This essay is part of our series on Race and Racism in America. See the full collection here.
The terminology of structural or systemic sin is in the foreground of our cultural conversation these days. News headlines, political commentators, and activists use the language.
Is this just evidence of ideology, or is systemic or structural racism real? How would we know it if we saw it? How do we confront it? How is it justly rectified? How should Christians, in particular, think about this? Sin is an essential category in our thinking, but are we thinking about it rightly?
No serious person can argue that these questions are unimportant.
As Christians, we must begin with a biblical understanding of sin, which is fundamental to the entire conversation about structural racism. The Bible tells us that sin amounts to a revolt against God and his authority. Sin seeks, as the Apostle Paul tells us, to rob God of his glory. It is a transgression of God’s law and a violation of his character. The Bible, furthermore, reveals that we do not become sinners by our sin; we are conceived in sin (Ps 51:5). We are born sinners under the federal headship of Adam.
This is the doctrine of original sin. No human being after Adam had to do anything to achieve the status of sinner—that came by virtue of being born to Adam’s line. We begin the entirety of our lives, therefore, as sinners. And make no mistake, the Bible also reveals that each and every human sinner is responsible for his or her sin and will give an account of that sin on the Day of Judgment.
The story, however, does not end there. Indeed, as the Bible exposes the depth of our depravity, it also reveals the glory and good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God accomplished the salvation of sinners through the atonement accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ, so that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord and believes in him will be saved. When Christ died on the cross, our sin was imputed to him; his righteousness is then imputed to us by faith and faith alone. That is the good news of the gospel: the forgiveness of sins.
That is good news, indeed—but we must also recognize the horrifying reality of our sin and its effect on each and every individual life. We must also recognize that when we sin, we often do so corporately. Structural sin, therefore, simply affirms the corporate reality of human sin and the truth that sin invades every aspect of human life and society. Sin corrupts every institution and every system because, one way or another, sinful human beings are involved. This means that laws, policies, habits, and customs are also corrupted by sin.
Given the biblical reality of sin’s pervasiveness individually and corporately, we can now return to the question: Is there such a thing as structural or systemic racism? I believe the answer is yes in one sense, but no in another.
Individual Culpability and Structural Sin
Take, as an example, the scandal of abortion, which is the legal murder of the unborn. Abortion, as a sin, does indeed come down to individuals, namely, the woman seeking the abortion, the individuals in her life who encouraged it, and the abortionist who performed it. There is individual culpability.
Those individuals, however, have now entered into an entire structural dimension of the sin of abortion. They are part of a larger system of sin that includes, for example, the Supreme Court and its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The system of abortion also includes recent legal measures enacted by various state legislatures that perpetuate abortion’s availability, expanding the legality of this practice to almost any stage of a woman’s pregnancy, even up to the point of birth. There are also social realities that feed into the sin and system of abortion, such as the claim of absolute personal autonomy, aspects of second-wave feminism, the decay of the natural family, the emergence of birth control, and the development of an anti-natalist ideology.
All of this demonstrates that individuals who individually pursue the sin of abortion have simultaneously created a system of structural sin that subverts human dignity—a system that promulgates a deadly ethic and leads to the deaths of unborn children every single day. The relationship between individual sin and structural sin is thus reciprocal. Individual sins eventually take structural form. The structures then both facilitate and rationalize ongoing and expanding individual sin.
Our national history unquestionably reveals structures of racism. When the nation was founded, the Constitution allowed for race-based chattel slavery. Black human beings were viewed as less human than those with lighter skin. Not only do we find systemic racism in the institution of slavery, but also in the era that followed the American Civil War in the Jim Crow South, and in pervasive notions of white supremacy that, for example, can be traced to President Woodrow Wilson in the White House. States and local governments codified race-based discrimination and enacted economic policies that harmed African American communities.
Each of these examples from the past and the present reveals a system of racism that, from a biblical perspective, is unjust. It is a violation of the biblical principle that every single human being is equally made in the image of God.
What the Bible Says about Systemic Sin
The Bible speaks to the category and reality of systemic sin, which helps us understand the complexities and contours of systemic racism in twenty-first century America. In the Old Testament, we find examples where individuals sin and must deal with the consequences of their own sin, but there are also examples that reveal Israel as a nation sinning against God. The Bible does not speak only of individual sin—though that is the main reference—but to Israel rebelling and turning to idols.
The Protestant Reformer John Calvin dealt with this issue in his commentaries. He looked to two specific passages. The first was Lamentations 5:7, where the text tells us that “our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities.” Thus, successive generations suffer the consequences of the sins of their fathers. Calvin, however, also dealt with Ezekiel 18:20, which states, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
These two passages seem to contradict one another, but in fact, as part of the Word of God, they communicate a singular truth about the reality of sin. Calvin emphatically declared that these verses were not contradictory. When God delivers the final judgment, individual human beings, sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God, will be judged as individuals for their rebellion against a holy and just God. The question of heaven and hell is for individuals, not for organizations, nations, societies, or systems. Calvin also made clear, however, that in this present life, we fully experience the social calamities expressed by the author in Lamentations 5:7. Calvin writes, “The children are loaded with the sins of their fathers.” We can see the truth of that verse echoed throughout human history. The consequences and legacies of sin are passed down to subsequent generations.
