Patrick Mitchel on America’s “Original” Sin: Some Reflections on the Killing of George Floyd, Racism, Sin, and Christian Witness

Image: Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

The death of George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police responding to an alleged minor breach of the law, has revealed, once again, the deep racial fractures that divide America. Cities are under curfew and the police, equipped like an army, look like they are prepared for war with their fellow citizens.

Sin tends to be trivialised and individualised in ‘advanced’ Western culture. It’s a naughty desire that you secretly deserve to have fulfilled; it’s the self-indulgence of having too much cream with your strawberries; or, getting more serious, it’s using privilege and power to shame opponents on Twitter.

Christian theology has a lot to say about sin and its seriousness – and that’s why Christian theology also has a lot to say about racism and violence.

What follows are some theological reflections on what has been happening over the last week. I’m talking about America not because the US somehow has a corner on sin (we are all pretty good at being ‘original sinners’) or out of some crude anti-Americanism, but because of the events unfolding there raise theological questions for Christians everywhere. I’ve travelled quite extensively in the US, have many American friends and keep up to date with American politics – but I don’t naively claim that I, an outsider from Ireland, can arrogantly pronounce judgments (or solutions) from a distance.

Sin is a virus that God will eradicate

If you’ve seen previous posts you will have noticed I’m reading Douglas Campbell’s Pauline Dogmatics. Chapter 5 is ‘Resurrection and Death’, and in it he says some remarkably relevant things to what is unfolding in the States – on both systemic racism and coronavirus.

From Genesis 3 on, death is inextricably connected to sin. One way of looking at this is death as ‘God’s solution to sin’ (102). In other words, sin is so toxic that God will not allow it to survive. It has a death-by date. Sin has no future, it will be destroyed for good and the new creation is virtually unimaginable to us because it is pretty well impossible to imagine a world without sin and death.

God is a trinity of love and justice, the author of love and peace and joy. Sin – hatred, violence, injustice, exploitation, selfishness, greed and so on – is antithetical to God’s being and good purposes. The two co-exist in the present, but only on a temporary basis. This is the fundamental shape of Christian eschatological hope.

In Galatians 5, this antithesis is pictured as the conflict between the flesh (see ‘the present evil age’ 1:4) and the age of the Spirit. They are utterly opposed to one another. Those who belong to the realm of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So Campbell says this

“God absolutely refuses to give life to a cosmos that is contaminated with sin. Its existence must end. Death is God’s judgment on things that have been contaminated by sin. It is the refusal to give life to those things that have turned from life to evil …” 103.

Paul’s Jewish understanding of sin took seriously its deadly effects. Sin contaminates and much temple ritual is about purity and cleansing offending pollution. It is not to be allowed to spread. It must be atoned for and repented from.

We moderns who laugh at the outdated notion of sin should take pause. The Covid-19 crisis is a graphic picture of how sin works. God’s response to sin is like human response to a deadly virus (Campbell wrote this before Covid-19 – talk about a prescient illustration). Drastic measures are needed to contain it – and one day eradicate it from the world.

And in just this sense, God is implacably committed to the containment of sin within this world and this age, and to its ultimate termination, in death. The crippling and deadly virus of sin cannot be allowed to spread. Indeed, we are fortunate that God is so resolute in this opposition to something that we tend to treat rather too lightly. (103)

We are all under the power of sin – and all of us face death

One of the many myths of modern capitalism is that individuals can exist in a nice consumer bubble, having their dreams and wishes fulfilled with no cost to the planet and in complete detachment from the anonymous and distant people who made those designer jeans somewhere far away and who may, or may not, be working in a sweatshop.

Likewise, some myths about sin insulate us from its reality in a comforting cocoon of private piety.

  • (i) it does not exist
  • (ii) if it does exist, it is little more than a euphemism for a poor personal choice that we will regret
  • (iii) or perhaps if you are a Christian, sin is a wrong action or attitude for which we need confess to God and repent from.

While (iii) is partially true, it fails to take seriously the power and systemic reach of sin. Every one of us is implicated in it. Every one of us is under its power. Every one of us faces death as a result.

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Source: Christianity Today