Discover more from Contents and Containers
How can we be soft on sin, when the sin is racism?
Why I’m OK being soft on sin
Circle of Hope, in the 2000s, was often accused for being “soft on sin.” I partly think this is because on Frankford Ave. it wouldn’t be surprising to see a group of hipsters lighting up cigarettes after the Sunday meetings, and then going out to the local bar for Pabst Blue Ribbons, where there may have been some profane language. For those of us who grew up in a fundamentalist church, such a sight would be anathema. And so we got a reputation for being “soft” on sin. You see, most pious Christians expect condemnation when they show up to church, but when they get love and acceptance, something seems off in the formula. If I don’t leave the church service feeling worse than I did when I came, it wasn’t really good. I wasn’t “convicted,” as they used to say. But for me, I hope you leave our meeting feeling better than you did when you came. And I hope that is true even of our online meeting during this plague.
The critique I hear is that if you are never “tough” on sin, then no one will change. I don’t think I can imagine a thing more antithetical to the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about our sins not being held against us. That even at our worst, God sees us at our best. There’s no more condemnation. And while I don’t think you should condemn people for smoking cigarettes and drinking beers, when we cross into territory that is morally clear—affairs, let’s say—I think we need to exercise the same grace and love that Jesus offered us. And I think that is grounds for transformation.
The entire premise of our faith is based on the idea that transformation can happen after exoneration. That we needn’t be punished—or shamed—into changing. But rather, loved into it. This is very hard work to do, and it takes a community to bring people into their fullness. The Gospels do not suggest that the victims of sinful behavior be the agents of transformation, even if they do ask us to directly address one another. The Holy Spirit is the agent of transformation, and she moves through love in us. I think this is why the writers of the Bible emphasize “love” as our rule.
What does it look like to be “soft on racism?”
Here’s the thing, though, for some people, being “soft on sin” is great, if they are correcting fundamentalist Christianity, at least in the circles I roll in. But it gets harder when we think of the issues that belittle us or demean us or even threaten our dignity, like racism. In my experience, as much as we hated the fundamentalists for yelling at us for smoking, we sometimes mimic their behavior when we are calling out people committing those “societal sins.”
Now, one of the reasons we must extend grace in these circumstances is because we know that individual action doesn’t make up the sum of these evils. We know they are systemic. In fact, the Bible itself, sees sin, at large, as a systemic issue—not a personal one. That’s why the cross covers all sin, because it’s covering the condition of sin. And to add to that, we’ve been trained, systematically, to participate in these systems. We think that they are forgone conclusions. We don’t think our society can be safe without racist police, we think a carbon-free future is impossible, we aren’t trained to think peace can happen without a little violence. These are societal and American characteristics.
So when you add the systemic nature of these sins to the systematic reinforcement of them, you collect a lot of people who are complicit in them, but yet don’t feel responsible. “Boys will be boys,” they say. The hope of the Gospel is that we can change and move beyond these systems of oppression, and it’s in our best interest to do so. But we need someone to meet us where we are at before we get there.
Being “soft on sin” means each other where we are at
We to need meet both the victims and the perpetrators of these sins where they are at. We cannot lead with condemnation. We need to lead with love, empathy because softened hearts are positions for transformation. Soft soil is ready for new seeds to be planted in it. That’s why Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Following Jesus should feel more like a completion of who we are, and less like a chore that condemns. I think fighting racism works best when we are moving people to have softened hearts.
But I need to be seen too. Antiracism is about being seen. And it's so painful not to be seen. It’s painful when someone’s defensiveness blocks them from seeing me. And it makes me want to quit, to not be vulnerable, to not share my experience. As important as it is for us to see those who are complicit in racism, we need to see the victims, trust their experiences, and honor their stories. When we don’t do that—and this has been done with impunity to the victims of racism, to people of color—anger and resentment build. The reason we are enraged is because we aren’t listened to, and we aren’t seen. We need empathy for that experience. And we need space to be angry and to be upset. And sometimes we express that in a way that feels condemning to others, and doesn’t create the best ground for transformation. I want that to be OK. Because our experience is legitimately painful and we need space to express that before we can love our enemy flawlessly.
Furthermore, the pain we’ve experienced is hard to acknowledge. It’s hard to admit that we live in a society that is built to hate us. And I’m using that language on purpose because I think that is exactly what white supremacy is. Trust me, I make a choice every day to wake up and be honest with myself about the pain of racism that I have experienced and that I do experience. It’s made even more painful when I share that experience, and I’m gaslit into thinking it’s not real or that it’s a personal problem, or a problem with how I grew up, or one that more prayer and therapy can help. In order to defeat the sin of racism, we need more than personal transformation, we need societal transformation. And that does start with seeing us and believing us.
Look, I know I’m educated, I’m articulate (if not long-winded—thanks for making it this far), I’m able-bodied, I have a job, a good family, a house. I have tons of things that benefit me, and so my experience of “oppression” can be lost on some well-meaning people. It’s hard to relate to an overly-educated brown guy’s experience of racism, if you’ve experienced prejudice yourself and it’s unseen. So I’m ready to work it out with you.
For the victims of racism, like myself, and for allies, we have a right to be angry, but we can’t let that be the end of the story. We need more than that. Our righteous indignation needs to make way for love, ultimately. Let that take the time that it needs, and pray that God softens your heart. It isn’t just our responsibility to make things right, but our posture of forgiveness matters. Our vulnerability matters. Our patience matters.
And for the white folks reading this, be patient with us, don’t quote the Bible at us like we are supposed conform immediately. Don’t rebuke us when our anger expresses itself more than our love. We are making space for you to be defensive, make space for us to be angry. Moral superiority on how we’re supposed to behave doesn’t land very well when we haven’t been given the space to express ourselves. Similarly, moral superiority on someone’s ignorance isn’t too helpful when they haven’t been taught any better. Let’s meet each other where we are at, like Jesus does.
It has been a painful experience for me to come to terms with the fact that I live in a society that hates me. As a result, I am empathetic with white folks who are having their own painful experience coming to terms with the fact that they helped to build that society. I’ll wait for you, and I hope you will wait for me too.
I am ready to suffer alongside of white folks who are awakening to their complicity, but I won't allow their pain to displace my pain. We can suffer and move together. We can see each other. We can help each other. We can believe each other. That’s the Gospel. That’s what it looks like to be “soft on sin,” even when that sin is racism.