Sin is personal, not just systemic

Sin is personal, not just systemic

Does the sin of white supremacy live in us or in the systems beyond us?

torn posters with human faces

© 2006 John Periovolaris (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

© John Perivolaris CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0


As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I am part of a multiracial, multi-faith community organizing group called Faith Voices of Columbia, and it is a joy for me to struggle with my colleagues here in Mid-Missouri to become all of those things together: multiracial, multi-faith, organized, and community.

At one of our most recent clergy meetings, an African-American Baptist colleague led us in a faith reflection on the evil and sin in our community. As this colleague tells it, he soon began to see the white liberals’ eyes glaze over, and the protestations began. “Evil and sin live in systems and institutions,” they theorized aloud.

So he told a story of going with his mother to a civil rights march as a child, and seeing a bucket of excrement dumped upon her head by a raging white man. “Watch the urine drip from your mother’s freshly styled hair,” he told them, “and tell me that sin is a problem of systems alone and that evil lives in institutions and not in human hearts.”

As a white minister in the liberal theological tradition, I am convicted.

Sin is the exercise of control over another in a way that objectifies, or, in Delores Williams’s words, ‘invisibilizes’ others and our connection to them.

Have we theological liberals, in moving toward a systemic conception of sin, untethered the experience of sin from the flesh and from the particularity of the lives it impacts, rendering us unable to struggle against it? If we are truly to engage in liberation work, religious liberals must reckon with the particularity of sin.

I have come to think of sin as an ethic of domination that desecrates particular lives as well as perpetuating sinful systems. Drawing upon the work of womanist theologians like Emilie Townes and Delores Williams, I conceive of sin as the exercise of control over another in a way that objectifies, or, in Williams’s words, “invisibilizes” others and our connection to them. This domination destroys difference—tearing the fabric of the web of life.

Sin is the acts of domination and annihilation that result in part from our illusions of separateness. Our sin is every moment that we forget or violate our relationships within the web of interconnection that binds together all creatures and our world.

Yet, the intricacies of that web render us ignorant of many of our violations, as the complexity of our entanglement with one another and the systems of the earth makes it difficult to truly witness or feel the impacts of our actions.

We are each caught up in systemic sins that we may never understand or even know.

Religious liberals resonate with the idea of sin as systemic. Indeed, the concept of sin may be the area where religious liberals most turn away from the individualism written into our tradition, tending to see sin overwhelmingly as social.

For UUs, perhaps this trend goes to our Unitarian forebears’ belief in the moral perfectibility of humankind, which over time evolved into a moral perfectionism that no longer allowed the admission of personal transgressions.

Perhaps this turn can be traced to an adoption of the principles of the Social Gospel movement, represented in the theological canon by Walter Rauschenbusch. His work associating economic inequality and social ills with a robust theology of collective, institutionalized sin inspired people of faith in justice-making efforts well into the twentieth century. It turned our attention to the systemic.

For these reasons, and probably others, it is far easier for Unitarian Universalist ministers, when speaking of sin at all, to name the “sins of various -isms” from the pulpit rather than the “sins of the people,” “our sins,” or, Heaven forbid, “your sins.” The collective is comfortable; the individual, not so much.

Exhausting though the ruse of moral perfection may be, Unitarian Universalists do not take kindly to being called sinners. Sin, if it exists at all, is something that lives nebulously at the systemic level, affecting and even implicating each of us, but for which none of us is quite responsible.

On one level, this rings true. Because we are entangled in a great web of life, the extent of our responsibility is unclear. The reality of collective sin is that we live amid systems we did not personally create.

On the other hand, if we take the web of life seriously, untangling our individual roles in social sin becomes just as difficult. Effectively, the depth of our interconnection guarantees that all sin is both individual and collective.

And, as my colleague gently pointed out at our clergy gathering, though sin may be conceived of in liberal theology as systemic and abstract, it always plays out upon real people and their flesh. The reality of collective sin is the “plunder of our bodies,” to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s phrase—bodies that starve, bodies that face mass incarceration and mass extinction, bodies that burn and break.

And if liberal theology is to be liberating, it must hold in tension both the systemic and the particular. We are each responsible, in the sense that we cannot fail to respond. And our response cannot be abstract or universal.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in An Altar in the World, writes, “I did not want to be loved in general. I wanted to be loved in particular, as I was convinced God loved. Plus, I am not sure it is possible to see the face of God in other people if you cannot see the faces they already have.”

As white Unitarian Universalists grapple with the systemic and collective sin of white supremacy and answer the call to solidarity with the contemporary civil rights struggle embodied in the Black Lives Matter movement, an apt case study emerges for the dynamics of collective/individual sin and embodiment and the impact of both on our sense of responsibility and agency.

Even when we get the language down, nail up our ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs, and wear our buttons, the fact is that many white liberals still encounter ‘black lives’ as an abstract concept rather than actual human beings with whom we are in relationship.

In white Unitarian Universalists’ various engagements with the movement for black lives, we have seen our perpetual sin of collapsing the particular into the universal play itself out in many ways.

The most obvious of these ways is when white liberals claim that “All Lives Matter” or otherwise engage in waffling on the clear, particular claim that “Black Lives Matter.” Could there be a more straightforward example of the sinfulness of collapsing the particular into the universal?

Here, the proper response to the collective sin is not a universal claim but rather the hard work of resisting the collapse of the particular into the universal. We will never see the faces of God in people until we see the faces they already have.

The second way we white liberals fail in our engagement with the movement is our insistence upon policy demands and measurable goals at the expense of relationship-building and personal transformation. I see this at play in white activist circles: a rush to move past the discomfort of individual, embodied relationships into the systems-level work of policy change. The systemic work feels easier, because it is a way to control our unjustly entangled relationships.

For example, we are eager to legislate an end to bias in policing, but less eager to police the bias in our own psyches.

Does the sin of white supremacy live in us or in the systems beyond us? The proper answer is that we must address it in ourselves and in our systems, and carefully, so that neither is collapsed into the other.

Lastly is our failure to consistently put our bodies in relationship and on the line with bodies that are already on the line. Even when we get the language down, nail up our “Black Lives Matter” signs, and wear our buttons, the fact is that many white liberals still encounter “black lives” as an abstract concept rather than actual human beings with whom we are in relationship.

Too often white liberals declare that black lives matter without doing the work of drawing close enough to learn and love the matter of black lives in all their human particularity.

Writing near the middle of the twentieth century with words that resonate today, James Luther Adams said: “In the end, ‘the attitude of distance’ won the day, and Liberalism achieved poise by living at the low temperature of ‘detached, middle-class common sense.’”

When black bodies are being gunned down in the streets, and choked on their block, and incarcerated at rates higher than those in South Africa during apartheid, the poise, the distance, the detachment, and the universalizing abstraction of white liberalism is sin—mine, ours, yours.

The necessary response is not poised—it is passionate; it is painful. It is hopeful.

I find hope, these days, in the particularity of courageous people who struggle for freedom. I find hope in the fleshly embodiment of relationship, witnessing my human kin practicing love in the particular, even as they seek to universalize love’s reach.

The collective sin of white supremacy is a material and particular sin, and we cannot redeem it at a distance or in the abstract. If we are to get free of white supremacy together, we must move into relationships of solidarity and particularity, in which our lives matter, materially, to one another.

An earlier version of the essay was presented to the Prairie Group, a UU ministerial study group, in November 2015. It was first published on on August 9, 2017, and then in the Spring 2018 issue of UU World.

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