The Theology of Slavery as America's 'Original Sin'

To look at me you’d never know it, but my great-great-great-great [“4G”] grandmother was from Nigeria, according to my saliva, all that was needed for the laboratory to make that determination. It is difficult to know which of these two data points would have surprised my parents more -- how little we know of our family’s past or how much modern science can tell us. Our family history is pretty murky on both sides, due to early deaths, divorce, transiency, alcoholism, and other assorted human conditions.

There’s no shame in that, I suppose. No doubt, many American families have a cloudy lineage. Fortunately, one of the great things we achieved in the Revolution was to rid ourselves of the trappings of aristocracy. An American needn’t prove his bloodline to seize opportunity or to pursue happiness. Nor do we impute the sins of the offspring to the parent. A joke currently making the rounds illustrates the latter point: only in America can a daughter of a stripper and a drug addict call her grandpa “Mr. President.”

My brother’s reaction to the revelation that we are 1/64th sub-Saharan African was terse and profound: “I just hope it was consensual,” he texted me. Suddenly, the tender fantasy of star-crossed lovers I’d begun to imagine for my “4G” grandparents was gone with the wind. Although the laboratory cannot tell us, and our family history doesn’t record it, my “4G grandmother” was likely a slave. And logic informs us, alas, that my “4G” grandfather was probably her owner. When I saw his text, I shuddered, cringed, sighed, and only then pondered the divulgement.

Momentarily, I had regretted that I’d spat into the test tube. But why? My siblings and I, assuredly, are not responsible for our genetic link to these ancestors; we are neither culpable for the presumed wrongs of our ancestral assailant [name unknown] nor entitled to pity for the sufferings of our ancestral victim [name also unknown]. My initial reactions to both test and text were “pure emotion” (as oxymoronic as any cliché I can think of), which instantly enthralled my heart and clouded my mind. Pondering set me free. I’ve learned that allowing feelings to trump reason is usually as productive as spitting into the wind.

That we are not responsible for the sins of our forebears is a worthy cliché. To hold otherwise would be to saddle us all in perpetual bondage to “our” past. And how can a thing be “ours” when it precedes our existence? In the law, we might say the proposition violates “the rule against perpetuities” or at least the spirit of the rule.

If we carried generational burdens beyond hereditary curses and blessings, genetic happenstance -- like an overbite or perfect pitch -- or familial traditions and quirks -- like Sunday pot roast or a fondness for Chihuahuas -- we would all be forever cursed. An entirely separate court system would be necessary to determine whose grandfather stole the mare from whose great-grandmother, and the amount of restitution owed. And what of “war crimes”? Should the families of GIs killed in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific have a cause of action against Germany, Italy, or Japan?

Today’s champions of reparations for slavery actually urge that we embrace an essentially theological proposition, Original Sin and collective guilt, and legislate accordingly. Ironically, these are often the same political creatures who liken conservatives to the Taliban. Establishment Clause concerns aside, the nature of the sin, however repulsive it may have been, was not in direct contravention of an express admonition from the God of Abraham (though it did take another Abraham to cast it out).

Ultimately, the notion of slavery as our original sin is a metaphor that has probably lost its usefulness. Others, even some with different viewpoints from my own, have observed the imperfect and outdated nature of the expression. Yet, it persists, and will probably get a good airing out next year in the midterms.

Taking the issue seriously for a moment, as quasi-theology perhaps, an inherent problem instantly emerges: what do you do about the sin?

If the Christian’s “solution” to original sin is faith in the redemptive love and grace of Christ, of sanctification, what is the “cure” for this secular-Adamic sin? For the purveyors and followers of the dogma of collective guilt, the Christian approach doesn’t work, indeed, cannot work, for the victory (won on the cross) is claimed by the individual. Reparations is a collective concept -- group restitution.

President Obama occasionally wandered into theological matters during his time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When addressing his 20 years of (conveniently intermittent) worship at Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, he sometimes spoke of “the doctrine of collective salvation,” which, he explained, Rev. Wright’s followers accepted. According to Obama, the doctrine stands for the proposition that “[One’s] individual salvation rests on our collective salvation.”

Plenty of debate ensued: “Well, it isn’t biblical,” I recall my pastor commenting, matter-of-factly. All that occurred to me was the bleakness of the proposition: “That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” (Just as Private Yossarian couldn’t get out, it sounded like we’d never get in.) The Doctrine of Collective Salvation is a nostrum whose twin tenets are pure emotion and collective guilt. It replaces God’s grace, mercy, and lovingkindness with silver and gold -- that is, with reparations.

The idea of reparations, or group restitution, fails in every sense -- theologically, as we have already seen, but jurisprudentially, as well. In the law, restitution serves two important functions: first, obviously, it attempts to make the victim whole (to the extent that money alone can achieve that goal); and, second, it supposes to include a rehabilitative quality for the offender by placing a tangible demand on him to help him appreciate the harm. Since in the context of slavery no victims or offenders have been alive for several generations, attempts at achieving wholeness are as futile as the moral exercise is preposterous.

Proponents of reparations likely understand these arguments well enough. The mythic “40 acres and a mule” was an unworkable romantic notion that implicitly paid homage to “The American way” -- a mindset that “hard work will be rewarded” by allowing folks to “pull themselves up from the bootstraps.” It was actually a proto-socialist fantasy, the brainchild of well-meaning abolitionists and radical Republicans. Redistribution of wealth was the byproduct, though, not the aim of the idea, which at least had the worthy objective of righting wrongs for real, living flesh-and-bone victims of oppression.

Modernly, the push for reparations seems coldly calculated as just one part of the bigger picture, with its express goal to redistribute wealth. Because their argument fails on theological, moral, and legal grounds, proponents realized it would be necessary to change the milieu. Lenin boasted, “Just give me one generation of youth and I’ll change the world.” His threat has never felt more serious in America than it does today.

More and more, the world is viewed through race-colored glasses, where “separate but equal” again rears its ugly head with things like segregated graduation ceremonies and dormitories, and white-free days in the name of “safety” and “equity.”

Will a sufficient number of our youth be subjected to Critical Race Theory to change the world? Have enough already? All over the country, "trained Marxists" have turned our classrooms into a massive cultural test tube and spat in it.

And the lab results are in: it’s not American.

Image: Public Domain Pictures

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