson about jealousy and anger. This is the continuation of The Fall. Separation from God and degradation of the marital relationship happen first, the destruction within families follows in chapter 4. This is followed by an incident with an evil man named Lamech (Genesis 4:22-24) who is said to take revenge seventy-sevenfold. Through this we see sin affecting inter-family or clan relationships. This is the birth of the cycle of violence, which sees clans seeking vengeance instead of justice. This is followed by the unfortunate incident where the "sons of God came into the daughters of man and they bore children to them." Whether this incident reflects kings behaving badly or fallen angels behaving badly, it clearly furthers the case that sin is spreading into and destroying new realms of human life. Next comes the Noah narrative, which serves to highlight the severity of sin, the certainty of God's judgement against sin, and the need to be rescued from sin. And finally in chapter 11 you arrive at the culmination of sin in the Tower of Babel. The end result of which is that God scatters people and speech which speeds the creation of different ethnic groups, and quite frankly, leads to people being divided against one another in their sin, rather than united in rebellion against God.

Simplified, it looks like this:

Genesis 3: Broken Relationship with God, with spouse, with creation
Genesis 4a: Cain and Abel, sin affects family relationships
Genesis 4b: Lamech, sin spreads to family clans
Genesis 11: Tower of Babel, sin spreads to people groups

It is at this point that we must stop and deconstruct a misleading argument about how sin works. It would be easy to assume that sinful individuals make for sinful groups and that this is all the explanation you need to account for our present world. This oversimplification is true on the surface, but it ignores a horrible truth: When you combine sinners into various kinds of groups you get new, novel, and surprising expressions of sin which were incomprehensible with sinful individuals. It is clear that sin bursts forth in surprising ways when it is applied to groups rather than individuals by looking in Genesis. In individuals sin leads to shame, hiding, and blaming (GN 3:7-12). Within families sin leads to jealousy, lying, and anger (GN 4:5-). Between families, sin leads to cycles of escalating violence and vengeance (GN 4:24). Within societies, sin leads to corporate pride and community rebellion against God (GN 11:4).

The Tower of Babel as an Example

Let's consider the changing expression of sin within groups by thinking more about the Tower of Babel. The building of the Tower teaches us something new about sin expressed within a society. If we only had Genesis 3-10 then we would expect the city of Babel to be full of people who reject God's good word, experience shame, hide their true selves from one another, get jealous and angry at family members, and engage in never-ending cycles of increasing violence toward other family clans. No doubt this was the case. Yet in Babel we find that sin has affected the city in a surprising new way. Now it manifests as corporate pride in a shared identity and the building of a tower, which directly expresses their rebellion toward God. We have corporate sin with corporate expressions which are different yet just as destructive.

This last point is important because as sin spreads to groups, personal animosity toward God or other people becomes less important in the expression of sin. One only had to carry bricks up the steps of the growing tower and earn an honest day's wage to be culpable for the sin of the whole community. Actually that is going too far. Those in the city, which did not build, but watched and lived their lives in the shadow of the growing tower were ultimately just as culpable in God's eyes as the king of Babel-everyone was eventually scattered. In this example maintenance of or participation in an ungodly system is enough to be guilty. That was heavy so let's say it again: maintenance of or participation in an ungodly system is enough to be guilty.

Before dealing directly with racial reconciliation in the Bible, it is important to note that sin springs forth in surprising and unexpected ways when expressed through groups. And it is important to note that the larger the group the less personal animosity is necessary to be culpable in an evil system which represents pride, rebellion, and nation-building apart from God.

Jared Kirk is the founder and lead pastor at Renewal Church.