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How Christians Can Make Sense of Historic Injustices

We sometimes talk of “America’s original sin.” That theological concept can inform our understanding of our country’s past and our obligations today.
April 2, 2021
How Christians Can Make Sense of Historic Injustices
Detail from Tintoretto’s ‘Crocifissione’ (1564-65). (Photo by Antonio Quattrone / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images)

We live in a world that is in large part a product of decisions made by people who are no longer around to answer for them.

These people, our forebears, built many great things: Much of the legal, social, and physical infrastructure we too often take for granted—the laws under which we live, the churches in which we worship, the companies for which we work, the roads on which we drive, the houses in which we reside—was here waiting for us when we arrived in the world.

Of course, the inheritance left us by prior generations is not uniformly good. A law might be unwisely designed; a church might be ill led; a company might be abusively operated; a road might be imprudently placed; a house might be poorly built. No human act or artifact is perfect. In the Christian understanding, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.

What do historical sins—sins that go far beyond minor mistakes—mean for us today? The men and women who came before us carried out, supported, and failed to oppose grave injustices. They trafficked persons, created castes, stole land, broke promises, lynched innocents, segregated cities. And they used the coercive power of the state—that is, of states of which we are now citizens—to execute, establish, and entrench these injustices. Some people reading this will find perpetrators of these sins in their family tree; others will find victims; still others will find bystanders. Does this difference have moral significance? Do these sins have moral consequences that press upon us decades or even centuries later?

Some say no, and point out that those involved have long since passed away and thereby passed beyond the reach of human justice. They contend that dwelling on historical injustices, fixating on the “sins of the father,” will produce ingratitude, resentment, self-righteousness—and even more injustice.

Others, meanwhile, maintain that these sins stain our nation’s soul even today. They argue that some historical injustices, such as the enslavement and subjugation of African Americans or the systemic mistreatment of American Indians, are uniquely grave—that injustices perpetrated against, and on behalf of, entire peoples or communities have poisoned our national life at its root, that such injustices are in an important sense America’s original sin.

That the language of original sin recurs throughout this debate should come as no surprise. After all, the doctrine of original sin is itself fundamentally about the continuing moral significance of historical sin—Adam’s in particular. This ancient Christian doctrine is more than just a metaphor, though. The thinkers who have pondered the consequences of Adam’s sin have something to teach us as we wrestle with the consequences of our more immediate forefathers’ sins. In particular, the millennia-long debates over original sin can help us see a crucial distinction we would do well to rediscover—that between unchosen guilt and unchosen obligation.

Consider a story: Imagine your father gave you a wonderful childhood, complete with an intact and loving family, an excellent education, a model of professional and personal success, and now—following his recent death—a large inheritance. You soon learn, however, that your father did not come by his wealth honestly. Before you were born, he stole a small fortune from his business partner, and it was this fortune that provided a buffer to your family in hard times, that financed your sterling education, and that ultimately grew into the sizable estate you now possess. Worse, you learn that just as you benefited greatly from your father’s misdeed, others suffered greatly: The business partner’s grief led him to take his own life, and his children, who grew up poor and fatherless, have struggled mightily to find gainful employment and meaningful relationships.

Now, are you guilty of your father’s sin? I have asked this question of many people, of different races and with various political and religious beliefs, and all have given the same answer: No, of course not.

But do you have a special obligation to the family of your father’s business partner? Most people give a different answer to that question: It seems as if we would indeed have a unique responsibility to that family, even though that obligation is due to our father’s sin—and not our own—and is thus entirely unchosen.

The different reactions most of us have to these two questions underscore the distinction between unchosen guilt and unchosen obligation. The former insults our sense of justice; the latter strikes us as an appropriate reaction to sin.

Of course, these reactions are themselves merely intuitions. But the doctrine of original sin can give us a conceptual framework to reason through these intuitions and evaluate whether they point to something true.

Theologians have long divided the doctrine of original sin into two propositions. First, there is the notion that we all share in the guilt of Adam’s sin; second, the idea that we all suffer the consequences of Adam’s sin—especially the death, disorder, and separation from God we see all around us.

Although many Christians today (myself included) may ultimately find it unconvincing, the notion that we share in Adam’s guilt has a well-established pedigree in Christian thought. It has been endorsed by a litany of respected Christian thinkers—from Augustine to Calvin. And it finds apparent support in Scripture. Perhaps most important is Paul’s discussion of the parallels between Jesus and Adam in the fifth chapter of Romans: There Paul explains that “sin entered the world through one man”—Adam—and “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Here Paul could be read to say that we can be made guilty or righteous entirely apart from our own free choices: Just as Adam’s sin is sufficient to count us guilty so too Christ’s perfection is sufficient to count us righteous.

There is a venerable school of thought, however, that takes a different view. Peter Abelard, the great medieval philosopher and theologian, rejects the idea of original guilt in his commentary on Romans. Though he agrees that we are all born with original sin, Abelard argues that we cannot mean by this that we all born guilty: Original sin “should refer more to the punishment of sin . . . than to the fault [culpa] of the soul and the contempt for God. For the one who cannot yet use free choice . . . no transgression, no negligence should be imputed to him, nor any merit at all by which he might be worthy of reward or punishment.”