What these two biblical texts reveal are twin truths: God’s judgment against sin includes both the present consequences of human depravity, which are the evidence of God’s judgment in history, and the final wrath of God, which will be poured out at the final judgment when Christ returns.
The Social Gospel and Liberation Theology
As we consider the specific issue of systemic racism from a biblical worldview, we must recognize several dangers—dangers that could lead us away from a proper and biblical pursuit of justice.
The first danger came with the rise of Protestant Liberalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Protestant liberals replaced the gospel of Jesus Christ—the proclamation that God forgives sinners through his only Son as the substitutionary atonement for our sin—with what became known as the social gospel. Instead of the good news of salvation and eternal life, Protestant liberals focused on the improvement of human society. This altered the church’s mission from conversion and evangelism to social progress and political agendas. Protestant liberalism, moreover, denied the gospel of Jesus Christ and replaced it with a political and social mission for the church.
This must be made clear. It wasn’t that the advocates of the social gospel merely claimed that the true gospel possessed social implications. Instead, they replaced the biblical gospel with a different message entirely. Protestant liberalism traded the transcendent truths revealed in Scripture for an earthly mission for the church as an agent for social change.
The second danger that demands our attention, if we are to speak rightly about systemic racism, is the emergence of liberation theology. This theological movement, which accelerated during the late twentieth century, took the social gospel to its quantum level. Liberation theology first appeared among Roman Catholics in Central and South America—but though it started among Roman Catholics, liberal Protestants were quick to adopt their own variants.
Individuals in Central and South America observed what were rightly labeled as injustices, but they began to approach the issues from a form of Marxist analysis. They supplanted the biblical gospel with a Marxist understanding of social revolution. They jettisoned the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, replacing it with a promise of social and moral progress that would liberate human beings through a revolutionary platform.
Liberation theology quickly migrated to North America and functioned as the ideological foundation for several movements, including feminist theology and religious support for the LGBTQ movement. These movements claimed their own liberation mechanisms, with figures such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in the field of feminist liberation theology; James Cone, in the field of black liberation theology; and numerous figures proposing gay liberation theologies. Liberation theology indicted Western civilization as a whole, including orthodox biblical Christianity, as part of a system of organized oppression. The liberation theologies demanded that humanity must liberate itself from these oppressive cultural systems. The movement sees every issue only within the dynamic of oppression and liberation.
What Protestant liberalism started, liberation theology took to its ultimate conclusion. It fundamentally redefined human sin. Sin was no longer understood as individual transgression against God’s law but was viewed only through the lens of structures and systems. Sin was exclusively confined to the system, removing the individual from the equation. The problem, according to liberation theology, is the oppression of comprehensive corporate, political, and economic systems. The oppressed share no individual moral or ethical culpability.
Liberation theology, moreover, prescribes a complete overhaul of Western civilization as the necessary remedy—the virtues, values, customs, laws, policies, and institutions that uphold the society must dissolve. Liberation’s project will only see justice secured when the society is revolutionized by a Marxist revolution that ushers in a new, liberated age.
Christians Should Affirm the Reality of Systemic Racism, While Rejecting Ideology
This kind of ideology is lurking behind the phrase “systemic racism.” Many of those who use the term deploy it from a framework of cultural Marxism. John Hirschauer, writing for National Review, argues that those who talk about systemic racism in the context of current headlines, use it “to advance a political revolt beneath the language of racial reconciliation. . . . Their intellectual leaders tell us that capitalism is white supremacy. That immigration enforcement and patriotism are racist, and tax cuts reify racial inequality.”
By now it must be clear that there is a sense in which Christians acknowledge the reality that sin takes a structural form, but also that much of the current language of systemic injustice is derived from Marxist analysis. Do we believe in structural racism? Yes and no. Yes, in that sinful human beings bring their individual sin, including racism, into the structures and systems of society. We have seen that take place over the course of human history, and we can see it in the policies, laws, habits, and customs of our own society in this contemporary moment. This means that systemic racism is one of many aspects of sin’s presence in our society. Abortion, for example, represents another horrifying facet of systemic sin.
Yes, there is systemic racism and systemic sin in America—but this affirmation must always be made with a complete rejection of the Marxist idea of liberation standing behind the phrase “systemic racism” that screams from many headlines. We must reject this because we understand, unlike proponents of liberation ideology, that individuals are sinful and bring their depravity into the larger society. This means that no structural overhaul, no revolution, no eradication of biblical Christianity will secure lasting justice and peace. Humanity is perpetually plagued by the ravages of sin and will be until Christ returns.
We are called to do everything within our power to expunge sin from the structures of our society. Christians know that the justice of God demands that we do so. At the same time, we cannot accept that the structural manifestations of sin are the heart of the problem. No, the heart of the problem is found in the sinfulness of the individual human heart. Politics can change the culture, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ can produce a new heart.