Blind to Collective Sin: A Case Study
I grew up in the land of individualism. I learned early on that the main point of the Christian life was to “accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior” so that I, as an individual, might receive the grand carrot/stick prize of heavenly bliss and immunity from eternal torment in the fires of hell. The message was driven home in weekly sermons, youth group, and classes where, as children, flannel depictions of Moses, Jesus, and other famous Bible characters played out the narrative of goodness on a big board while we watched, wide-eyed.
Missing from the experience, was any sense that the gospel might have anything to say to the here and now. In fact, the other central message in addition to the heaven/hell one was that, as Christians, our escape from the misery of this planet was due to happen any day now. My first recollection of its immanence happened in June 1967 when my dad turned the Giants baseball game off the radio to tell us about the “six day war” and let us know that he thought this was the end of the world. Later, there would be a book called “The Late Great Planet Earth” in which we’d learn, now in the 70’s, why our exit was near. I could go on and recount a dozen more times since that people have played in the rapture pool, betting their credibility on the certainty that the world would end for Christ followers in '78, '79, '88, '89, 2000 (obviously), 2001, 2007, 2012... and I could keep going. This guessing game seemed to be a central theme of the church in my childhood, only it was presented as guessing. It was "the end is near" certainty, complete with prophecy conferences and timelines. Toss in a conference with a little red notebook advocating bizarre levels of submission to parents, again for the sake of one’s personal well-being, and you get the picture of a faith forged in the cauldron that is the individualism of American culture.
In such a culture, systemic sins of oppression aren’t even seen, let alone mentioned, let alone confessed. The same church that zealously predicted rapture dates refused to let women pass the plate, let alone serve in any staff or leadership roles. Spiritual leadership was men’s work because of its importance. (Ironically, the one place where it seemed women were entrusted with unfettered authority was in imparting the faith to the most gullible and vulnerable in the community, i.e. the children.) All this unfolded in my hometown, which had racial ‘redlining’ codified in both political and banking policy, and resulting in “the most segregated city in California.” The effects of this are stark enough that the average lifespan of people in the wealthy northern sections of town approach 90 years, while the south and west side, where poverty reigns, average 20 years less.
I’m sad to say that I knew about none of this while living there. It was hidden from the local history taught in schools, never explained to me by my parents, and worst of all, not a word of it was spoken of in church. Which makes sense. The notion of redlining fit like a glove with the idol of individualism because individualism says, “Study hard. Get good grades. Be a model citizen. Go to college. Get a good job. There are no systemic limitations on anyone - it's all about your individual hard work.” The subtext of this mantra was that any individual could walk this path - because personal responsibility was all that mattered.
Of course, anyone who knows about family systems understands how flawed the myth of pure individualism is. Alcoholism, domestic violence, infidelity, divorce, and unemployment never just affect the people directly involved; they affect every member of the family and every relationship within the family. That’s why knowing our own family story is a critical part of our transformation. Along the way, in this fallen world, we’ve all developed coping mechanisms, believed lies, and embodied a certain set of values in response to our family history.
The same thing becomes true, as well, of cities, even nations. Systemic racism (and sexism, though that’s reserved for a later conversation) was deeply embedded in my hometown, intent on keeping what were literally called undesirable people “in their own neighborhoods.” The mindset not only existed, it was axiomatic, accepted as “the way it‘s intended to be.” It didn’t even need defending because never, in my 18 years of living there, did I hear anyone, not a single person, question it’s structure. To quote Bruce Hornsby: “That’s just the way it is...”
Such deeply entrenched forms of what our culture calls “systemic racism,” are called “strongholds” in the Bible. Theologically, they’re sins, or failures to fulfill God’s will, that occur so frequently, for such a long period of time, that they become accepted normal. The term stronghold appears at least fifty times in the Bible. It commonly referred to a fortress with difficult access - spiritually, it can represent a sin that is so deeply embedded that it’s no longer even seen, let alone addressed. If it is addressed, it will be met with forceful resistance by those who have a vested interest in things remaining as they are. This story recalls the challenges of a pastor in the south, in 2017, who was confronted by the KKK because of his sermons condemning racism. Strongholds are real!
Strongholds are dealt with through a combination of prayer and action. For now, I’ll focus on the prayer part of this because it’s a certain kind of praying that has value here. When Nehemiah hears that the wall around the city of Jerusalem is torn down, and that nobody seems to care, he prays (bold mine):
"Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you.... I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses."
NOTE: Nehemiah is confessing generational sins, because those sins are embedded in the culture, and he, along with the rest of the nation, are bearing the marks of such sins in his present situation.
Here’s the point: Nehemiah didn’t tear down the wall around Jerusalem any more than I created the zoning laws of Fresno, but both Nehemiah and I are shaped by the sins of our fathers, and both will bear the fruit of such sins until, out of a sense of solidarity, there’s a collective confession, a collective ownership. I was in the system. I benefited from the oppression within the system including a solid academic environment in my high school which set the table for successful college, graduate school, and career. It’s mine to confess the sins of my fathers - my city fathers, my church's silence, and my family’s silence - they’ve all shaped me!
Germany understood this after WWII. They owned the sins of their leader’s sick vision, not universally of course, but mostly. Even those who never wore a Nazi uniform understood that the shame of the nation was their shame. The result of that collective confession: no statues honoring Hitler or his key leaders after the end of the war, and a commitment to creating a sustainable middle class through housing, health care, and prison reform. Real loss. Real confession. Real collective ownership. Real rebuilding.
Would to God that would happen in America, not just in the southern states, but in cities with redlining laws like Fresno and Seattle, in churches whose silence and blindness allows the shame to continue, much like the broken wall around Jerusalem remained a source of shame. And most significantly, in hearts like mine, whose refusal to see has, too often, led to a neglect of collective confession. Until we own the racism that is our collective ‘systemic’ stronghold, we will continue to reap the fruits of our collective denial.