Abelard too has scriptural support for his position. Ezekiel 18, for example, seems to speak to this question with remarkable clarity. Ezekiel asks us to imagine a righteous man who has a son who violates the Lord’s decrees, and to further imagine that this unrighteous son in turn “has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does not do such things.” The righteous grandfather and grandson will not die for the unrighteous man’s sin, Ezekiel says, but the unrighteous man will die for his own sin. Ezekiel concludes that “the one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”

Accordingly, Abelard argues that we cannot share in Adam’s guilt because individual responsibility inheres in the very nature of guilt: As he explains in his Ethics, we are held guilty before God when we freely choose to “scorn the Creator—not to do for His sake what we believe we ought to do for His sake, or not to renounce for His sake what we believe ought to be renounced.” That is, we are guilty when our individual free will chooses wrongly; if guilt can be unchosen, it becomes difficult to understand exactly what guilt is or why it arises. What is more, if others’ sins can make us guilty, it becomes urgently necessary to determine to which others we are sufficiently connected to share in their guilt—are fathers and sons, heads of state and citizens, members of a single ethnic or racial group sufficiently closely related that they share in one another’s guilt? (Though on this score it is important to note that many theologians who endorse the traditional, Augustinian view of original guilt avoid these questions by arguing that our relationship with Adam is unique, and that the guilt we share in him is thus the only instance of unchosen guilt.)

Such considerations are, in my view, sufficient to reject the notion of original guilt, and to justify the intuitive reaction most of us have to the story of the thieving father: We are not guilty of our father’s sin.

But even if we reject the notion of original guilt, we are still left with the second proposition of the doctrine of original sin—the notion that Adam’s sin brought his descendants physical death and spiritual separation from God. And the wages of Adam’s original sin remind us that sin can have deadly serious consequences, consequences that can continue to poison the world long after the sinner has gone on to face God’s judgment. Accordingly, even apart from the notion of original guilt, the doctrine of original sin should prevent us from deluding ourselves into thinking that we are insulated from the ramifications of others’ sins. The sins of others—including prior generations—affect us.

Crucially, moreover, the pervasive effects of others’ sins can create moral consequences—imposing unchosen obligations upon each of us. Sin inevitably creates injustice, and we each have an obligation to remedy injustice where we see it—even if we did not have a hand in creating it.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, recounted in the Gospel of Luke, is illustrative. Jesus tells this story after his injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself prompts a listener to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”—to whom, the questioner wants to know, do our obligations extend? Jesus answers by asking his listener to imagine a traveler attacked by robbers, stripped of his clothes and beaten unconscious. The roadside thieves alone were guilty of abusing the traveler, but the consequence of their sin—the traveler left half dead—imposed an unchosen obligation to help upon the passing priest and Levite and Samaritan. The ability to remedy this injustice imposed an obligation to do so—a point Luke underscores two chapters later, where Jesus explains that “To whom much is given, much will be required.” While none of these passersby were guilty of the initial sin, Jesus makes clear that they were indeed responsible for whether they fulfilled their obligation to the wounded traveler.

Of course, the parable of the Good Samaritan is striking because the Samaritan’s obligation is evident even though his only connections to the wounded traveler are a shared road and a shared humanity. Often, however, our unchosen obligations will arise from some special relationship we have to victims of injustice. The story of the thieving father, for example, suggests that when we enjoy the fruits of others’ sins—even sins of which we are not ourselves guilty—we have special obligations to those who have suffered as a result of those sins.

More broadly, our membership in a political community can impose unchosen obligations upon us. When historical sins lead to injustice for our fellow citizens, we have an obligation to do what we can to redress that injustice. For example, my wife and I live in Indianapolis, which last year saw a record-breaking 245 homicides. Most of these killings occurred in a small number of neighborhoods stretching east to west across the city’s center—neighborhoods that have long struggled with crime and poverty and segregation. The circumstances facing the residents of these neighborhoods constitute a grave injustice—yet identifying precisely who is guilty for this injustice is much less certain, as it results from a vast web of sin that includes the racism of lenders and government officials decades ago as well as the selfish violence of young men today. The good news, however, is that we do not need to know who is guilty to know that we are all responsible. My wife and I may not have done anything to cause this injustice, but as citizens of Indianapolis we have an obligation to do our part to see it rectified.

Good Friday is an apt occasion for Christians to confront the grave reality of sin: The battered body of Christ is a powerful reminder of sin’s deadly consequences. While we commemorate what happened in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago, we should not be surprised that our societies continue to feel the effects of injustices that are just centuries or decades old. Sin has consequences, and those consequences do not disappear on their own.

Yet Easter offers hope. Christ defeats death and “takes away the sin of the world.” Sin’s consequences need not last forever. As Christians and as citizens we can address the effects of our fathers’ sins with clarity and optimism. We will surely be guilty if we fail to do so.

Kian Hudson

Kian Hudson serves as deputy solicitor general for the state of Indiana. Twitter: @KianHudson.